When people ask for me tangible examples of how art and science can work together to discover new things - that's a theme of my first book - the first thing I mention is food. In recent years, chefs like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz have demonstrated the possibilities of translating the lab techniques of modern science to the kitchens of fancy restaurants. And so you get things like the El Bulli "olive," which is actually a sphere of olive juice, encapsulated in a thin gel made from sodium alginate. Place an "olive" in the mouth, and a burst of briny liquid is released.*
But molecular gastronomy isn't just for expensive tasting menus. Herve This, a chemist at the National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris, and one of the founders of the culinary movement, has recently written a book, Molecular Gastronomy, which explores the science of everyday cuisine. Through careful experimentation, This attempts to "discover the fire of truth beneath the smoke of subjective experience." I recently summarized a few of his more surprising findings in the Boston Globe Ideas section:
According to conventional wisdom, the reason it's important to sear meat - this involves cooking the protein quickly at a high temperature - is because the seared crust "seals in the juices." It's a nice-sounding theory, but it's utterly false. Technically speaking, a piece of meat cooked in a hot pan contains less of its own juice, as that sizzling noise is actually the sound of the meaty juice evaporating. So why does a seared steak seem juicier? The reason is that a well-browned steak makes us drool in anticipation - the savory crust opens up our salivary glands. The meat might be dry, but our spit tastes delicious.
*Adria gave a fantastic talk at Harvard last week, which you can read about here...I'll link to the video of the talk when it's put online.
This last summer there was a polemic among spanish top-chefs on molecular gastronomy and what it means after all.
For many chefs is too much chemical additives and less healthy food, conflicts of interest, and an explicit neglect of traditional cooking
Here is an excerpt of the polemic in spanish.
The reason why a piece of seared meat is juicier is because it's far less likely to be well-done. If it's cooked quickly on the outside, there's much less chance it'll be left to cook long enough to go dry inside. The searing doesn't seal in the juices per se, but it does encourage the cook to take the meat off the heat sooner than might otherwise be the case.
The seared meat myth seems to get debunked every few years. The first chapter of Harald McGee's book The Curious Cook (pub. 1990) goes into this in some detail. The flavor created by the searing is due to the Maillard reaction, the interaction of protein and sugar that occurs during the searing. The cooking can also cause the meat's fat to permeate the flesh, making it seem moister.