Molecular Gastronomy - it’s more readily available than you think

Side-by-side, this week, I’ve been reading Heston Blumenthal’s amazing “Big Fat Duck Cookbook” (which is more of a treatise on food, and possibly a weight-training device, than just a cookbook - absolutely inspirational, and I’ll be writing more about it soon) and the various reviews of said big, fat cookbook, which mostly use the phrase “molecular gastronomy” a lot, despite the fact that Heston Blumenthal himself hates it.

Food critics have been plumbing new depths of silliness and prejudice with this one, with the honourable exception of the Telegraph, who actually tried cooking from the book and found, shockingly, that the recipes produced really nice food.

Whilst I reserve a certain place in my heat for the Guardian critic who complained that Heston wanted us to use such inaccessible equipment as a “cartouche” ( a circle of greaseproof paper), pride of place must go to the Observer critic Laura Potter. Making a heroically half-arsed effort to follow one of the recipes, she discovered it needed maltodextrin, couldn’t find that in Tesco, and so used rice pudding instead, then complained that the recipe didn’t work.

Apparently it’s an “elusive ingredient”. I’ll let you judge that for yourself .

So, in this spirit, here are a couple of other dreadfully inaccessible-sounding ingredients or equipment (I’m avoiding calling them “molecular gastronomy ingredients” here, because I now understand a bit more about Dr Blumenthal’s objection to the term, and am still mulling it over) that are actually cheap, easy to aquire, and make great food:

h2. Xanthan Gum

You can find this in pretty much any health food/organic food/general hippie store. It’s used for baking gluten-free bread and so on, but we’re more interested in its uses as a hydrocolloid.

Xanthan works to thicken fluids, and apparently is not only used in foods, but also the oil industry. Who knew? I’ve mostly used it to create thick, lucious foams - anyone interested in foams in cookery at all needs to try Martin Lersch’s Strawberry and Coriander foam, made with Xanthan, which is absolutely stunning - an incredible combination of tastes that you’d never have thought of together, but combines to give a stunningly intense, fruity hit of flavour.

h2. Agar

Another ingredient that pops up all over the place in the molecular gastronomy world, you can find agar in any Chinese supermarket. Derived from seaweed, it’s used for all manner of things, from growing bacteria to traditional Japanese cookery.

Most interestingly for cooks, it’s soluble in heated liquids, but quickly solidifies to a jelly when cool, taking whatever it’s dissolved in to a jelly state too. It’s possible to make all sorts of solid preparations this way - gelling stocks, for example, making terrines of things you can’t normally, erm, terrineiffy, or creating thick mousses.

My favourite use for it is as a rather more user-friendly ‘sferification’ substance than the alginates that El Bulli uses. ‘Sferification’, a term coined by Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain, is the process of forming liquids into ‘caviars’ or ‘ravioli’ - here’s a blog post going into a bit more detail.

Mixing Agar with hot, diluted Ribena, say (about 1% agar to Ribena, so 2g of Agar for 200ml of Ribena) then dripping the solution into a bath of cold oil will produce a pile of tiny blackcurrant spheres. You can then add these to champagne to a “Kir Molecular” - something half-way between a drink and a lava lamp, where the blackcurrant flavours occur in tiny bursts in between the champagne, when you chew on a pearl.

(You’re not using Creme De Cassis in this recipe because the alcohol, as I discovered 45 minutes before a dinner party, messes up the agar reaction. Oops.)

You can also use Agar in the same way as gelatin in a lot of recipes - notably, you can use it like gelatin to clarify stock, rendering out a beautifully limpid clear liquid with an intense, often unexpected flavour. The most fascinating use of this I’ve heard of so far (from Harold McGee’s article) is clarified barbeque sauce.

h2. More

There are dozens of other relatively easily accessible chemicals and pieces of equipment out there - we’ll be talking more about digital thermometers tomorrow, for example, and Martin Lersch recently discussed improvising a separation funnel from a plastic bag. Lecithin and, yes, Maltodextrin are both easily available from health food shops, and with a couple of calls and a bit of bluffing it’s possible to get a much wider range of substances, from “meat glue” Activa to alginates for El Bulli recipes (without buying their expensive molecular gastronomy kit).

And if you’re interested in the wonderful world of hydrocolloids, like Agar, Xanthan, Lecithin and Maltodextrin, there’s even a free cookbook out there, as I’ve mentioned before - Khymos’s Texture , containing info and recipes for all sorts of things.

Tried any of this yourself? Got any tips for aquiring harder-to-aquire chemicals (I’m particularly interested to hear about aquiring liquid nitrogen)?