Food: his passion, his science
Hervé This, a French researcher, helps chefs around the world really sizzle
Cooking a cheese soufflé can be tricky. Despite following the recipe meticulously, using the finest ingredients, and heating the oven to the perfect temperature, you can still end up with a cheese cookie instead of a fluffy, brown-topped soufflé intended to impress your guests. The result, it seems, is often arbitrary.Skip to next paragraph
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But help is at hand. Tucked away in their laboratories, a bunch of dedicated scientific foodies are toiling away to solve the soufflé problem and other culinary conundrums: Should jam be cooked in a copper pan? When gnocchi come floating to the surface of boiling water, does that mean they are cooked? Molecular gastronomy - a branch of food science that focuses on cooking and food preparation (rather than on the chemical makeup of food, as traditional food science tends to do) - has the answers.
The term molecular gastronomy was coined in the 1980s by a French scientist, Hervé This, and Nicholas Kurti, who was a professor of physics at Oxford University in England. Both men were interested in food science, but they felt that empirical knowledge and tradition were as important in cooking as rational understanding.
"We realized there was a growing gap between food science and home cooking," remembers Dr. This, who, since 1995, has worked at the prestigious Collège de France in central Paris, perhaps one of the only science labs in the world to smell of freshly baked cake. "Classic food science ... succeeded in giving the Western populations enough to eat. But it slowly became more interested in food than in cooking."
So This, whose training was in physical chemistry, an area of research that spills into both chemistry and physics, began casting a scientific eye on cookbooks. He started by collecting food-related sayings and old wives' tales to find out if there were a rational explanation behind them.
"Some people think a law is a law. But if a law doesn't work, then you change it. Some traditions don't work, and so you have to change them," This says.
For instance, should roast beef be covered with mustard an hour before putting it in the oven, as an 18th-century cookbook suggests? Should the head of a suckling pig be cut as soon as it is taken out of the oven - so that the skin won't lose its crunch? To this day, This has recorded more than 10,000 adages, each of which he jots down in a notebook. He tries to test as many sayings as possible, and after many lab experiments and a number of failed dinner parties, he has managed to disprove (as with the examples above) or improve upon many maxims.
For This and his colleagues, working in close collaboration with cooks is essential, and This regularly teams up with chefs to exchange information. Every month, he picks a theme based on his research and challenges his friend, three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire, to invent a recipe from it.
"We work very hard, and Hervé's research helps us to find new perspectives," says Gagnaire, who is known for his innovative cuisine and food combinations.
As a result of this crossover between science and cooking, outstanding restaurants around the world are serving unusual dishes such as tobacco-flavored ice cream made with liquid nitrogen and sardines on sorbet toast. Utensils such as blowtorches, pH meters, and refractometers, which were previously relegated to science laboratories, are now creeping into the kitchen.
Heston Blumenthal, chef at the Fat Duck restaurant at Bray-on-Thames in England, has long been interested in the use of science for cooking, and works closely with molecular gastronomists.