Style :: Food/Drink

Molecule-R: A Scientific Experiment in the Kitchen

by Matthew Wexler
Contributor
Thursday Feb 28, 2013
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Confession: I cheated my way through high school chemistry. The periodic table appeared to me like a typewriter (yes - I used a typewriter when I was in high school) gone haywire. The images that descended upon my scientifically fragile mind when I received the Molecule-R home gastronomy kit were not those of floating meringue and balsamic vinegar caviar, but of spilling hydrochloric acid on my lab partner in 10th grade.

What better way to overcome one’s past than with the help of an 11-year-old niece? It was the perfect activity to melt a few hours off a cold winter’s night. We popped in the accompanying DVD and quickly perused a few demonstrations. With actors in lab coats in lieu of chef jackets, I had a sinking feeling that the whole endeavor might unravel like the chocolate spaghetti in the recipe book.

I quickly discovered that my niece has a longer attention span than I. Captivated by the potential to create bubbles and foam, she flipped through the recipes and food additives like a culinary Marie Curie. I, on the other hand, obsessed over the risk of allowing her near an induction cooktop that could sear her like a rib eye steak.

I had high hopes for creating mint caviar beads and lemon foam. The kit included everything we might need to experiment like the professionals with whom she was familiar from "Top Chef" and The Food Network. "Our innovation and idea behind each Gastronomy Kit, is all about bringing the ’chef technique’, as well as playful experimentation into your own home," says the company’s president Jonathan Coutu.


Molecular Gastronomy 101

The Molecule-R can transform foods and liquids in six unique ways:

Spherification:
The culinary process of shaping a liquid into spheres of liquid held by a thin gel membrane, which visually and texturally resemble caviar. I’m thinking "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" without being rich or famous.

Gelification:
Turning a liquid into gel, which is a solid, jelly-like material that can have properties ranging from soft and weak to hard and tough. I like to think of this as being versatile, which seems to be all the rage these days.

Emulsification:
Turning a liquid into light air foam. Heels not included.

Thickening:
Increasing the viscosity of a solution or liquid/solid mixture without substantially modifying its other properties.

Effervescence:
The escape of gas from another body and the foaming or fizzing that results from the release of the gas. An everyday example is seen in carbonated beverages such as soft drinks.

Transformation:
There are different kinds of transformation. (Just ask RuPaul.) Maltodextrin is a sugar that will turn any fatty liquid such as oil, bacon fat or melted chocolate into powder. Transglutaminase is an enzyme often refereed to as "meat glue" that will bind food rich in proteins. How do you think all of those nuggets are held together?

In order to make some of these gastronomic tricks happen, the kit includes:

Agar Agar
A natural gelling agent extracted from red algae often used to create solid pearls, gel spaghettis and jellies.

Calcium Lactate
In molecular gastronomy, calcium salts are involved in the basic spherification or reverse-spherification processes in reaction with sodium alginate. Sodium alginate indeed needs a source of calcium to form a gel. Since calcium lactate comes from the fermentation of plant sugars, it is non-allergenic for people with allergies to lactose. The word lactate refers to the lactobacillus responsible for fermentation from which it is derived, and not anything to do with lactose.

Sodium Alginate
The thickening properties of alginate are used in sauces, syrups and some products containing milk. It is also used as a stabilizer and anti-settling agent in ice cream and milkshakes, as well as acting as a stabilizer and emulsifier in some salad dressings.

Xanthan Gum
A thickening agent produced by fermentation, it is used in molecular gastronomy to thicken sauces and dressings as well as to make fat-reduced, no-ice cream milkshakes that are just as thick.

Soy Lecithin
An emulsifier extracted from soybeans, it is used in molecular gastronomy to make any liquid emulsion or for tremendously light or frozen foams.


No Experience Required

We opted for a few of the simpler recipes, turning cranberry juice into caviar beads and gel sheets and banana yogurt into spherical blobs. We experimented with extracting fruit juice spaghetti, too, which turned into a squiggly JELL-O fight in a short amount of time.

The molecular tools, which include a food grade syringe, silicone tubing and pipettes, are a bit flimsy and difficult to clean - perfect for a child’s hands but a bit delicate for a clumsy adult like myself.

For those wanting to discover their inner Wylie Dufresne or Heston Blumenthal (two culinary icons of the molecular gastronomy movement), Molecule-R is a great introduction to basic ingredients and techniques used to create whimsical and thought-provoking dishes in the home kitchen.


Molecule-R kits retail for $58.95
Visit www.molecule-r.com for a full selection of products.



Matthew Wexler is EDGE's National Style and Travel Editor. More of his writing can be found at www.roodeloo.com. He is also a trained chef and currently writing a food memoir.

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