The admirable new world of Molecular Gastronomy

Green broth foam, jelly with the flavor of “Bulhão Pato clams”, topped with some balls of liquid nitrogen ice cream. Tell him something? Come with us on a journey through the extraordinary world of molecular gastronomy, where chemistry reigns and the only limit is the imagination.


Everything is chemistry

Even though we are often not aware of this, the creative process is something that transcends practically everything we do. It's part of human nature. Not all of us have the nickname “da Vinci”, “Einstein” or “Newton”, but it is certain that even in more basic tasks such as managing household accounts, planning vacations or even lying, cognitive neuroscience tells us that creating is part of us. Intrinsically.

Molecular gastronomy, a trend that increasingly invades the work tables of many chefs, is also an example of the wonderful world of the creative process. Briefly, it can be defined as the “manipulation of ingredients through techniques that explore their physical or chemical properties”. It seems complicated, but trying to simplify it can be said that it is nothing more than making scientific something that has always been done in a more or less empirical way, opening up a universe of new possibilities with the use of cutting-edge techniques and technology.

But the question must be asked: is it that, in practice, and from the “user's perspective” (or the diner, in this case), is it so important to understand the metaphysics of grandmother's soup or the incomparable chocolate mousse that the aunt used to bring to the Christmas holidays? Can we see the way in which beans react chemically with the cabbage inside the pot or the chocolate with the egg whites “in a castle”? Not really, but only and only as consumers of the final product. Cooking is, and has always been, molecular, because in truth everything that is matter is composed of molecules and chemical reactions have always existed. Even in the scrumpped-up soup of her grandmother who had the gift of awakening the senses.


For those who study this phenomenon, it proved important at some point to take a new step, to open a new window of knowledge. And it was long ago that this journey began to discover and study a new world of techniques that take advantage of the physical or chemical properties of foods and their interactions. A path that sought to bring modernity and technology to the traditional, to reset prejudices and to join hands with science.

Although there are reports of older and somewhat dispersed experiences with the science applied to cooking, the paternity of molecular gastronomy is almost unanimously attributed to the duo composed of Nicholas Kurti, a Hungarian chemist (1908-1998), and by Hervé This, a French physicist and chemist (born in 1955), the paternity of molecular gastronomy, with the publication of several studies on the subject and their definitive affirmation in 1988, after jointly analyzing more than 10 thousand (!) traditional cuisine recipes. “It is worrying that more is known about the temperature inside the stars than about the temperature inside a well-refined souffle plate,” is a well-known statement by Nicholas Kurti, revealing that something new was about to arrive, after dedicating a good part of his life to seeking to understand the nature of food. The work of both shattered many myths, some ancient, about the way in which food is treated. In reality, what is also at issue is scientifically demonstrating whether the practices applied over generations are correct or not. And for that, it is necessary to test foods and recipes thoroughly, in order to understand what is right or wrong in the preparation process.

Simple tasks such as setting a food on fire involve a chemical complexity that is not visible to the naked eye. When we provide heat, there is a reaction at the level of the molecules - we increase their speed, forcing them to collide with each other and alter their molecular structure. New molecules then appear and there are changes in color, flavor and texture. A Spanish chemist studied, for example, the influence that cooking has on green beans from a molecular point of view.

From the laboratory to the plate

The growth of molecular gastronomy (or “techno-emotional”, as some call it) peaked in the 90s and 2000s. The main drivers of this movement, who decisively contributed to consolidating its presence in the kitchens of many restaurants around the world, were Ferran Adriá, owner of El Bulli (currently closed on the outskirts of Barcelona) and Heston Blumenthal, responsible for Fat Duck (west of London).

More like laboratories, their kitchens were the scene of creations that go down in the history of world cuisine and whose techniques are now used in many restaurants around the globe. “Gelling”, “spherification”, “liquid nitrogen” or the “siphon” technique are some of the tools used to create innovative and surprising shapes and textures, respecting as much as possible the virtues and flavor of each ingredient.

Just as a carpenter needs nails and a hammer, chefs also had to equip themselves with new tools to carry out their creations. Torches, precision scales, rotary evaporators, beech sawdust for smoking, or even a pot that automatically turns the meat when the temperature inside reaches a certain temperature, making it softer and cooked to the point in the shortest time, are some of the examples that make up the set of utensils that exist today in many kitchens around the world.

Portugal is no exception

The echo of this new trend was not long in coming in Portugal either. Not only are there already several restaurants and chefs that practice molecular gastronomy, but there are several ways to start learning and get to work.

The Living Science Agency, an entity integrated into the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture, is one of the most active entities in this area. On the respective website it is possible to find support materials produced by researchers, including recipes.

For those who want to take the subject more seriously, there are several training possibilities on the subject, either in Portugal or in other countries such as Germany, Australia, Denmark, Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland.

On a kitchen bench or on a plate, whatever form it may be, it now remains to experience the admirable new world of molecular gastronomy!

Discover more

Water, source of life and progress
Electrolysis: From school benches to a sustainable future
Chemistry of comfort
Discoveries that changed Humanity