Add flair to your food at home using modern molecular cooking techniques. This is your go-to guide.
Molecular gastronomy turns traditional cooking on its head. Hand whisks, pans, baking – they have existed for centuries and allow us to make good food. But what if you could take these tried and tested tools and techniques, and raise the ante?
A smoking gun can add an enticing aroma and flavor to a chili chocolate mousse. A syringe, some simple gelling agents, and fresh raspberries; they give you the tools to make raspberry caviar. A cream whipper lets you make jaw-dropping foams and sauces full of taste and visual appeal.
Modern cookery is limited only by your imagination. But you’ll need to learn a few basics before jumping in. The good news is, that’s what this page is all about.
Molecular cooking is your passport to creating a culinary symphony for the senses.
It looks at the chemical and physical reactions and transformations that occur when cooking.
This article will expose you to a selection of geeky buzz words. Don’t let that put you off. Terms like spherification and calcium alginate are your friends. Tricky words; but not that tricky in practice.
Molecular gastronomy is all about creativity, not following recipes. Use this guide to teach you the basics then take that knowledge and put your own personal stamp on it. Take your favorite herb and transform it into ice cream in minutes with N2O. Choose in-season fruit and revolutionize them into “caviar”.
What to consider when creating your menu
⇒ What produce is in season?
⇒ Flavor preferences of your guests
⇒ Time constraints
⇒ What else will be on the plate (food pairing)
Popular tools for molecular gastronomy
Unless money is no objective, I recommend you don’t race out and buy every tool required. It can be expensive. Choose one technique and master it – then build up your arsenal of tools from there. Hopefully, you may have some of these kitchen appliances already.
Turn ingredients into lovely, smooth purees. A blender is a vital tool in making raspberry pearls which you can use to drop into a cocktail or decorate a dessert.
Some of the ingredients like agar agar will require very small amounts so you’ll need a set of scales which measures in 1g units. Another set that measures larger weights will also be essential.
It’s likely you’ll already have a set of these spoons. They’ll be used countless times for measuring powders and other ingredients.
A PH Meter is super helpful for spherification. You need a PH above 3.6 if you’re looking to make stunning looking caviar balls.
These molds allow you to make perfect shaped dessert domes and balls that will dazzle your guests.
These are handheld and provide great control when blending. They’re ideal for incorporating gelling agents into liquid and for creating foams.
A stand mixer is good if you’ll be mixing for a long time (think meringue) or when you need your hands free (emulsions are one example).
Besides being useful for measuring, they can also be used during spherification.
iSi Whippers (aka siphon)
Make a huge selection of foams and creams using liquids, gels or even solids. You have the option of attaching an N2O or CO2 cartridge which means your mixture can be bubbly or airy.
Adding a hit of exciting smoky flavor to your dish is highly recommended. You can choose from a wide selection of wood to smoke, all producing different flavors and aromas.
Dry foods over several hours at low temperatures. The dehydrator can dry strawberries to use as crispy garnishes or dry citrus peel which can be coated with chocolate.
Create tiny, precision perfect liquid balls using a syringe.
Ice cube tray
The humble ice cube tray can create stunning ice cubes with flowers, herbs and other ingredients inside. Superb for cocktail mastery.
Dry ice has many uses in modern cooking. Make ice cream in seconds, cool a salad, create visual effect in a cocktail or add a scented smoke to a dish to put your guests’ senses into overdrive.
Helpful, but not essential, during spherification. They make easy work of collecting caviar out of a bowl of liquid without too much mess or headache.
Hot infusion siphon
The hot infusion siphon is theatrical. Its original use was intended to make coffee, which you still can! But why not create tempting hot cocktails infused with gooseberry or an exotic broth to surround a scallop entree?
A gastrovac cooks food in a low pressure, oxygen-free environment thanks to a vacuum. This allows you to maintain the texture and color of the food. It also absorbs the liquid around it creating a myriad of flavor options.
You’ve probably seen a creme brulee blow-torched, but what about crisping up salmon skin or pork crackling? Blow torches have a surprising number of uses.
Calcium lactate, agar-agar, and sodium alginate are three excellent options to start your collection. Within no time you’ll be entering the world of spherification, hot gels, foam and more.
Other tools to consider
Cook food on a low heat for extended periods of time – all day if needed. The end result can be startling.
Another non-essential tool but then can make plating up an easier, more precise job.
