Food's Future, And Years Past
This is my last column of 2006, and because it is traditional at the end of a year to look, Janus-like, both forward and back, here are a few observations on the past and the future.
The past decade has seen a remarkable spurt of activity in what some call food science but what is actually the application of scientific tools to food and cooking.
Food science, like any science, is the effort to understand natural phenomena, in this case the ones that take place during the growing, processing, cooking and eating of foods. Such studies have been going on for centuries. Today, scientists in more than five dozen food science departments in American universities alone continue to discover and explain the underlying chemistry, physics and biology of foods.
What is new is that chefs today are applying techniques rarely seen outside chemical laboratories for the purpose of enhancing their cuisine. That is not science, but technology. Nor is it "molecular gastronomy," an absurd term (gastronomy doesn't come in molecules) invented by the French chemist and showman Hervé This to ballyhoo the "new science" he claims to have founded.
Spanish chef Ferran Adrià started it all by inventing alluring flavor sensations, startling presentations and food textures that awakened the culinary world to new opportunities for creativity. The trend he started has grown and will continue to grow as chefs around the world experiment with such things as edible foams, gels and colloids.
As with many new enterprises, however, this experimentation has been prey to wretched excess. Overenthusiastic chefs have been carting centrifuges, calorimeters, yard-long lasers and containers of fuming liquid nitrogen (will cyclotrons be next?) into their kitchens to conjure bizarre sensations for their customers -- at a price, of course. I expect that such circus stunts in the name of science will quickly fade away.
What will not fade is people's newfound interest in understanding their food experiences, in figuring out what's going on in their kitchens. And that's what science is: figuring out what's going on. A landmark in satisfying this interest was the publication last year of a new edition of Harold McGee's classic "On Food and Cooking," a comprehensive and authoritative masterwork of genuine food science.
That's what I, in my small way, will continue to contribute to: the public's ability to decipher the everyday mysteries of supermarket and kitchen by understanding what's going on. By understanding science.
Over the eight-plus years I have been writing Food 101, certain questions have come up repeatedly.
Why do so many recipes call for unsalted butter and then tell us to add salt?
The amount of salt in salted butter is an unknown quantity; it can vary quite a bit from brand to brand and season to season. It's best not to gamble on such an important ingredient and instead to add a deliberate amount of salt, either as part of the recipe or when adjusting the seasoning near the end of the cooking. Especially in baking breads and pastries, the amount of salt can be critical.
How can the label of a food claim that it contains zero calories or is fat-free when the ingredient list clearly includes fat?