Foodie science geeks, take note - this is your volume of Modernist Cuisine: Volume 4 Ingredients and Preparations. Thickeners, Gels, Emulsions, Foams, Wine and Coffee, oh my.
Let's start with the easy stuff - we all know how to thicken a liquid; add a starch and stir vigorously. Making a liquid thicker is one of the most basic tasks in cooking. It is an integral part in making sauces, soups and many beverages. Thickening agents are included in some of the earliest recorded recipes. Since then, cooks have discovered many more techniques for giving liquids the thickness and texture they want.
"Traditional cooking offers dozens of ways to thicken. Most cooks are familiar with the starch-based thickeners - corn starch, tapioca, and roux of flour and fat - used in everything from sauces to fruit pies." But there are so many more thickeners than that. Try gelatin, alginate, agar agar and carrageenan. They are seaweed-based and have been used in traditional Asian cooking for centuries. All these, before we even touch the modern cuisine ones.
Now, for the not so traditional thickeners. Food science extends the possibilities, providing new ingredients that can thicken under conditions that traditional thickeners can't handle. "They can thicken with improved flavor release, with the option to reheat, without weeping and with many other capabilities. The Modernist chef has all of the traditional thickeners to work with plus many more new ones. It's truly the best age ever in which to thicken a liquid." How does a dash of N-Zorbit, isomalt, microcrystalline cellulose, xantham gum, konjac flour, sodium alginate or transglutaminase sound? It may sound like 9th grade chemistry, but to a chef they are just more instruments for their culinary operas.
"Making a gel is one of the more magical things you can do in your kitchen: you can transform a liquid into a solid - or, even more amazing, into a chimerical substance with characteristics of a liquid and a solid. The same basic process that forms Jell-O is at work in bread, scrambles eggs, cheese and tofu. While not everyone recognizes it as such, creating gels is a fundamental technique of both traditional and Modernist cooking." Many of the additives that cause liquids to thicken also create gels. The science of gelling can be pretty elaborate, and the potential applications of gels vary quite a lot. "Modernist gelling techniques expand the realm of what is possible and give enthusiasts new opportunities to express their culinary imaginations. Be aware, however, that real mastery requires experience and experimentation." I have no desire to master gelling at home. I'd rather make reservations at Alinea, wd-50, Next or any Jose Andres restaurant. A jar of Jose's spherified faux olives is a masterpiece to behold. A few Houston restaurants are using gels (Uchi, Kata Robata), but no one on the same scale as the aforementioned.
Emulsions might sound relatively simple - mixing oil and water - but all of them are not. Some books about food emulsification contain hundreds of pages of equations describing how those tiny droplets of liquid keep from grouping back together. The details rapidly become intimidating to nonexperts. Given such complexity in the theory, emulsions in the everyday kitchen remain a largely empirical exercise. The home chef can use an immersion blender and make a pretty great mayonnaise and vinaigrette. And with a little elbow grease and a balloon whisk, a stunning hollandaise is a cinch.
The last geeky science technique is foams. This is the technique most made fun of and the most overused on many a TV cooking competition. Foams are not hard to make but they do require some specific equipment: a siphon with a carbon dioxide canister, whisk, hand blender, steam wand, vacuum chamber, aquarium bubbler, oven and a deep fryer. Some of this equipment we all have, others are only found in professional kitchens and only a few of those. Now, of course there are the foams in the form of soufflés, bread, whip cream, milkshakes and lattes. But we are really talking about those foams that are just too ridiculous to make at home. Foie gras foam, tomato foam, parsley foam, etc. No one needs that at home - leave it to the professionals. And professionals, don't overdo it.
The rest of the volume is dedicated to coffee and wine -- what makes a great wine and how to really taste the wine. The authors talk about decanting wine and how it is more than just a ritual; it actually makes a difference in taste. They talk about glass choice, grape varieties, terroir, tannins, barrels, etc. Everything the novice and mastered wine drinker want to know is here.
The coffee chapter takes the reader from cherry to bean to roaster to cup. I am not a coffee fan, so I didn't linger over this chapter as much as the others, but it defines and describes and recommends anything you might wonder about in the world of coffee. MC talks about roasting for flavor, fair trade coffee, decaffeinated coffee, brewing, making coffee, cooking with coffee, espresso, the grind, dispensing, brewing temperatures, anything and everything in between.
Volume 4 has taken us on a scientific journey. We learned a lot and reminded ourselves why we like to eat out -- someone better trained and equipped than us can make us fancy dishes and clean them up.
Next time will be the last volume in the series. We will discuss Volume 5: Plated-Dish Recipes. More than 70 percent of the recipes are doable at home; the rest are just fascinating to read. Be sure and review Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3 to get the full effect of the over-arching brilliance of this compendium.