Know when to use gellan gum versus xantham gum? Understand the difference between transglutaminase and sodium alginate? Happen to have an anti-griddle, a sous vide immersion circulator, or even syringes among your kitchen gadgets?
These terms won’t be familiar unless you’ve dabbled in the culinary alchemy known as molecular gastronomy, and most home chefs haven’t because they assume it’s beyond their grasp. Essentially, the goal is to deconstruct ingredients, then reconstruct them in a different form.
In the final result, your senses — especially sight and taste — experience something quite different than expected.
This approach uses techniques as varied as “cooking” with extreme cold via dry ice or liquid nitrogen, using edible food additives to manipulate texture, or extracting flavor via dehydration.
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For example, liquid ice cream base ends up as a frozen explosive bite of vanilla, droplets of fruit juice bind into small bouncy spheres of intense flavor that pop in your mouth, and a mélange of pizza toppings emerges as a savory flavor-packed wafer.
Pioneered by French chemist and chef Hervé This, molecular gastronomy has typically been the bailiwick of celebrity chefs at big-city restaurants: by Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago, by Wylie DuFresne at wd-50 in New York City, and by Ferran Adrià at the renowned (but now shuttered) El Bulli in Spain.
Recently, molecular gastronomy has been the topic of two demonstrations by Thomas Drahos, the pastry chef at Windows on the Water in Morro Bay, and Ben Lugo, his assistant pastry chef. A California native with family in Lockwood, Drahos got his first culinary degree at Cuesta College (where he’s also doing demos) before attending culinary school in Denver.
To accomplish his feats of gastronomical derring-do, the resourceful Drahos thinks way, way outside the box when it comes to finding kitchen gadgets.
He “really enjoys a day at the hardware store,” and recently struck gold on a medical supply website; he found an instrument known as a 96 pipette that made it possible to simultaneously squirt out 96 little pearls of juice instead of painstakingly plopping them out of a syringe one-by-one.
At the most recent demonstration, Drahos fashioned six inventive riffs on everything from classic cocktails to comfort food favorites.
A “Ramos Gin Fizz” juxtaposed small lime-flavored spheres with egg whites “cooked” via intense cold, while a “Rum and Coke” used a different spherification method to create a suspended yolk of rum and cola that gently broke open in your mouth.
“Pizza” consisted of cheddar cheese sauce piped into bite-size bread puffs and topped with the aforementioned pizza topping wafer, while the “Cheese Course” comprises blue cheese mousse piped into the puffs and topped with a brittle walnut “glass” — a dehydrated walnut and tapioca maltodextrin mixture.
All the bite-size creations delivered explosive, concentrated bursts of tastes and unexpected textures, each one of them a unique and whimsical treat for the senses.
With such a wow factor, it would seem that more restaurants would be doing molecular gastronomy, but the level of attention and effort needed from Drahos and Lugo also made it clear why more restaurants can’t.
“It really comes down to time and money constraints,” explained Drahos, but he estimated that about 25 percent of the Windows on the Water menu features some touch of the techniques, especially in the desserts.
“We’ll also do more for special event dinners,” he said, “and overall, I really get to explore a lot of creativity here — it’s a great place to be.”