Friday, November 12, 2010

The Demystification of Spherification

While everyone else was restoring sanity a few weeks ago in DC, I was in the calm suburb of Arlington at Sur La Table taking a Molecular Gastronomy cooking class.  Why?  Aside from my loathing of large crowds, I have a deep interest in molecular gastronomy, in fact Steven calls it an obsession, rightfully so since a Sous Vide machine has made it onto my Christmas list. So when I found out about this class that was going to break molecular gastronomy cooking techniques into simple words and recipes for us mere mortals, I knew I had to go!

Molecular gastronomy is very cool, but it is also equally intimidating.  The terms foam, sphere, sous vide, anti-griddles sound very different from cream, mold, crock pot and grill pan, but Chef Bryon Brown (our instructor) assured us that this isn't the case: believe or not we've been doing science in the kitchen more than we think.

He continued and gave a brief history of the term molecular gastronomy (also called the science of cooking) and what it has morphed into today, explaining that technicques that we consider to be basic today were revolutionary 20 years ago.

After our welcome and introduction, he shared with us what we'd be making during the class; on the menu:  Kafta Kabobs with a Yogurt Spherificiation, Cucumber Yogurt Espuma (Foam), and Beet Tumbleweeds. As you can see this menu is approachable food that has been infused with a few molecular gastronomy techniques that include spherification and foam creation.  But there are also more subtle elements present, such as using eggs as a binder or frying vegetables until crisp.

As a class we made the espuma (foam) first because it needs time in the fridge to set up.  All we did was put the ingredients for the foam in a blender, strain it, add it to a cream whipper, and place it in the fridge.  Chef Brown explained to us that you can make a foam out of anything as long as you strain the liquid and have a stabilizer to hold it together.  A stabalizer, such as gelatin, will prevent your foam from falling flat creating the light, fluffy, bubbles you see on TV.

With the espuma setting up we moved on to the kabobs, which are pretty straight forward so I'm not going to spend to much time on this.  Everything was set up for us (mis en place), but the class was broken into teams to assemble each element of the dish, we then put them in the fridge to set up before taking them out to be grilled.  The kabobs were made of lamb and beef, seasoned with aromatic spices such as paprika and cloves, and adorned with pieces of chopped onions and garlic.  One important thing to remember when making kabobs, meatballs, or any patty:  fold the meat don't mash it up, this way it will stay tender and moist:

Now it was time to do the most recognized molecular gastronomy trick: spherification.  We used plain old yogurt to make these spheres in an algin water bath:

How you ask?  The calcium in the yogurt interacts with the algin in the water causing the yogurt to cook and become a sphere.  When you bite into the sphere you get a burst of yogurt, think of it as a fruit gusher except edible.

While one team grilled the kabobs, the other half of the class made the beet tumbleweeds.  To make these you do need a special mandoline, but aside from that imagine yourself making french fries.

Place the shreds into hot oil and fry until there are no more bubbles--this means all the water has been cooked out.  Remove the beet shards, place them on a surface to drain, and roll them together until they resemble tumble weeds.  You have to work quick as the beets will start crisping into final form.

Finally after much work and anticipation, it was time to taste our meal:

Overall everything tasted good, my favorite elements were the yogurt sphere and beet tumbleweed because they both gave unique twists to familiar items, which is important to me. The two biggest things that I took away from this class were:
  • The precision required in molecular cooking. You must have a scale and micro scale.
  • The possibilities are endless once you understand basic concepts and ratios
I'm also convinced that cooking sous vide will be common place by the time that Steven and I have babies, and that foams and spheres will become ordinary dinner garnishes in the coming years.  Basically, to me, molecular gastronomy and cooking with science in the forefront is just another culinary line to cross that is pushing the creativity and technical skills of many chefs today.  Once this form of cooking becomes more mainstream in the restaurant world, it will then transcend into the homes of everyday people.  The idea that I could make something as avant-garde as Jose Andres or Ferran Adria is exciting and I can't wait for this style of cuisine to become more accessible and approachable to the masses.
    For those lucky ducks who live in the DC area, Chef Brown will be doing an entire molecular gastronomy series at Sur La Table in Pentagon City, so just go to the website for the schedule.  If you don't live in this area, I highly recommend you checking out Salty Seattle, a molecular gastronomy food blog, or Will Powder, an online company that sells many of the powders needed to play culinary tricks.


    1. I did this class in LA, but w/ different items. I loved your post, so fun!

    2. What cool techniques! I am fascinated by what people can do with this stuff. The beet tumbleweed seems like something I might actually be able to attempt. Great post!

    3. Thanks! The class was so much fun and I felt so ridiculous for putting molecular gastronomy on a different level--it is definitely approachable at home...with a little practice :)

    4. I've never dabbled in molecular gastronomy. I've left that to the shows on tv i watch, so I'm so excited to see a home cook try their hand at it! Fascinating and love your enthusiasm!

    5. That looks so fascinating. I've been really curious about all these techniques. Well done!

    6. I can't say that I'm a big fan of molecular gastronomy (blame it on Top Chef's Marcel) but I would love a fancy schmancy mandoline. Think of all the apple peeling and turnip tumbleweeds!

    7. I am definitely intrigued by these techniques! It all sounds so fancy. The beet tumbleweeds are my favorite!

    8. You don't really have to complete a course to try molecular gastronomy. MOLÉCULE-R offers a starter kit that includes everything you need to experiement. It is truly an original gift for Christmas :)

    9. Wow what an outpouring of support and interest on this post :) To all, molecular gastronomy is cool but its not as out of reach as we're made to believe. I'll be doing a post in the post of something very familiar with some molecular gastronomy infused in on the lookout :)

      @ChefGerard thank you so much for the info and link!


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