Editorial: What's All This We Hear about Molecular Gastronomy?


Several years ago Dr. Herve This served as a peer reviewer for a Journal of Food Science manuscript and on that occasion informed me about his special interest which he called “gastronomie moleculaire.” The term caught my attention and I followed the concept as a recipient of his e-mailed newsletters; unfortunately, I was severely handicapped by insufficiencies with my French. In my new role as editor of CRFSFS, however, I have turned more aggressive and have invited Dr. This to provide information on his creation to the Institute of Food Technologists. IFT has thousands of members with professional interests in the various aspects of food preparation, those in the Foodservice Division probably more so than others. Apparently, “molecular gastronomy” effectively explains the difference between science and technology, between physicochemical phenomena and the art of cooking. There is even a strong educational element embedded in this new concept coming to us from France and it behooves our on-line sister publication, the Journal of Food Science Education, to follow up on those aspects. Also, it is imperative that the editor of Food Technology inform IFT's general membership about future details on what may be considered a major movement or development in the history of food science/technology. In my opinion, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety is an appropriate means to convey both historic and futuristic aspects. I am grateful to Dr. This for sharing with us his thoughts and providing a look at his creation. Because this is an editorial, there was no peer review of this paper. Of course, I take full responsibility for any problems that may have slipped in during the process of rewriting and editing. INRA is the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. The English language website is at http://compact.jouy.inra.fr/compact/CONSULTER/INTER/external/departements/ecrans/47

Dr. This is affiliated with the Paris Centre of the Food and Human Nutrition Dept.'s groups UMR 214 and INA P-G (Joint Research Unit for Analytical Engineering Applied to Food Quality).

inline imageManfred Kroger
Scientific Editor, CRFSFS
Professor of Food Science Emeritus
The Pennsylvania State Univ.

Molecular Gastronomy and the Foundation “Food Science and Food Culture”

Herve This, Ph.D.
Groupe INRA de Gastronomie Moléculaire
Laboratoire de chimie des interactions moléculaires
Collège de France
11, place Marcelin Berthelot
75005 Paris, France

Cooking instructions in schools and universities

When the Editor of this journal heard about the creation in France of the “Fondation Science et Culture Alimentaire” (“Foundation Food Science and Food Culture”), he thought it would be a good idea to share the information with the readers of his journal. I shall certainly explain the objectives of this organization at the end of this document, but in order to stimulate interest and to prepare readers for future activities by the Foundation, my proposal is to consider first what cooking means, then to examine the objectives of the scientific discipline called molecular gastronomy, and only then cover the rationale, objectives, and current programs of the Foundation.

Whipping eggs to make chocolate mousse

Consider this statement by the wonderful late biologist Stephen Jay Gould (from “La mal mesure de l'homme”): “It's very efficient to grasp great problems of general interest from details. There is no use writing a book on ‘the meaning of life.’ Great problems should be attacked from the side, and not directly.” So, let's follow his advice and begin by the preparation of a chocolate mousse.

Traditionally, chocolate mousse is obtained by melting chocolate, sometimes with butter, adding egg yolks to this mixture when it's not too hot, whipping the egg whites, and mixing the two preparations. With such a simple “recipe” the result can be easily predicted: the final flavor will be mainly due to its chocolate (hence the relationship between ingredients and product “quality”); the final consistency (not the texture, because we have to clearly differentiate between the two) will be the result of a foam containing the butter-plus-chocolate preparation softening the mass (with butter providing triacylglycerols having lower melting points than those of chocolate, and also having a broader chemical composition). Let's now focus on the whipping of eggs. The fresh egg whites are unimportant regarding flavor; they only provide foamy consistency. The more foam, the “lighter” the mousse. Whipped egg white is obtained by whipping egg whites. Such a seemingly useless sentence is not useless at all, if we consider the concept of whipping. Why should we whip egg whites? The answer is: we want to introduce air bubbles. Egg white is roughly 90% water and 10% protein(s). If we just whip, the whisk is introducing air bubbles whose diameters, easily determined with a light microscope, will be about 0.01 to 0.1 mm.

Why so little foam?