Vacuum packing machine
Seal foods like salmon and sous vide them for a moist, tender protein.
10 molecular cooking techniques you need to master
Learn these skills to open up a whole new world of cooking that’s full of flair and good taste.
1. Sous vide
Difficulty factor: Easy
When you use traditional methods of cooking, such as frying, you’ll lose some of the flavor as it leaches out.
Enter sous vide, the solution to flavor leaching.
If you choose to sous vide food you’ll poach it, within an airtight bag, submerged in a temperature controlled bath of liquid. The cooking temperature is generally lower and slower than traditional cooking.
Benefits of sous vide cooking
- Improved flavor and increased tenderness.
- Slow cook in advance then reheat when required.
- Set and forget cooking – no need to check the food.
- Longer storage once cooked.
- Meats remain tender and vegetables stay crisp.
- Nutrients are retained in the food.
How to sous vide
Equipment required: vacuum-sealer machine and a water bath
- Turn on a water bath and wait for the temperature to increase to the desired temperature.
- Place meat or vegetables along with oil or stock inside a vacuum bag and seal.
- Place the bag of food into the water and set the timer.
That’s about all there is to it. You’ll notice that meat and fish won’t have that lovely darkened exterior that results from frying. To fix this, briefly saute each side of the meat on a high heat.
I mentioned above to add oil or stock to the bag before sealing it. You can actually experiment with this: try juice, wine or beer. Each liquid will produce a different result.
Difficulty factor: Intermediate
Spherification is a big word that’s all about turning liquid into solid balls that look a lot like caviar. They’re visually stunning and make fantastic garnishes on a wide range of savory dishes, sweet desserts, and cocktails.
But these wonderful spheres aren’t just about looking pretty. They taste heavenly and offer an element of surprise to a dish. Like the “everlasting gob-stopper” from Willy Wonker’s factory, your guests will never know what taste is going to explode into their mouths as they bite through the external casing.
Why spherification is worth your time
- Capture amazing flavor to compliment your dish.
- Adds incredible visual appeal when plating up.
- It’s a lot of fun and super satisfying to make them.
What you need to make spheres
Let’s start with basic spherification (aka direct spherification). This process involves dropping small droplets of liquid into a calcium bath to create spheres.
The end result of basic spherification is a sphere with a very thin membrane that results in a popping sensation when consumed. Keep in mind that these balls need to be served straight after they are made; leaving them too long will cause the membrane to thicken until the ball eventually becomes a solid.
For basic spherification you’ll need a liquid that you want to turn into balls. This could be anything but fruit juices are a good place to start. You’ll also need sodium alginate, calcium chloride, digital scales, syringe, immersion blender and preferable a spherification spoon.
The basic spherification process
- For every 100ml of liquid, add 0.5g of sodium alginate. Do this with an immersion blender. Adding the sodium alginate directly into the liquid can be problematic. It’s best to mix the sodium with a little sugar first and then slowly blend it into the liquid.
- Use a PH meter to test the acidity of the liquid. The PH needs to be above 3.6 or the sodium alginate will transform into algenic acid. You don’t want this to happen.
- Allow the liquid to rest in the fridge until all bubbles have disappeared. This could take up to 1 day (but usually less). You can speed up the process by passing the liquid through a sieve several times.
- Create a calcium bath by adding calcium chloride to a bowl of water. Add 0.5g of calcium per 100g of water. The calcium will stir into the water easily and doesn’t need any special treatment.
- Using a syringe, gently squeeze droplets of the flavored liquid into the calcium bath. Once you’ve added some spheres, slowly stir the water so that the spheres don’t sit on the bottom of the bowl and lose their shape.
- Wait about 5 minutes then remove the spheres, with a spherification spoon, from the bowl and gently drop them into a bowl of fresh water. It’s best to test one ball first to check if its membrane is thick enough to support the sphere.
- Ensure the liquid is cold before adding sodium alginate.
- If your liquid contains alcohol, disperse the sodium alginate in water or some other flavored liquid before adding to the alcohol.
- Add sugar to the calcium bath to help the spheres maintain their shape when sitting on the bottom of the bowl.
Difficulty factor: Easy
If you’ve ever sipped a cappuccino, you’ll be familiar with foam – a popular element in restaurants for delivering un-tainted flavor and luxurious texture. Foams can be used in sweet or savory dishes and practically any ingredient has the potential to be transformed into a foam.
