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April 27, 2006

The unusual suspects: a trip through the molecular pantry

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The suspense was killing me.  After finally getting my hands on the cookbook of my dreams, El Bulli: 1998-2002, I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for UPS to deliver the ingredients I needed to finally try a recipe.

First the package was stopped at the border.  "What type of chemical is fondant, sir?" asked the woman at the UPS call centre.  "And what's dextrose?  Canada Customs won't let your package cross the border until they know."

"Fondant," I explained, trying to stifle my laugh, "is not a chemical, it's more like cake icing, and dextrose is a type of sugar.  I'm going to cook with them."  Problem solved, or so I thought.

Two days later, I found myself yet again speaking with a UPS representative, this time to find out why the package they had promised to deliver that day had not arrived.  As it turned out, one of the containers had cracked during shipment -- no doubt due to the fine job Canada Customs did resealing the package -- and my box was leaking white powder.  As you can imagine, this makes people uneasy.  But I begged, I pleaded: "If there's a problem, I'll make arrangements with the shipper.  Please, just send it to me tomorrow anyway."  Thankfully, they did.

I include this tale to illustrate two important points about the ingredients found in what I call the "molecular pantry:" first, they're not easy to find; secondly, they often sound more like components of a science experiment, not recipe ingredients.

In our post on liquid pea ravioli, I promised to provide a link to a supplier of the chemicals necessary to make that dish.  The supplier is L'Epicerie, a web-based vendor of a great many hard-to-find ingredients.  In case you're wondering, I'm not affiliated with L'Epicerie in any way.  I'm just a happy customer.

While I'm at it, I thought I'd also give a brief rundown of some of the other uncommon ingredients that make it possible to cook like Ferran Adria (or at least try to).  Each ingredient contains a link to the corresponding product page on L'Epicerie.

Agar (aka Agar-Agar): An all-natural super glue that puts gelatin to shame.  Not only is it colourless and tasteless, agar gels at low concentrations, sets without refrigeration, and does not melt at temperatures below 85C/185F.  As a result, is it often used by molecular gastronomy chefs in hot preparations.  Since it's derived from algae, not animal bones, agar is an ideal gelling agent for vegetarians.  Though not common, agar can often be found in health food stores.  In Toronto, I've found it at Vital Planet, a natural foods store in the north St. Lawrence Market, and in several stores in the Kensington.

Calcium Chloride:  Essential for making liquid ravioli. It is also apparently used in the preparation of pickles and other salty foods, because it adds a salty taste without adding sodium.  Use only food grade calcium chloride when making ravioli.  It is also available from BulkFoods.com.

Citric Acid:  This is the ingredient to use when you need tartness, or acidity, or both, like when making El Bulli's transparent vanilla fruit pâté.  If you really want to have some fun with citric acid, I suggest trying your hand at homemade Fizzy Sherbets.   Also, if there are any Brits out there who'd like to help a man in need, please send me several hundred grams of Fizzy Sherbets -- there are actually two recipes in El Bulli: 1998-2002 that require them. Citric acid can usually be found in the spice section of fine food stores.  In Toronto, find it at Lively Life International Fine Foods in the St. Lawrence Market.

Fondant: Familiar to most people as the icing on wedding cakes, fondant is an indispensable ingredient in El Bulli's croquant, which is made by heating a mixture of two parts fondant, to one part each of glucose and isomalt, by weight, then heating the mixture to 160C/320F.  If you've read our posts on El Bulli's caramelized trout roe, nori croquant, or yogourt taco, then you've seen the versatility of croquant in action.

Gelatin:  This is the key ingredient in most of El Bulli's foams, including the Piña Colada and Americano cocktails. With all but a few exceptions, El Bulli's recipes call for sheet gelatin, not the powdered gelatin that is readily available in most grocery stores.  Sheet gelatin comes in varying strengths, and though not specified in the cookbook, I use 200 bloom gelatin when preparing El Bulli recipes.  "Bloom," if you've ever wondered, is a measurement of a gelatin's gelling power.  A higher bloom count indicates greater gelling ability.

Glucose (aka Dextrose): Glucose has a number of properties that differentiate if from granulated sugar (ie. sucrose): it is less sweet, and it melts and caramelizes at only 150C/300F, whereas sucrose melts at 160C/320F and caramelizes at 170C/340C.  It is indispensable when preparing recipes from El Bulli: 1998-2002, since more than one third of the 371 recipes in the book call for it.

Ice cream/sorbet stabilizer (aka Gel Glace): Stabilizer is used in many commercial ice creams to improve texture. It is used for the same purpose in molecular gastronomy, but for a slightly more noble reason: savoury ice creams and sorbets, like El Bulli's artichoke or Roquefort sorbets, don't have enough sugar to create a proper ice cream texture when frozen.  Stabilizer is needed, therefore, to prevent the finished product from having a crystallized, icey mouthfeel.