This is the traditional question, but let's consider a better question: how much foam can we get from the white of one egg? Generally, when egg whites are whipped, a volume of 1/3 L is obtained. Why such a small foam volume? Imagine first the creation of only one large bubble with the liquid egg white around it. Depending on various assumptions, the diameter of this bubble would be between 30 and 300 m (!), and the volume would be much more than 1/3 L.

Imagine now that we would like to keep our bubbles at a diameter between 0.01 and 0.1 mm. Is 1/3 of a liter the maximum that can be obtained through whipping? The question can be asked differently: why is the volume limited to 1/3 of a liter? As whipping two egg whites produces about twice the volume obtained from one egg white, it means that something is missing to get more foam. As whipped egg whites are primarily composed of air, water, and proteins, we can guess that the “missing something” is either water or proteins (not air, as there is plenty of it). Calculations and experiments show that water is indeed the limiting factor, and this leads the 21st century cook (the one who no longer sticks to recipes) to add some aqueous solution (water plus flavor) into the egg white being whipped, thus obtaining more and more foam (plus flavor).

Are eggs useful?

Are eggs important in this recipe? The yolk is clearly useful, because it gives some flavor to the chocolate mixture. But the egg white? Let's look at milk. This is literally an emulsion: emulsion comes from the Latin word emulgere, which means “to draw milk.” And all food scientists know that, indeed, milk is mainly made of “oil” droplets (fat globules) dispersed in “water.” When milk is allowed to rest, the oil droplets slowly rise upwards and aggregate, forming a creamy emulsion much more fat-concentrated than the milk below it.

Let's whip cream: whipped cream is obtained by trapping air bubbles in the emulsion. Using the “complex disperse system formula” introduced some years ago (ECIS 2002), this can be described by a simple equation. With O the oil phase, W the water phase, G the gas phase, and/the “dispersion,” milk and cream can be described as O/W, and whipping cream can be represented by the “physical equation” O/W + G = (G+O)/W.

Now let's change the ingredients, keeping the equation. For example, as chocolate is all fat, at first approximation, let's make an emulsion with it: in a pan, put 200 g water (this “water” can have flavor in it, such as being orange juice or tea, for example) and 225 g chocolate, then heat. The sugar contained in the chocolate dissolves in the “water” during this process. After placing the pan on ice cubes and whipping its contents, a foamed emulsion is obtained which has been called “chocolate Chantilly” (Le chocolat Chantilly 1996). No egg whites are needed!

Why cooking?

What is the lesson of this investigation? Traditional practice is not always a guarantee for technical success. Arriving at success depends on asking questions. Therefore, asking questions is of utmost importance. Of course, all scientists know that, but why not also teach it in school? And, finally, invention, or technology, is a natural result of scientific research. This, too, must be communicated. Young people and their schooling are the keys to tomorrow's world. Are we going to produce informed consumers and citizens, or do we prefer to restrict the enlightenment of individuals and leave them vulnerable to the manipulations and schemes of specialized interests, which might include the food industry? Satisfactory consumer education is not possible, and we do observe today a frightening pandemic of obesity. Consumer health is not entirely the foremost objective of an industry. Clearly some food education is important.

Moreover, another social issue, namely, the growing dislike for science, could be overcome through educational activities based on science. In France, the Ateliers expérimentaux du goût (Experimental Workshops on Taste), include school classroom activities such as making one cubic meter of whipped egg white with only one egg, as well as giving children some control over their food through cooking (CRDP 2005). Food appeal is used as an introduction, but the various programs are moving children away from eating only, and leading them toward technological, scientific, and cultural questions. In this way, tradition is not only transmitted, but also questioned, as it should have been all the time. This is one purpose of molecular gastronomy.

Molecular gastronomy

Molecular gastronomy, why such a pompous name? And is it some useless activity of the idle rich or wealthy foodies? Of course not! First, a differentiation should be made between cooking and gastronomy. Cooking means preparing dishes, whereas gastronomy, according to the promoter of the word, means “intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man's nourishment” (Brillat-Savarin 2006). When this knowledge is history, the activity is “historical gastronomy,” but when it comes to the study of chemical and physical transformations involved in culinary practice, then it is “molecular gastronomy.”

