Although haute cuisine is usually associated with artistry, many chefs believe that cooking is, above all, a science. While no one's serving consommé in test tubes just yet (well, not in Portland), adventurous chefs around the world are increasingly bringing "molecular gastronomy," a savvy, genre-busting blend of science and cookery, to the table.
Isn't chemistry's intrusion into the kitchen egregious? Maybe not. In the words of Nicholas Kurti, the father of molecular gastronomy: "It's a sad reflection on our civilization that while we can add and measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we don't know what goes on inside our soufflés."
In the 1980s, Kurti, alongside chemist Hervé This, brought science—rather than the emotional empiricism that usually prevails over a hot stove—into cuisine; they discovered the perfect temperature for cooking eggs (65 C), used electrical fields to broil salmon, and found that adding cold water to egg whites produces a cubic meter more foam in the beating process.
Ever since these early experiments, enterprising chefs have been flash-freezing, jellying, dehydrating and deconstructing ingredients in their kitchen-cum-laboratories with preposterous relish, making the molecular gastronomy movement the most potent paradigm shift in cuisine since California fusion.
Closer to home, Portland foodies finally have a chance to get in on the fun, at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's "Science In the Kitchen" gala, an interactive evening of taste sensations—think foie-gras bubble tea, Brussels-sprout "paper" and liquid ravioli—devised by some of the country's finest culinary alchemists: Western Culinary Institute grad Homaro Cantu, now the impresario of Chicago's Moto and creator of the arguably ridiculous concept of edible menus, as well as New York restaurateurs Paul Liebrandt, Johnny Iuzzini and David Arnold. A whole slew of hometown wizards—from Le Pigeon's Gabriel Rucker, who's making "creamsicles" out of mandarin oranges and foie gras consommé, to Paley's Place chef-owner Vitaly Paley and Toro Bravo's John Gorham—are on the bill, too. The OMSI event's instigator, Dwayne Beliakoff, owner of North Portland's Roux, enthuses, "Never before has the 'food as science' concept been captured on such a large scale in the Pacific Northwest."
In honor of this extravaganza, we asked another OMSI event participant, local chef and instructor Woojay Poynter of the Western Culinary Institute, to dream up some experiments—er, recipes—that even the most humble molecular gastronomist can whip up at home. After all, gastro experimentation can be expensive. For example, it costs anywhere from $1,800 to $10,000 for a professional PolyScience-brand sous-vide setup. "Molecular gastronomy shouldn't represent a type of cuisine that only certain chefs can do," Poynter says. "Understanding what the cooking process does to your food, hopefully, can make everyone a better cook."
Sous-vide, a high-tech cooking method intended to preserve the integrity of flavors, entails cooking food for ages in vacuum-sealed plastic bags—so it only comes in contact with its own juices. You might have seen chefs dunk their wares into kitchen hot tubs on the Food Network's Iron Chef—that's sous-vide. To replicate this meat-melting technique at home, all you need is a thermometer, hot water and 36 hours of spare time.
1 section of short rib per bag
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
Coat each rib with salt and pepper. Carefully vacuum-seal the rib and oils in a food-grade bag—FoodSaver is an easy-to-procure brand of vacuum sealer (we bet somebody you know has one).
Plop the bag in a 140 F water bath and cook for 36 hours. Check the water temperature occasionally with a candy thermometer to make sure you're out of the bacteria-breeding danger zone (41-135 F). Remove the bag from the bath, unpack, and devour.
Any molecular gastronomist worth his foam knows beating air into egg whites increases their volume by a factor of eight. It takes a real whiz, however, to keep the notoriously droopy egg-white meringue pert until dessert. Fortunately, the solution's simple: Just pop it in the microwave to set the egg proteins into a solid state. This "Vauquelin"—named after a French chemist—is a perfect hybrid of science and culinary know-how. This one's got salt and pepper, making it savory enough to accompany ribs.
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pinch fine salt
1 pinch finely ground white pepper
In a bowl, whisk the egg until frothy. Add the sugar and whisk until medium-firm. Add the salt and pepper, and whisk until a blob of meringue can stand up straight.
Spoon the meringue into shape, then microwave at low power for 5-10 seconds. The Vauquelin should hold its shape without deflating.
If you've ever wondered how Tang is made, powderizing flavors is for you. Just buy a powderizing agent—such as tapioca maltodextrin, available online at le-sanctuaire.com, a merchant of exotic foodie wares, for around $8 a pound.
1 cup powderizing agent
1/2 teaspoon blue cheese
Mix the powderizing agent and cheese in a food processor until the cheese takes on a granular shape.
Science in the Kitchen takes place at OMSI, 1945 SE Water Ave., 797-4487, on Saturday, Jan. 19. The Cocktail Chemistry and Appetizer Alchemy social will be held 5-9 pm. Tickets are $100 per person. OMSI's Molecular Gastronomy Dinner and Auction takes place 7:30-10:30 pm the same night. That event is sold out. Call for cocktail event ticket information. For more details on the gala, visit omsi.edu/gala.