by Noel Bielaczyc
The term “molecular gastronomy” generally conjures images of chefs utilizing science-based techniques and high-tech lab gadgetry like immersion circulators, vacuum sealers, dehydrators, and rotovaps to create visually arresting, palate dazzling, and expensive cuisine. While edible gels, foams and powders have become a somewhat trite symbol of the movement, the central principals remain important to the way chefs (and increasingly home-cooks) understand and create flavor. The first installment of the Gastronomy at BU Spring 2013 Lecture Series tapped professor Guy Crosby to bring his perspective as a chemist in the kitchen (rather than a chef in the lab) to illuminate some of the food science driving current cooking methodology. His talk, aptly titled Understanding and Enhancing the Flavor of Food, addressed the senses and human physiology behind tasting, the neural processes involved in perception, the basic sources of flavor in foods, and how to improve them.
It may seem obvious that foods’ edibility is based mostly on flavor (followed by appearance, texture, and nutritional value) but many people never realize that flavor is actually the combination of taste and smell. In fact, Crosby reckoned that by some estimates, smell contributes nearly 80% of the experience! Using the case of “super tasters” to segue, Crosby addressed the various ways in which we are biologically equipped to sense flavor and why sensitivity varies from person to person and flavor to flavor. Perhaps most interesting was his analysis of food cravings and how eating stimulates the brain regions associated with emotion, memory and reward. Is it a surprise that the same regions respond to sex, drugs and music? Indeed there is good science behind the irresistibility kettle chips.
The meat of Crosby’s talk addressed the sources of flavor in food and how intervention through cooking can alter and improve various aspects of taste. Crosby’s background in organic chemistry became apparent as he described how flavor could be naturally formed or physically initiated. For example crushing garlic gloves to release taste and aroma compounds or salt foods to activate certain flavor molecules. Similarly, umami can be amplified by combining specific ingredients with interacting compounds, like anchovies and mushrooms. Other foods derive their flavor from reactions, such as caramelization and the related, but distinct Maillard- Hodge reaction (the delicious browning on roasted meats and crusty breads). Crosby concluded with a note on the controversial idea of flavor pairing based on shared compounds. Anyone for strawberry and coriander gelato? These few examples represent a fraction of the existing food research, but offered an approachable & applicable introduction to the field.
The ideas and techniques of molecular gastronomy have shaped the cuisine of high-end restaurants for years, driving innovation of concept and flavor. Now, the same science and technology are increasingly being found in the home: sous-vide machines are available from William Sonoma, and the science behind better burgers appears in an article in the latest Popular Mechanics. While the take away may remind us of the “better living through chemistry” jingle, there is certainly value to anyone who cooks in understanding the science behind flavor.
For more information on Guy Crosby and why butter-poached lobster melts in your mouth, visit www.cookingscienceguy.com
Noel Bielaczyc is a first year Gastronomy MLA student and the spring 2013 editor of the Gastronomy at BU blog. He is also a fishmonger and scientific illustrator.