Foam is basically any solid or liquid that has gas suspended in it. By this definition, foams include ice cream, mousse, bread, or meringue. We will focus on modern foams – the ones you may have seen in restaurants.
What you need to make foam
- a stabilizer such as agar-agar, lecithin, gelatine or xanthan gum.
- whipping siphon, stand mixer, immersion blender or milk frother.
How to make a light foam
Light foams are easy to make without the need for any specialist equipment like a siphon. You can simply add the liquid you want to foam in a bowl with lecithin.
- Combine the liquid of your choice with a stabilizing agent – I recommend lecithin.
- Add air into the liquid using an immersion blender, making sure to keep part of the blades out of the liquid to increase the amount of air that’s incorporated.
You’ll need to use a light foam within an hour, otherwise, it will start to lose its shape.
Difficulty factor: Easy
Fermentation certainly isn’t a new technique; however, it has become a buzz-word in many cooking circles in recent years. This technique preserves food, allows new flavors to develop, enhances umami in food, and improves gut health. It’s also responsible for producing a large number of very popular foods in modern society.
Some common types of fermented food
- miso soup
How to make Kimchi
Kimchi rules supreme in Korea. It is eaten on its own as well as being incorporated into many dishes. Why not find out what the fuss is all about and make your own.
Special equipment: 2 Quart jar.
- 1 cabbage (napa or Chinese)
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1″ grated ginger
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
- 4 Tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 carrots (grated)
- 4 scallions
- ¼ cup of fish sauce
- 3 Tbsp sriracha sauce
- 6 oz radish (grated)
- Cut cabbage into 2″ pieces, discard the root, then add the cabbage to a large bowl with the salt. Mix together with your hands then pour water into the bowl until the cabbage is covered. Cover the bowl and allow it to sit overnight at room temperature.
- Drain water from cabbage using a colander then pour cold water over the cabbage to rinse off the salt.
- Using your hands, combine cabbage with all remaining ingredients in a large bowl.
- Scoop the cabbage into a jar. Be sure to pack it in hard. Place the jar in a cool spot for 3 days then open it to allow all the gas to escape.
- Place in the refrigerator with the lid on for 2-7 days before eating. The longer you can wait, the more time you’ll give the kimchi to develop its flavor.
You can keep your kimchi in the fridge for 4 weeks.
Difficulty factor: Easy
Dehydration is another cooking technique that has been around since the beginning of time. We’ve all seen dried fruits in the supermarket. Modern cooking is using this method to add new texture and flavor to traditional meals.
Some common dehydration methods
- Dried foam: Take a liquid such as juice, combine it with xanthan gum and methyl cellulose then dehydrate until a foam that is crispy in texture results.
- Soil: Grind dried vegetables or fruit into a coarse powder for a lovely visual effect.
- Croquanter technique: Created by Chef Ferran Adria, this method dehydrates fruit, veggies or yogurt at low temperatures for long periods of time to create crispy elements that retain their flavor. They are often created as geometric shapes for extra visual appeal.
How to make raspberry crisps
- 1 cup pureed raspberries
- Spread raspberry puree onto baking paper. It should be about ¼ thick. Use a stencil to create perfect shapes.
- Add to a dehydrator at 130°F for 10 hours or until the raspberry is crisp.
6. Liquid nitrogen
Difficulty factor: Intermediate
Liquid nitrogen is cold. Very cold. At -346°F, it has some unique possibilities in the kitchen. Liquid nitrogen gained notoriety thanks to Chef Heston Blumenthal who used it in a variety of dishes back in the 2000s.
Ice cream created in seconds rather than half an hour is the flagship use of liquid nitrogen. It’s perfect for this application. The goal of making ice cream is to freeze it as fast as possible to reduce ice crystal size. This results in creamier textured ice cream. Liquid nitrogen makes this possible.
Best uses for liquid nitrogen in the kitchen
- ice cream and sorbet (this is a must try).
- freeze milk and crush into snow.
- freeze berries then gently break up into druplets.
What you’ll need
- liquid nitrogen
- dewar or similar container for transportation
- gloves and safety glasses
Safety message: Always keep a window or door open to allow air into the room. Liquid nitrogen can kill in an enclosed space as it displaces oxygen.
Difficulty factor: Easy
Smoking kills. Guns kill. Except when we’re talking about culinary smoking guns. I’m sure these add years to your life thanks to the amazing smoky flavor they add to food. As with most molecular cooking techniques, smoking also creates a visual symphony that traditional cooking has a hard time competing with.
