The unusual suspects: a trip through the molecular pantry
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.