Invert Sugar (aka Trimoline): Invert sugar is a syrup comprised of approximately seventy-five percent glucose and twenty-five percent fructose.  It is made by heating sucrose in the presence of acid. Though it browns at very low temperatures, it does not crystallize.  This makes it ideal for sweet preparations that require a smooth texture, like El Bulli's transparent vanilla fruit pâté.

Isomalt (aka Palatinit): Technically a sugar substitute, Isomalt's benefits to the molecular chef are that it is less sweet than regular sugar and, more importantly, less prone to crystallization.  It also contains half the calories of sucrose, has little impact on blood sugar levels, and does not promote tooth decay.  But that's only half the story. Consumption of large amounts of Isomalt is known to cause "gastric distress" (read more here).

Pectin NH:  The key gelling agent in homemade jam is also the key gelling agent in El Bulli's transparent vanilla fruit pâté.  We recently prepared an ice cream recipe which called for pectin from Wild Sweets, a cookbook by Canadian molecular gastronomists Dominique and Cindy Duby.  The addition of pectin to ice cream is new to me, so I'd love to know why they do it.

Sodium Alginate:  An emulsifying agent derived from seaweed, it is essential to making liquid ravioli.  As I mentioned in the liquid pea ravioli post, this is the ingredient that allows McDonald's apple pie to maintain its jam-like consistency.  Use only food grade sodium alginate when making ravioli.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ingredients, but it's a pretty good start.  Besides, the key to exploring these dishes is imagination and a little knowledge.  On that note, I can't recommend highly enough Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, an indispensable guide to kitchen science and the source of much of the information I've related in this post.

If you're looking for a fun and accessible way to explore molecular gastronomy without buying expensive cookbooks and ingredients, look no further than the humble glazed donut and Moto's doughnut soup, or even El Bulli's white chocolate with pink peppercorns. For those of you who are keen to jump into the deep end of molecular gastronomy and explore the world of liquid raviolis, best of luck!  Let us know how your ravioli turn out. 

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Comments

Oliver

Hey Rob, Looks like you're all set to go. Wow, what sweet equipment to enter the depths of the molecular cuisine. I've been extremely intrigued by Ferran Adria's creations -ever since we bought his last book- and have thought about getting the necessary ingredients, but have never gotten to it. I also just discovered that the master himself put together a "starter-kit" so to speak, including all the different powders, pulvers and liquids. A bit pricy, but like I said I'm very intrigued and your post just poured oil on the fire :)

Danielle

For anyone living in NYC, you can get most of those ingredients at New York Cake Supplies at 56 W. 22nd St - http://www.nycake.com/index.asp .

Tania

I love the bit about the leaking white powder. Too funny! Well, that's quite the chemistry lab you've got set up there ... I can't wait to see what goodies you'll be whipping up!

Anita

Fantastic post Rob! I love the bit about the fondant - you can get it at many baker suppliers here - I probably would laugh too if quizzed about it!
Can't wait to see what you'll whip up in your fully-stocked laboratory!

JMG

Wow, Rob, what a great list! I got my alginate and calcium chloride from Room 4 Dessert in New York, and tried playing around with them a bit yesterday. The results weren't nearly as pretty as your pea ravioli, but it sure was fun! My first attempt is documented in this thread at eGullet.org:

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=86839&hl=

Peter

You can buy some of these chemicals at home winemaking shops.
Citric acid is a staple of homewine making.
You can buy invert sugar or it is very easy to make yourself with table sugar,water and citric acid.

Ivonne

I loved this post ... what kind of chemical is fondant ... too funny!

You are fearless in the kitchen!

Rob and Rachel ... you rule!

James Van Dyk

Thanks so much for " The molecular pantry" Indispensible for us old chefs trying to navigate through the rapidly changing fine dining world.Yet still I keep wondering about simplicity and letting food speak for itself. Pretty old school right?

Bea at La Tartine Gourmande

Hi Rob,
snif snif, what is this white powder? Such a fun post to read. A friend of mine from the Netherlands sent me an email recently telling me how excited he was after attending a cooking class where he said, he had learn so many new ways to cook food. He did not explain much so I asked whether he could share his notes, to which he responded it was called molecular gastronomy. So I was very intrigued! Between you and him, I know what I will get at L'Epicerie. On top, I just got a package from my brother in France with tons of goodies, including gelatin sheets!

Cin

The trouble you go to, Rob&Rachel! And we get to sit back & read all about it!

Btw, agar-agar can be found at pretty much any Asian grocery store cos that what's used for making Asian jelly. You can get them in plain or flavoured sachets.

