Molecular Mixology seems to be the "hot and trendy" thing these days. Bartenders messing around with foams, alginate, liquid nitrogen, and a variety of other devices that would make a mad scientist envious. But lets not religate MM to being just another "fad", instead lets take a closer look at it and really discover what it's all about.
It is far too easy for the originally intended meaning of words or terms to be taken out of context and eventually come to mean something totally different in the minds of the general public. I feel that the use of "Molecular Mixology" is a great illustration of this. To many, it instantly brings to mind the use of crazy scientific experiments to create extremely unusual, if not downright wacky, results.
Molecular Mixology (or "MM") of course is the "bartender" side of Molecular Gastronomy (or "MG"). To better understand what MM is all about, it is first necessary to look at MG, its origins, as well as how it is currently perceived.
When thinking about MG, one almost instantly sees visions of foams, liquid nitrogen, and other feats of extreme cooking. I see this as somewhat similar to hearing the term "archeologist" and instantly seeing "Indiana Jones". In truth, MG is essentially about the overall science of cooking. Such an understanding "can" lead towards new, if not unusual, ways of cooking food or combining flavors, but it doesn't have to. It can just as easily validate some cooking method which has been handed down for generations.
Hervé This, working with Nicholas Kurti, originally proposed the term "Molecular Gastronomy" to refer to thinking about cooking from a "scientific" standpoint. Kurti on the other hand felt that "Molecular and physical gastronomy" was a more accurate term, and became the title for the PhD dissertation that Hervé This wrote on the topic. In this, he proposed the following five focus points:
- Question culinary know-how and proverbs
- Understand culinary processes and recipes
- Introduce new products, new tools and new methods
- Invent new dishes
- End the bad public image that science often has
Which he later modified into a slightly more precise and appropriate list of three focus points in order to properly capture the social, artistic, and technical aspects:
- Investigate the social phenomena linked to culinary activity
- Investigate the chemical and physical aspects of the artistic component
- Investigate the technical component:
- Modeling definitions
- Collecting and testing culinary precisions, as well as the reason for their appearance.
Point #3 is broken down into two sub components, because Hervé This felt that any recipe is made up of three parts:
- The technically useless (and thus ignored here)
- The definition (What is required "by definition" for the cooking process)
- The precisions (Added steps which aren't required by definition, but positively contribute to the quality of the final product. Example: Adding a little vinegar to the poaching water for poached eggs)
One aspect that was part of the original concept for all of this, was that cooking has long been surrounded by a wide variety of "cooking precisions" that have been passed down from one generation to the next, which have simply been accepted as the right way to do things, without ever really questioning or understanding them. As an example, I always like to bring up the long held belief that you "sear a steak to seal in its juices". On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable. If you look at the surface of a seared steak, you see that a structure has formed which could conceivable form a barrier which would keep the moisture in a steak, and thus make it juicer. However, by applying scientific principles to the process, it is easily shown that this is not the case. In actuality searing a steak will make a steak every-so-slightly LESS juicy because it causes more moisture to evaporate. Searing a steak does however create a carmelization, which adds both flavor and texture. Understanding this allows you to realize you don't have to sear the steak first, but can just as easily sear it after the steak is almost finished cooking. So I often cook my steaks by putting them in a low oven and gradually bringing them up to the desired temperature. This slower cooking gives more time for the heat-activated enzymes to make the meat tender. Then I sear the steak at the very end to give it that wonderful carmelization. The result is an exceedingly tender steak, which is cooked perfectly throughout.
By understanding, REALLY understanding, the scientific rationale for how cooking changes the food we prepare, in the end simply allows us to cook better food, and cook food better. As Harold McGee explains it, Molecular Gastronomy is "The scientific study of deliciousness".
In a nutshell, that is Molecular Gastronomy.
In the same way, Molecular Mixology shouldn't be seen as just being about the "mad scientist" approach to making a cocktail. Properly applied, MM should instead be seen as a way to look at mixology with a critical and scientific eye, and trying to understand the what's and why's of what is being done, and from this understand how it can perhaps be improved.
Here are just a few topics which could be the focus of Molecular Mixology:
Which is better, shaking or stirring, and when?
Which works best for shaking or stirring a cocktail in, glass, metal, or something else?
Is there a "best" shape for a cocktail glass?
What is the best ABV for a spirit to use in a cocktail?
Is it better to make simple syrup by simply mixing with cold water, or simmering to dissolve, and if you simmer, is it better to simmer for a short or longer time?
How quickly does fresh lemon juice go "off", and what can you do to prevent it?
What is the best way to incorporate egg white in a drink, and what can you do to alleviate issues with salmonella?
What are some "perfect pairings" for different cocktails?
What shaking techniques work best, and why?
What is the best size of ice-cube to use?
To a certain extent, anything related to mixology which people might ask "why do it that way", or "what is the best way", could be a candidate for being looked at in a scientific manner, and thus fall under the realm of Molecular Mixology. In some cases, as the rationale and understanding of these practices and methodologies unfold, it might lead to some different, unusual, or even radical approaches.
"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" by Harold McGee
Harold McGee provides a clear and straightforward examination of the principles of cooking, and the whys and wherefores of different cooking processes and ingredients. While not directly positioned as being "Molecular Gastronomy", this book provides one of the most approachable discussions on the topic and illustrates the importance of how understanding the science of cooking can make you a better cook.
"Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor" (hardback) (paperback) by Hervé This
An extremely informative book, which carefully looks at a number of long held culinary myths, and the truths behind them. It is along the same lines as "On Food and Cooking", but many of the topics discussed here may not be as immediately applicable to a general audience.
"Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics" by Heston Blumenthal
How do you really make the best possible Fish & Chips? This, and several other long time classic preparations are carefully looked at by Mr. Blumenthal as he tries to apply the scientific practices of Molecular Gastronomy on several classic dishes. Reading through his overall research and methodologies provides an excellent insight to how Molecular Gastronomy isn't all about liquid nitrogen and foam.
Khymos: Molecular Gastronomy and the Science of Cooking http://khymos.org
A website by Martin Lersch, from Oslo, Norway. Martin has a PhD in Organometallic Chemistry, and on his site he provides a wide variety of information related to Molecular Gastronomy.
The Science of Boiling an Egg http://newton.ex.ac.uk/teaching/CDHW/egg/
Now THIS is molecular gastronomy.
Kitchen Myths http://www.pgacon.com/KitchenMyths.htm
One of the sources of inspiration for the whole Molecular Gastronomy thing, was simply to look carefully at many oft-repeated cooking "myths" and to separate the truth from the fiction. This website lists a bunch of kitchen myths and provides some details on why they are just that, myths.