Whether you are a 4-star Michelin chef or an avid TV-dinner microwaver, you are a real-life chemist! Just like great strides are being made in the chemistry world as evidenced by the number of different posts this month, the science of cooking is also constantly evolving and progressing. Avant-garde chefs are now stocking their kitchens with beakers, MSDSs, and liquid nitrogen, but most notably, they have recently started to use hydrocolloids to manipulate substances that we are familiar with like mayonnaise, butter, and more!
If you are anything like the common consumer, you have probably already had your fair share of hydrocolloid gums as they are often found in low-end products like Twinkies to improve texture and shelf life. If one were to look at the list of ingredients on a frozen dinner box, you would see the culmination of the work of food chemists and their journey to ensuring extended shelf lives by using hydrocolloids as industrial stabilizers.
The science behind hydrocolloids is fairly basic. To break it down, a colloid is a suspension of particles within a substance...so, a hydrocolloid is simply a suspension of particles in water where the particles are hydrophillic molecules that bind to water and to one another. These particles slow the flow of liquid or can solidify it into a gel. Common familiar hydrocolloids are cornstarch, agar-agar, and flour. However, just like any of the various compounds we have learned about in class, hydrocolloids can vary in properties depending on their molecular structure and affinity for water which we have seen when exploring polar molecules.
A recent application of this substance includes the work of Chef Grant Achatz using the same substance that is commonly found in a petri dish - agar-agar - in combination with gelatin. Using the versatile hydrocolloid, he created transparent sheets infused with Guinness draped over a hot bed of beef short ribs. Normally, a sheet of solely gelatin would melt from the heat, but with the help of a hydrocolloid, he is able to create a sophisticated eating aesthetic. In addition to such a use, hydrocolloids have made it possible to fry mayonnaise, produce non-water leaking purees, to knot flexible foie gras, create non-melting butter in the oven, and more.
The work of these chefs is only possible with the work ethic and precision of chemists. These scientists can be found observing their multiple trials and recording the outcomes in notebooks while in the kitchen just like one would do in the lab. As hydrocolloids start to become a staple in everyday chefs' tool kits, we, the people, can start to look forward to such innovations reaching our plates!