J

hi rob, as always, a visit here is culinary edu-tainment at its very best - thanks so much for the introduction to the unusual suspects!

gastrochick

Hi rob

You sound like you're all raring to go.
Have you ever actually eaten at the great restaurant itself, I have been trying to get a reservation of the last couple of years.

rob

Oliver, Nicky mentioned on your blog that you had purchased El Bulli: 1998-2002. I hope you decide to dive into it soon. I think you and Nicky could do some really spectacular things. I just saw the starter kit a couple of days ago, and I'm quite intrigued. It's good to see El Bulli making its dishes ever more accessible to the public at large.

Danielle, thanks for the alternative link. FYI, L'Epicerie is based in NYC as well, but it has no bricks and mortar presence.

Thanks, Tania, my next El Bulli creation is for the Canadian blogging by post, so it's a very simple chocolate recipe.

Thanks for the info, Peter. In my research on invert sugar, I noticed it coming up a fair bit in connection with home brewing. I believe it can also be made at home with tartaric acid (aka cream of tartar).

Ivonne, we're not fearless, just curious enough to give ourselves a little push every once in a while.

Actually, James, I agree strongly with exactly what you said, and I think that the clarity of the flavours in MG dishes gets forgotten in a haze of technique. Take the liquid pea ravioli, for example. Those ravioli taste like peas, pure and simple, because they're made almost exclusively from that ingredient. It's just the funny package that throws the diner off kilter, I guess.

Bea, I'm very excited to see you try some MG dishes. You've got quite the culinary imagination, and I think you'll have a lot of fun.

Cin, thank you for the info, too. In a city like Toronto, knowing that agar can be found in Asian groceries is especially helpful.

You're very welcome, J, and thanks for stopping by.

Sadly, gastrochick, I have not eaten at El Bulli. Who knows, perhaps if I prepare and blog about enough of their dishes, they'll take pity on me and find me a table next season.

jono

rob - is there a difference between store-bought and homemade fondant? That is to say, is there a good reason to buy it from the store instead of making it from scratch (other than efficiency)?

Brett

Thanks for the great resource, Rob.

Ferran and Albert Adrià also sell their own line of all the products necessary to replicate their recipes. Here is a link to their "sferificación kit," which includes recipes for how to make things like the pea ravioli you made recently.

http://www.catalogobuffet.com/thumbs/KT-181.htm

To get to the ordering page, start on this page:

http://www.catalogobuffet.com/

then click "herramientas" (tools) in the righthand column. Then click the same word at the top of the page. Then click "productos especiales." The web site is a gastronomic bookstore located in the famous La Boqueria market in Barcelona. It's also a great resource for Spanish cookbooks from professional chefs (such as the 2005 El Bulli book - click "cocina de autor" under the heading "libros"). I haven't tried ordering from them yet, but if you do, let me know how it goes. Have fun!

Brett

Just found the main site for this product line, which they are calling "Texturas El Bulli." The website (in English) is:

http://www.texturaselbulli.com/ENG/

If you follow the links, you will even find sample recipes which use the chemicals, including one for a mango ravioli. Cheers.

rob

First, sorry for the delay in responding to your comments. I hope no one is too upset.

Jono, that's a very good question. I don't think there's any difference, but making fondant can be a real pain in the ass. That said, if you want to try it, please do so. Also, I use pouring fondant (aka "fondant patissier") not rolling fondant, which has a much firmer consistency).

Brett, thank you so much for the links. I recently saw the texturaselbulli.com link on eGullet, I believe. The catalogobuffet.com site is entirely new to me, however, and quite exciting. With so many chefs pushing culinary boundaries in Spain, there are a number of books I can't wait to see published in English. I've been fighting the urge to order a book or two in Spanish anyway, just to get some kind of peak at what these chefs are doing (Berasategui and Arzak top my list, by the way). If you find any other sites, please let me know.

keiko

Thanks for the great post, Rob! I just got the same glucose in paris, it was SO heavy.

McAuliflower

Is there an ingredient that helps make mixtures solid with heat and liquid upon reaching room temperature?

I swear I've heard of something facilitating this property, but my research isn't turning anything up.

thanks!

Libby

Did you know that L'Epicerie now references your blog on the pages for all their molecular gastronomy ingredients? Good for you!

eclectician

Hi Rob -

Thanks for the great resource - I tried clicking through to the ice cream stabilizer page from l'epicerie, and they're no longer carrying that product - do you have any idea what it actually is?

Thanks!

Michael Barnett

In the US, you can buy all the necessary ingredients at www.willpowder.net and pay with paypal. I am not affiliated with either willpowder or paypal but that is where I got mine.

Nemo

You can find some of these ingredients at:
www.redspooncompany.com

Keefieboy

Here in Madrid we have a little shop full of magic in the middle of the city, parallel to Gran Via. It's called Manuel Riesgo and stocks every chemical you could ever need for molecular gastronomy (plus a whole lot more), and the prices are very reasonable. They recently opened an online store (www.riesgoquimica.com), but it's only in Spanish and I don't know if they ship outside of Spain.

Timothy Peterson

A magic shop in Madrid? How...quaint, lol ;)

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