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The art and science of playing with your food

A dash of tech and a hint of fun keep the ‘hungry scientists’ satisfied.

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“There are two approaches,” Horan says. “There are folks who are interested in more classic elements, like baking.... And then, there’s food as fun, like the electric birthday cake. I say, if it gets people involved in food and more interested in food, I think that’s so much the better.”

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Molecular gastronomy is said to have begun as a series of workshops in Erice, Italy, in the early 1990s. The science gave rise to curious new kitchen techniques, such as controlled gelification of liquid balls of food, or spherification. (This means chefs can make caviar-like foods out of any liquid.)

Chefs are also using scent-infused foams and slow-cooking meats in liquid (sous-vide) at low temperatures, all of which stir elements of science into the mix.

The success of these pioneering techniques has now hit bookstores. At least three mammoth cookbooks describing the avant-garde cuisine debuted in October.

High-end grocery stores, such as New York’s Dean & DeLuca, now sell $200 home kits that include syringes, agar, xanthan gum, and lecithin – tools and chemicals that were once confined to the research and development labs of food companies but have now been retailored for home cooks.
Gastronomy is an acquired taste
It may be years before molecular cooking reaches the everyday kitchen. For now, many home chefs, if they cook with raw ingredients at all, seem content with simpler kitchen conundrums: understanding the science behind gooey potatoes, green garlic, or soft-boiled eggs.

“It’s only recently that innovation has been important in cooking,” says Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” “It’s mostly been about traditional recipes and executing traditional techniques better than anyone else. That started to change a bit in the 1970s. It wasn’t until the end of last century, the beginning of this century, that innovation was a goal of chefs as a way to distinguish their restaurants from other restaurants. I think it will take a while for eaters to become as interested in these innovations as chefs.”

Sometimes, the tools of gastronomists are enough to scare away casual cooks. An accurate scale that weighs to a tenth of a gram – the kind of laboratory instrument needed to weigh ingredients for spherifying foods – costs as much as $1,500.
On the other side of the table, hungry scientists devise inexpensive ways to procure Dewars, stainless steel vacuum flasks that protect people who handle liquid nitrogen.

That’s one reason hungry scientists differ from sophisticated gastronomes and chefs at some of the world’s most exclusive restaurants, Binns says.

“I think both are about experimentation and playfulness,” she says. “I don’t want to make it seem like we’re better or cooler than what they’re doing. But they are serving a mainstream of wealthy culture. Even though they’re rooted in the same scientific pursuits, I think it’s like comparing apples to oranges…. They are performers and the people who go to those restaurants are paying a lot to be their audience."