Like Water for Chocolate
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Editor's note: The Gastronomer is a new monthly column about the science of everyday cooking.
Far too often, one man's recipe is another man's disaster. We all find it difficult to translate directions for a "1 1/8 -inch slice of well-matured this-or-that cut of meat" into the stuff we can actually find in the store, to know whether amounts can be doubled or halved without dramatic consequences, or to understand why we must wait "6 hours or overnight" between Steps 4 and 5.
What will happen if I don't have time to wait? Will disaster loom if I cannot find the right cut of meat? And what if I don't have a three-inch ramekin?
The French food scientist Herve This, one of the fathers of the molecular gastronomy movement, has occasionally described the conventional approach as "medieval cooking." By that he means that although the rest of our life has been revolutionized by science and technology, the way we cook has not. Fire is still at the center of the kitchen, and much of what we do is governed by old sayings and superstition.
Most of the time that is fine. But when something goes wrong, it is not so easy to know why. "The dish was ruined," we say. "One minute the sauce was fine, the next just a puddle of fat and egg! Was it something I did, or just my luck?" To take This's observation a step further, cooking without the right knowledge can be compared to living in the Dark Ages, ever anxious about a vengeful kitchen god who may strike you down at any moment.
We need science to teach us what goes on when we make a sauce or cook a piece of fish. When we know, we can step into the kitchen with more confidence.
Some don't quite see it that way. They represent one side in the culinary battle of aesthetics and ideals and of taste in the most literal sense of the word. These traditionalists believe that cooking needs to be preserved; that one should adhere to the rules, not question them. On the other side you find the followers of foam: the innovators who, inspired by the findings of modern food science and molecular gastronomy, believe that the way we cook needs to be revolutionized.
Ever since This, 52, and English Hungarian physicist Nicolas Kurti coined the term "molecular gastronomy" in the late 1980s, there have been attempts to explain what this new discipline is all about. Molecular gastronomy is about investigating and analyzing old recipes and inventing new ones. It questions assumptions that cooks have long taken for granted: No, searing the meat does not "seal in the juices"; yes, it makes sense nonetheless because it makes the meat taste better and creates a crunchy texture. Food writer Harold McGee has the broadest but also the most precise definition when he says molecular gastronomy is "the study of deliciousness."
But studying is not cooking, and it certainly is not eating. Kitchen science tends to forget the enjoyment part of gastronomy; it can be far too demanding when it suggests how we can improve the way we cook. While traditionalists stick their heads in the sand and cling to their old ways, the scientifically oriented sometimes put their heads in a test tube. If you mistake your kitchen for a lab, the road to perfection is often too long, too challenging and too boring. Spending hundreds of dollars on sous-vide equipment or ordering stuff weeks in advance and toiling for two days to make a "very interesting" side dish is for people in search of a hobby, not for people who want to make something nice for dinner.
Science cannot feed us any more than dinner can enlighten us. We can apply the principles of science in our cooking, but it is important to remember that this "applied science" is cooking, not science. And that returns us to the starting point, where we are standing in the kitchen, surrounded by our primitive tools, fire and ice, armed with our appetite and -- hopefully -- with the knowledge of how to make the best of our limited resources and time.
That is why I propose a somewhat more relaxed and undisciplined offshoot to molecular gastronomy and other cutting-edge food science. Something less ambitious than what takes place in Michelin-starred restaurants. I propose a maverick gastronomy.
The practitioner of it -- I'll call him the gastronomer -- is informed enough to know what is going on when cooking but pragmatic enough not to demand perfection. He is hungry for knowledge and is always looking for a smarter way. But first and foremost, he is hungry. That hunger fuels the search for shortcuts and practical solutions, for a way to make science work for us. The legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker used to say, "All them fancy chords mean nothing if you ain't got the beat." The same goes for cooking. Food is, after all, appreciated by our bodies, where the brain is only one of the organs. To give a twist to the old saying by the first gastronome, Brillat-Savarin: The discovery of a new dish means more to the happiness of man than a Michelin star.
I have known This for 10 years, and much of what I know about food science he has taught me (in addition to the invaluable research done by McGee in his classic book "On Food and Cooking"). Every time I visit This in his Paris lab, he has dozens of inventions to present. With a contagious, almost childish enthusiasm, he tells me about a new classification system he is working on, or a recent discovery that a nearly forgotten claim made in a 17th-century cookbook is indeed true, or in fact wrong.
And whenever I can, I taste some of the results of his findings at the restaurant I consider the greatest in the world, that of Pierre Gagnaire, a longtime collaborator of This's. A while back we discussed one of the best things I have had at Gagnaire's Paris restaurant: a wonderfully light and airy foie gras dish that can be made similarly with Roquefort cheese, butter or chocolate. The chocolate dish -- named Chocolate "Chantilly" -- is my favorite, a two-ingredient chocolate mousse.
When This described the principle behind it, he made the best explanation I have heard of the relationship between science and cooking: that cooking can benefit from science but at the same time should not attempt to be science.
Chocolate "Chantilly" in its simplest form is made from chocolate and water. The cook melts chocolate over a warm-water bath, mixes water in, places the bowl over an ice bath and then whisks energetically until the mixture firms up. The result is remarkable: as ethereal as a mousse, but with nothing to mask the flavor of the chocolate. If the mixture is too thick and becomes grainy, it can be reheated and more water added. If it is too thin and refuses to firm up, it can be reheated and more chocolate added. When you are given an infinite number of chances, it is hard to fail.
Better still, this is something that can be done with most fatty substances. Imagine whipped butter with a veal stock and red wine reduction floating like a cloud on top of your steak. It is a brilliant culinary invention with an almost infinite number of possibilities. However, as This pointed out, it is not exactly science.
"From a scientific point of view it is nothing, a mere detail," he said. "But Pierre tells me it is one of the most useful things I have ever come up with."
Andreas Viestad is the author of "Kitchen of Light" and "Where Flavor Was Born," the host of the public television series "New Scandinavian Cooking" and co-host of the forthcoming series "Perfect Day." He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org@washpost.com.