Saturday, 15 January 2011

Cooking With Molecules

I've mentioned my brief forays into Molecular Gastronomy, but haven't posted any of my stunning successes yet. Mainly because there haven't been any. If you read the blogs of people who dabble in this stuff, it seems the first thing everyone wants to try is Spherification, and I'm no exception. The basic idea is to create blobs of intensely-flavoured liquid encapsulated in a gel skin that melts when you eat it, leaving a 'taste explosion' in your mouth. The classic example of this technique is Ferran Adriá's olive. It looks like an olive, but tastes more olivey than any real olive ever could. It's also possible to make small spheres of your liquid, and they look like caviar.

The basic idea is to add a gelling agent (sodium alginate) to your strongly-flavoured liquid, and then carefully drop spoonfuls or droplets from a syringe into a bath of calcium carbonate dissolved in water. When the alginate meets the CC, it sets into a gel. So a skin is instantly formed on the outside, leaving the inside liquid, well, liquid. You only leave your blobs in the CC for 1-3 minutes (depending on their size) and then you take them out, rinse in cold water, dry on a paper towel and serve (or throw in the bin, in my case).

We had a load of apples and pears left over from Christmas, so I pulped them and then made a consommé of them using the gelatine freeze-thaw method. This technique requires you to melt some bloomed gelatine into your liquid and then freeze it overnight. When it's frozen, you place it in a filter paper (or cheesecloth) inside a strainer over a bowl and leave it in the fridge for 2-3 days until the liquid has melted and dripped through the filter. The gelatine forms a kind of web that grabs hold of all the solids, while allowing the liquid to drip through into the bowl. The resulting liquid is perfectly clear, with all the flavour and colour of the original goop.

I made some 'caviar' of apples and pears, and also some bigger drops, a bit like small grapes. I showed one to MamaDuck, who freaked out a bit and said she would never eat it (so no apple sauce gel blobs for her tonight!). Some of the early attempts looked like tiny fetuses, most of the bigger blobs were malformed with extra mini-blobs or tails stuck to them, but the caviar looked good.

The main problem I have with spherification is getting the right proportion of chemicals in the solutions. The quantities required are quite tiny (like 1.5 grams), and I have no way of accurately measuring such tiny amounts. My digital scales claim to be able to weigh increments of 1g, but really, they don't. So I need to get hold of some scientific scales, but haven't been able to find any yet.

On a related note, I've been getting a fed up with the unreliability of gelatine for the jelly in my pork pies. Sometimes it's difficult to inject enough jelly into the pies, and sometimes the bloody stuff just won't set. I tried an experiment a few months ago where I poured liquid jelly into the pie case before baking, but it just soaked into the pastry and the meat.

So I've been looking at Agar Agar. This substance is extracted from seaweed (so it's suitable for veggies), and has some interesting properties. The ones I'm interested in are the gelling point and the melting point. For a 2% solution of agar agar, these are 38 and 89 degrees C. And the temperature at which minced pork can be declared cooked is 71C, so in theory I could wrap the meat in a sheet of set agar agar jelly and bake it without it melting. Now that would be a super-terrific thing if I could do it. If it worked, I could also put a blob of set jelly inside my albondigas (meatballs) to reduce their density and give a zing of something different in the middle - it doesn't have to be meat-flavoured, even, it could be apple-flavoured. Nom nom.

I'm rambling. Today I went off in search of agar agar. I know I could get this from Manuel Riesgo behind Gran Vía, but I didn't want to go into the centre. I found some powdered agar agar in a local health-food shop, but at €6 a spoonful I thought it was a bit overpriced. But I did notice it came from China and that gave me an idea. There's a street in our barrio that's like a mini Chinatown, so I went up there. The first shop I went to is so jam-packed with stock that there's no room for customers, but I asked them about it and they pointed me at HP Sauce and cans of corned beef (obviously as a gweilo-guiri, what else could I want?). The next one I tried was much better. It was actually big enough to accommodate the massive range of stuff they sell and still leave room for customers. Nice. They did have agar agar, but only in 1-kilo packs about the size of a cushion. I asked them if they had smaller packs, and the guy disappeared upstairs and came back with a 42g pack for €1.40. Marvellous. It's a terrific shop, actually, packed full of mysterious stuff. They have a section at the back that has everything you need to set up a Chinese restaurant - woks by the million, crockery, sizzler plates, cook's clothes, cleavers, knives, chopsticks. And I also noticed they had 1-kilo jars of whole black peppercorns for €6, and stuff like Schezuan pepper salt and other exotica at insanely-low prices. I'll definitely be back there next week.

Anyway, gotta dash, got to play with my agar agar.


Mme Cyn said...

Sorry Keefie -- Spherification = culinary masturbation. Don't care if El Bulli does it. Sounds a ridiculous amount of work to me for not much return. Why not just drink your liquid? However, if you're having fun...

Seabee said...

Off subject, but something for you on my blog Keefie :-)