Wahad's Marvelous Molecular Mishaps!

BEHOLD! The wonders of...

Or rather, that's what it should be. Molecular Gastronomy (also called multi-sensory cooking or modernist cuisine) has brought many a fascinating dish to the table in the last thirty years or so. Thanks to the innovative minds of people like Ferran Adria (el Bulli), Grant Achatz (Alinea), Heston Blumenthal (Fat Duck) and many others, the application of scientific innovation to culinary creations has astounded and fascinated chefs and hobby cooks alike.

Molecular Gastronomy is technically defined as "a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. Its program includes three areas, as cooking was recognized to have three components, which are social, artistic and technical." (Source: Wikipedia. Take that, college teachers). More simply, one might define it as using science to transform ingredients with the end goal of creating new textures and enhance flavors.

As a sidenote, a lot of chefs have distanced themselves from the term 'Molecular Gastronomy' (coined by Herve This in 1995), believing it elitist, not accurate for their style of cooking, et cetera, et cetera. There are a lot of different names for the style of cuisine, but for the sake of simplicity and avoiding an unnecessary pedantic debate, I'll keep using molecular gastronomy. If you're interested in why these chefs don't like the term molecular gastronomy, you can start here..

Sous vide cooking (cooking vacuum-sealed ingredients in a water bath that's kept at a precise temperature to avoid overcooking) is one form of molecular gastronomy. Other techniques you might consider when thinking of molecular gastronomy are foams, gels, spheres and edible papers. In this thread, with the molecular gastronomy starter kit I received for my birthday, I'll be working my way through basic techniques first, then eventually applying them to making some dishes, all while telling you exactly where things go right or wrong. So don your labcoats, put on the goggles (they do nothing), and let's go.
There's a fun little 50 minute show on Netflix (US) by the BBC called Chef vs Science that, well, pretty much does what the title says. It's not going to revolutionize anyone's views on molecular gastronomy (I don't think), but I do remember it being a fun time waster, at least.

Edit: Also, I love everything I've read/seen/heard about Ferran Adria.
Part 1: Spherification

Spherification is a technique that uses a calcium salt and sodium alginate to form a small, gelatinous membrane around a liquid ingredient. When the membrane is pierced, the liquid flows out. Probably the most famous form of this technique is the formation of caviar with these liquids; essentially making small pearls not unlike the tapioca balls in bubble tea, but made from juice, alcohol or other liquids.

What you'll need:
- Calcium salts*
- Sodium Alginate
- Distilled water**
- A small slotted spoon
- A blender (immersion or otherwise)
- A scale that measures at least tenths of grams***
- (Optionally) a hemisphere silicone mold.

* Your options for calcium salts are calcium chloride, calcium lactate, or calcium lactate gluconate. Depending on the salt you use, you need a different amount and/or technique. Calcium lactate glutonate is considered the best because it has a neutral flavor.
** Most tap water, especially 'hard' water, naturally contains varying amounts of calcium. Making an alginate bath with said calcium-containing water would start the gelling process before you even have a chance to drop in your spheres, and thus makes it useless. Distilled water prevents this, because it contains no calcium.
*** I do not have one of these (yet), unfortunately. A lot of my mistakes will therefore come down to guesswork in the amounts I'm using.

The two main ingredients for spherification are calcium salts and sodium alginate. Applying them, however, can be done in two different ways.

A) Basic Spherification

For basic spherification, you mix your ingredient thoroughly with sodium alginate. Then, drip your liquid into cold water mixed with the calcium salt, where the process forms a membrane around the liquid drops within a few seconds/minutes. You then rinse them off before serving them in your dish.

B) Reverse Spherification

Reverse spherification is used for liquids that already contain calcium (like milk) or have a high acid/alcohol content. Because these things don't mix with the sodium alginate, you instead blend them with the calcium salt (if they don't already contain it), then drop them in a bath of water mixed with the sodium alginate. An alternative to this (which requires less active time) is frozen reverse spherification, where you freeze the liquid in a mold, then drop the spheres you've formed in the (warm) sodium alginate bath. As the outer edge of the sphere melts, the calcium salt bonds with the sodium alginate. Rinse off your spheres and serve.