Is it simply food science? Not exactly. The reason why this new scientific discipline was introduced by Nicholas Kurti and myself in 1988 (This 2002) was based on the observation that food science had slowly drifted, over many decades, toward the investigation of food and toward technological processes, but not toward culinary aspects. But multitudes of people cook every day, and until the creation of molecular gastronomy, no scientific results were given to them about such common dishes as soufflés, roasted chicken, mayonnaise sauce, and more. Certainly, molecular gastronomy must be included in food science, but defining it more clearly would be very useful, because some new and important questions arise.

Is molecular gastronomy the same as “culinology”? One can easily see a difference. First, culinology is a trademark; how can science be patented? Clearly, there is knowledge behind this enterprise of culinology, but also money and communication. Documents issued by universities that teach culinology indicate that it involves some education allowing chefs to cook differently. Therefore, culinology is cooking and not molecular gastronomy. The latter must be considered a scientific discipline because it is about insights, understanding, and knowledge generation (looking for mechanisms and establishing modes of action).

More generally, and this needs repeating, according to Louis Pasteur, science is different from technology, and “applied science” is an oxymoron that cannot exist. First, science looks for mechanisms of phenomena, whereas technology is using scientific results to improve a technique or a craft. This is why “applied science” cannot exist. If culinology were a science, then its purpose would be mechanism elucidation, not applications. And this is why the term “application of sciences” should be preferred over “applied sciences,” and application of sciences means technology.

Finally, it should be said that, because we were not sufficiently aware of these important differences, the program of molecular gastronomy was somewhat flawed when it was begun in the 1980s. The initial objectives of molecular gastronomy (This 1995) were: (i) investigate recipes; (ii) collect and test culinary proverbs, old wives' tales, and so on; (iii) invent new dishes based on (i) and (ii); (iv) introduce new tools, ingredients, and methods in the kitchen; (v) use cooking to show that the physical and biological sciences are wonderful. This was a major mistake because objectives (iii) and (iv) are technological, not scientific, and (v) is political. This is why the objectives were recently changed. We observed that a dish is considered good when it is “technically” successful (a defective mayonnaise is a failure), when a flavor pleases the consumer it is considered “art,” and when a prepared dish is not brusquely “thrown” at a consumer, “love” and affection must have been involved. This means that science should investigate the love component, the art component, and the technical component. As all recipes are composed of 3 parts (the “technically useless” details, the “definitions,” and the “culinary precise measurements”), molecular gastronomy should study all these components, but, again, only from a scientific point of view (This 2005).

A foundation created in France with a network of seminars and regional centers

Now, finally, let's examine the question asked by the Editor of this journal: why the creation of the Foundation for Food Science and Food Culture? Since 1988, many activities have developed, in France and in other countries, around molecular gastronomy. Since 1992, international workshops have been held in Erice (Sicily, Italy). Since 1995, a molecular gastronomy team has been working in a laboratory of the Collège de France, in Paris. Since 1998, congresses on molecular gastronomy have been held in France, mainly for young university teaching personnel. Since 2000, monthly seminars on molecular gastronomy have been organized by INRA, with reports sent through e-mail to more than 1300 recipients around the world; “sister seminars” have by now been created in Argentina, Belgium, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, and the United States of America (at the Institute of Culinary Education). Since 2001, the Ateliers experimentaux du goût, based on molecular gastronomy, have been sponsored in French schools; these Ateliers have now also been implemented in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Since 2002, university courses on molecular gastronomy have been offered in several countries (such as France, Italy, Denmark, and the United Kingdom). In 2004, public and free courses on molecular gastronomy were introduced in Paris.

Clearly some coherence had to be given to all these enterprises, and molecular gastronomy had to be put into a broader frame, with anticipated synergistic effects. The question was, if molecular gastronomy can have technological and educational applications, why not organize it rationally? This is the aim of the new foundation, providing a total and unified environment for research, action, and communication. The Foundation is organized as would be found in institutions of higher education: there are divisions (research, technology, art, education, safety, regulations, communication), and there will be active outreach through regional programs. The first program was launched in Arbois (Franche Comté, near Jura, France) on April 12, 2006, under the auspices of the French Academy of Sciences; it included a lecture and prizes were given to young food technologists. Other regions are preparing different programs, in France and in other countries. One particular objective is not to foster competition between regions but to promote complementarity based on particular regional strengths. The overall objective is to bring science to where it is supposed to be: near every citizen!