To make liquid smoke you’re going to need a smoking gun. With this piece of equipment, you can burn wood chips such as maple, hickory or apple. They impart the smoky flavor into the food of your choice.
Quick tips to improve smoked food
- When plating up, cover each dish with a lid or glass then direct some smoke under each cover. When the lid is removed the smoke rises to the delight of your guests.
- Leave smoking until as close to serving time as possible as it will lose its intensity over time.
- Don’t over-do liquid smoke as it has an intense flavor.
- Don’t limit smoking to meats – try chocolate, ice cream, cocktails or butter for an exciting twist.
- Use teas or spices in your smoking gun for more flavor variety.
- Place the food you want smoked in a zip-lock bag and add smoke before sealing. This offers a more intense flavor.
8. Rapid infusion
Difficulty factor: Easy
Rapid infusion is molecular gastronomy at its finest – taking a chemistry process and turning it into a food-focused triumph. It has an intimidating name but don’t let a name put you off using this very simple technique. Rapid infusion method takes ingredients like spices or coffee and infuses them into a liquid. As the name suggests, it is a fast process that’s complete in a matter of minutes.
Rapid infusion: Method 1 (using iSi whipper)
You’ll need an iSi whipper and a fine sieve.
- Add your chosen liquid such as water or oil into the iSi whipper. The liquid should be at room temperature for this method to work.
- Add the ingredient that you want to infuse such as mint or coffee.
- Seal the whipper, charge the gas and lightly swirl for 1 minute then allow to rest for 1 minute.
- Gently release the gas from the iSi then open the cannister. Pour the liquid through a sieve into a bowl.
Rapid infusion: Method 2 (using a hot infusion siphon)
An infusion siphon is a cool piece of equipment you’d expect to see in a lab, not the kitchen.
Liquid is heated in a lower vessel. As pressure builds up, vapor starts to force liquid into the upper chamber. The top liquid becomes infused with the flavors from the ingredients in the upper chamber. After a couple of minutes, switch the device off and the liquid will drain back into the lower vessel. There will be one final gush of liquid which signals it’s done.
Uses for hot infusion siphon
- coffee and tea
- flavor filled broth (scallops with dashi anyone?)
9. Plating Up
Difficulty factor: Ranges from easy to hard.
No discussion of molecular cookery can leave out the concept of plating up. You can create the perfect element for your dish but if the plating is poor, it will impact your guests’ enjoyment of the food. For most of us, sight is our strongest sense and we make some big judgments about a dish based purely on appearance.
You eat with your eyes.
There’s no one way to present a dish. What look are you trying to achieve? Rustic, minimalist, geeky, retro – that’s for you to decide. Be creative and express your personality on the dish.
Choice of plate is important. Choose suitable sizes and shapes to match your food.
Balance the proportions of each element on the plate. You don’t want huge amounts of pureed pea just because you made too much. Consider the hero of the dish and make that prominent.
Vibrant colors always please. When you choose ingredients, they should pair well in flavor and also appearance. Choose colors that compliment or contrast each other effectively.
Texture is vital to a successful meal. Try to combine different textures – mushy, crispy, creamy, fine, crumbly, gritty. A meal that that is all made up of mushy food will often lack flair.
Molecular gastronomy is extremely rewarding; what’s not to love about creating meals using unique methods, geeky tools and unheard of ingredients. Modern cooking techniques will open up your world to new possibilities: new flavor, texture, color, and aroma can be intermingled to create a perfectly woven dish that fulfills all our senses in one hit.
Molecular cooking isn’t just for food snobs. Sure, the movement began in some swanky restaurants but this field of cooking has evolved. It’s now become a fun pass-time for home cooks who love exploring new boundaries. What’s not to love about making ice cream in under 1 minute?
Gradually, parts of molecular cooking are moving into mainstream cooking. Sous vide was hardly heard of a decade ago, now these appliances are available everywhere.
I strongly urge you to try it out for yourself. Some of the required equipment can be expensive so I recommend you “dip your toe in the water” to start with. Choose one technique and master it. Spherification is a great option because there isn’t much cost involved in getting started. If you enjoy it, maybe add a new skill to your culinary repertoire. With 12 months you’ll be a full-fledged food geek.
Do you have a favorite cooking technique that’s not exactly traditional in its approach? Let me know in the comments below!