Each technique has its pros and cons, but I'll be starting with frozen reverse spherification, because it's the simplest; the spheres are already formed in the mold, so you don't need to futz with the water bath to make the liquid ingredient form a sphere.

Step 1: Prepare liquid ingredient

In reverse spherification, you'll need a 0.18% calcium solution. In the case of calcium lactate, that's 1g per 100g of liquid (so not 100ml! Always measure by weight in these things, since they require rather a lot of precision, not unlike baking). I'll be using orange juice for simplicity. Sieve your liquid (to take out pulp, in my case), then put it in your blender and blitz the shit out of it. Add your powdered calcium salt as it goes along, and continue doing so for like five minutes (or longer). In some cases, mixing the calcium with a bit of sugar beforehand helps with dispersal.

Once your liquid ingredient has blended with the calcium, pour it in your silicone mold and put it in the freezer, preferably overnight. Meanwhile, you can prep your alginate bath.

Step 2: Preparing the Alginate Bath

To create the alginate bath, you'll want a 0.5% solution, so that's .5g alginate per 100g water. Similar to your the previous step, get your (distilled) water, blitz it in the blender, and pour in the powdered alginate bit by bit - if you throw it in all at once it might clump.

Once you've thoroughly combined the alginate with the water, it should feel a little bit slimy (but not too much) when you dip your finger in. Put it in an airtight container or cover it with plastic foil and chill it in the fridge (also overnight) to remove air bubbles caused by the blending, which will interfere with the spherification process.


Once your ingredients and your bath have had the required waiting time pass, take your water bath and heat it up in the microwave till about 65 degrees Celsius, which is around 150 Fahrenheit. Then it's simple: drop your spheres in the water bath, wait around 2-3 minutes while gently stirring the water (and not touching the sphere in the process or letting them touch other spheres), take them out with a slotted spoon, rinse them in a clean bowl of (also slightly warm) water, and serve.

Except I didn't wait long enough, my first two spheres fell apart, so you'll have to wait overnight to see the results. Tomorrow!
Step 3.1: SPHERIFICATE (Redux) Failure

So, I made a second alginate bath after the first spheres failed. Let it rest overnight, and tried again today. Unfortunately, the spheres failed to keep their shape, and fell apart without so much as a touch after five seconds.

Why did things go wrong? There's a few possibilities.

One reason is the liquid ingredient (orange juice in this case) didn't have the right viscosity. Because reverse spherification works by way of the surface tension of the liquid being poured into the alginate bath, liquid that is too, well, liquid, will fail to keep its shape. Thickening the liquid ingredient will keep it from falling apart because the surface tension keeps it together. Generally, frozen reverse spherification doesn't need this (because you freeze the spheres beforehand), but it's a possibility.

Another reason is that I didn't mix the calcium lactate into the liquid ingredient well enough. Either I used too little or didn't disperse the powdered calcium well enough for it to completely work itself into the juice.

A third reason might be that the alginate concentration was too high. Though that might be eliminated, as I'm pretty sure I used a little less alginate in the water for the second bath, thanks to not having a scale precise enough to measure it out.

But hey, it ain't science if everything goes perfect. Next time, I'll use a slightly thicker liquid, blend it better when inserting the calcium lactate, and see what happens.
Did you heat up the water to dissolve the alginate? I've read that it won't dissolve completely at room temperature.

Good luck!
I finally got around to watching David Chang's Ugly Delicious series on Netflix, and one of the episodes (Fried Chicken) mentioned vinegar powder. This is something I've never heard of before - molecular gastronomy? Because if I could get my hands on that (or the technology/chemical additives necessary to make it), that would be great.
I finally got around to watching David Chang's Ugly Delicious series on Netflix, and one of the episodes (Fried Chicken) mentioned vinegar powder. This is something I've never heard of before - molecular gastronomy? Because if I could get my hands on that (or the technology/chemical additives necessary to make it), that would be great.
According to this guy you can make it by combining white vinegar and baking soda, and boiling off the water. Or just buy it from Amazon or something.
the question remains.
Internet suggests using sodium diacetate (which is effectively a 1:1 mix of table salt and acetic acid) or else spraying your vinegar of choice over a dusting of starch (your choice but it seems potato is recommended) and then letting it dry.