The Frontal Cortex

Molecular Gastronomy

The new epicurean trend has arrived: hydrocolloids:

Despite its imposing name, a hydrocolloid is a simple thing. A colloid is a suspension of particles within some substance. A hydrocolloid is a suspension of particles in water where the particles are molecules that bind to water and to one another. The particles slow the flow of the liquid or stop it entirely, solidifying into a gel.

Cornstarch used as a thickener is a hydrocolloid. So is plain flour. But the properties of hydrocolloids differ widely, depending on their molecular structure and affinity for water.

Today, Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea in Chicago, uses agar-agar, which is a hydrocolloid made from seaweed that is best known for growing bacteria in petri dishes, and gelatin, a more familiar hydrocolloid made from collagen in meat, to make transparent sheets that he drapes over hot foods. For a dish made of a confit of beef short ribs, he wanted to add a taste of beer so he draped a veil flavored with Guinness on top — “a thin, flavorful glaze that ensured the diner would get some beer flavor in every bit of the dish,” Mr. Achatz said. Plain gelatin would simply melt, and ruin the effect.

Personally, I associate agar agar with the sweet funk of incubating bacteria, not beer glazed short ribs. But that’s just me. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time in the kitchen of The Fat Duck, which helped pioneer much of this culinary chemistry. Although I’m a big of the restaurant – Heston Blumenthal deserves his three Michelin stars – I learned firsthand that many of these kitchen experiments end in failure:

I’m in the kitchen of the Fat Duck, a Michelin two-star 40 minutes west of London on a tranquil curve of the Thames. The chef, Heston Blumenthal, has a problem: His dessert tastes like horseshit. This is because Heston is trying to put Tryptophan and Valerian Acid, two proteins that induce sleepiness, into a little petit four. He wants you to relax as you’re paying the bill. The Tryptophan is easy to disguise in a dessert. It came from the chemical company in the form of a tasteless white powder that Heston dissolved in Vahlrona chocolate, thus creating the world’s first psychoactive chocolate souffle). The Valerian acid, however, came from the chemical company as an army green silt smelling of pond and manure – or, “tobacco and prune” as Heston says optimistically. So Heston mashes some prunes with fromage blanc, then adds a gram of the Valerian acid. He gives me a spoonful: “Horseshit,” I say, only more bitter. A line cook walks in and wonders what smells so bad. Heston, still a believer, adds prune liquor. Drunk horseshit. Clearly, this isn’t working.

Needless to say, Heston got the petit four right before sending it out to customers. The moral is that experimental food, like experimental science, requires lots and lots of experimentation.


  1. #1 Kevin Yeung
    November 7, 2007

    If that’s what they’re doing in molecular gastronomy, I’m worried. Does Mr Blumenthal happen to be a pharmacist licensed to dispense drugs? Does he take a complete medical history of his diners before taking orders?

  2. #2 natural cynic
    November 7, 2007

    I wouldn’t want to be on the road from the restaurant with all those sleepy drivers – might be as dangerous as giving the drivers “one for the road”.

  3. #3 Steve Silberman
    November 8, 2007

    While I have no doubt that Dr. Whoozenstein could whip up concoctions that make the novelty-hungry brain go “Oh, wow,” this branch of the culinary art has always struck me as more a branch of the lab — Monsieur Wizard, as it were. But when I sit down to eat, give me flavors that have been refined by millions of home cooks all over the world dreaming over their pots. It’s possible to not know much about what molecules are but to know how to make them sing (he said synesthetically).

  4. #4 Caledonian
    November 8, 2007

    Assuming this “Valerian acid” is the key component of valerian root extract – that’s the drug commonly known as Valium.

    It should NOT be added to foods in any effective amount, unless it’s perfectly clear to anyone who orders it what it contains, and even then it’s iffy.

  5. #5 houserules
    November 9, 2007

    The tryptophan is whats in turkey, cranberries, and other thanksgiving foods, and that’s why you feel so sleepy after thanksgiving dinner.
    I’m not so sure about the valerian acid. It seems like a really small amount.
    Why does he want his customers to be relaxed when they’re paying the bill? Seems kind of strange to me…

  6. #6 dilys
    November 13, 2007

    Uh, sedating me shortly before I add up the bill? Does he add “Subtle Pharmacological Assault” to the service charge? It used to be called a Mickey Finn.

    –[piling on here [referred by Maggie’s Farm], surprised that the blogger missed this point…)

  7. #7 Pach
    November 27, 2009

    Valerian root/acid and Valium aren’t at all the same thing, although Valerian root does have (mild) sedative effects. Valium is Roche’s brand-name for diazepam, which is a prescription-only controlled substance, so Heston would be in a lot of trouble for using that to “relax” his diners.

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