The Science of Food

Is cooking a science or an art? For the innovative chef, Heston Blumenthal, the answer is easy.

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Great meals are the result of quality ingredients, passion and organization, but we happen to think that there’s a little magic involved too. A chef by the name of Heston Blumenthal thinks so too. In fact, he’s a wizard in the kitchen, who’s known for discovering some pretty magical facts about food, like the fact that chocolate makes amazing wine and vegetables cooked in mineral water won’t change color. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a food nerd but we won’t hold that against him

THE FAT DUCK

Heston Blumenthal is a British chef/restaurateur who has been called the Willy Wonka of gastronomy. A fierce innovator who holds an honorary Doctor of Science degree, he has been making waves since the early 1990’, through his tireless investigation of the science behind cooking. 

Unlike most other chefs of his pedigree, Blumenthal is completely self-taught and has never worked in anyone else’s kitchen. He owns a group of restaurants in Britain and Australia but The Fat Duck Restaurant is his landmark eatery. Located a couple of hours outside of London, the unassuming 16th-century food haven has been awarded three Michelin stars, Best Restaurant in the World and Best Restaurant in the UK. Offering a fourteen-course tasting menu, its cuisine is reputed for being innovative and at the forefront of molecular and multi-sensory cooking. Blumenthal consciously weaves psychology and perception into the dishes saying, of his sardine toast sorbet, “confusion will reign as the brain will be trying to tell the palate to expect a dessert and you will therefore be tasting more sweetness than actually exists.” 

Signature dishes of his include triple cooked potatoes, a black forest cake accompanied by a cherry fragrance spray, and nitrogen-cooked egg and bacon ice cream. In fact, he was the first chef to use liquid nitrogen regularly in his cooking and has been rumoured to send 3D glasses to customers when they book a table at The Fat Duck. A few buildings down the street is Blumenthal’s research lab where concoctions like artichoke vanilla mayonnaise and chocolate wine have been developed by his team of experts. 

His infamous recipe for Snail Porridge put him on the map as a pioneer in avant-garde cooking as did his novel cooking techniques to create new taste sensations. Of particular significance, a research study he conducted at Oxford University revealed that sound can significantly enhance the sense of taste. Armed with this information, Blumenthal composed a groundbreaking dish of mackerel, seagrass and edible sand plated to resemble the seashore, served with an iPod in a conch shell, playing sounds of seagulls and ocean waves.

Does sound impact the way food tastes? How does smell affect flavour? These are the questions that Heston Blumenthal seeks the answers to.

THE POWER OF NOSTALGIA

The esoteric nature of his ideas can be alienating to the home cook and other professional chefs, for that matter. Nevertheless, Blumenthal has managed to make his techniques accessible through dozens of BBC television shows, online videos and in several cookbooks. He also became a familiar household name in Australia after appearing as a regular guest judge on the popular MasterChef reality television show there. His material looks to apply his techniques and philosophy to traditional and homemade meals. No small feat, but despite his eccentric approach to cooking, Blumenthal remains adamant that what people value in food the most is nostalgia, a taste of home – so he tries to base his extravagant tasting menus in humble roots; ice cream, bacon and eggs, porridge. He is also relentless at designing experiences for his guests, not simply a fancy meal. If he has his way, they will be taken back to their childhoods through a multi-sensory experience. 

Signature dishes of his include triple cooked potatoes and nitrogen-cooked egg and bacon ice cream.

WHAT IS MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY?

Molecular gastronomy is a term that was coined approximately thirty years ago and is a discipline of food science that explores the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. It is a modern style of cooking, as it takes advantage of numerous technical innovations and approaches food preparation from a scientific standpoint. A large part of molecular gastronomy is incorporating new tools, ingredients and methods in the kitchen. Examples include using ultrasound devices to achieve more precise temperatures, the use of liquid nitrogen for shattering and a complex carbohydrate by the name of maltodextrin that manipulates mouthfeel and has the ability to turn fatty liquids into powder. 

Molecular gastronomy is a term that is polarizing amongst chefs, many of whom feel that it doesn’t describe a style of cooking. While Blumenthal recognizes that his cooking is grounded in science, he rejects the term as a classification for his cuisine and has voiced that the use of ultra-modern techniques should never be employed for the sake of novelty, rather when they truly complement and elevate a dish. He describes his cooking style as multi-sensory and contends that eating is “one of the few activities we do that involves all of the senses simultaneously.” 

A large part of molecular gastronomy is incorporating new tools, ingredients and methods in the kitchen.

FOLLOW THE SCIENCE

Blumenthal is known for questioning many of the fundamental tenets of cooking through a scientific approach. He dismisses the idea that mushrooms should not be rinsed before cooking after an experiment found that the difference in weight between dried and rinsed mushrooms was insignificant. He also contends that, contrary to years of documentation that searing meat does not lock in juices. Through scientific experiments, he has discovered that cooking vegetables in tap water causes discolouration due to calcium but that this isn’t the case when cooked in mineral water and that freezing cuttlefish breaks down the molecules in them, increasing their tenderness. Famous for uncovering molecular similarities between different ingredients and pairing them together in unexpected ways, he ultimately believes that a great chef leads with intuition.