Science & Cooking

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve there’s usually a gap of 1-2 days of free time. You can either get active and enjoy the snow, wrap yourself in warm blankets and watch movies or read a book. It’s also a great opportunity to finally get on with long postponed activities. If you love to cook, this suddenly available free time allows you to further train yourself either by trying new techniques in the kitchen, or by reading good cookbooks and watching lectures given by chefs.

Harvard had a very good course called Science and Cooking this autumn featuring many modern techniques and the most influential chefs of our time. The lectures are a mix of theoretical background information presented by scientists and a practical experience demonstrated by chefs. The theory is presented in the first 15-20 minutes of the lectures by David Weitz (physics professor at Harvard) and Harold McGee, who is well known for his revolutionary book On Food and Cooking. Afterwards the greatest chefs of our time such as Grant Achatz, Joan Roca and Ferran Adria demonstrate the physics discussed before by applying several modern cooking techniques.

In the first lecture Harold McGee gives a short overview of the history of gastronomy. Afterwards, Dave Arnold, the scientific leader of the Culinary Institute of America and author of the blog Cooking Issues demonstrates several modern techniques.

Joan Roca, the chef of the 3 Michelin starred restaurant El Cellar de Can Roca, gives an introduction to the sous-vide technique and demonstrates further new cooking equipments applied in a modern kitchen. Probably the most astonishing effect presented was the clear water turning immediately into ice while pouring on a dish. This technique was applied by Grant Achatz in his lecture later on, too.

For pastry chefs and fans of chocolate the lecture held by Ramon Morató, instructor at the chocolate academy of Barry Callebaut, is a must. He demonstrates several techniques using chocolate, where he also explains each step in great detail.

Of the 14 lectures, 12-13 are great, only one presentation was very poor. From the lecture featuring thickeners, only the first minutes about the theory are worth to watch. The rest of the lecture is mainly consisting of presentations of two restaurants without any further content.

Grant Achatz, mastermind behind the 3 Michelin starred restaurant Alinea, the Next restaurant and the Aviary cocktailbar demonstrates the new world of cocktails by using several techniques of modern cuisine. Although he presents a lot of great ideas, it’s also worth to watch this lecture for the “rethinking” of the creative process of cocktails.

One of my favorite lectures was held by José Andrés about gelation. Many people are still afraid of using jelling agents of the new generation and rather stick to the old fashioned gelatin of animal origin. José Andrés demonstrates the usage of all jelling agents separately and shows some combined applications, too. Through his lively presentation he absolutely convinces everybody about the different options for jellying.

A separate lecture deals with emulsions only, presented by chefs Nandu Purbany and Carles Gaig. They not only mix several warm and cold sauces, but the resulting emulsions are also put under a microscope to observe the differences between the sauces.

Transglutaminase is an enzyme which enables literally glueing together any parts of meat to a new whole bigger piece. It’s used both by the industry and by creative chefs, like chef Wylie Dufresne from the famous wd-50 restaurant. He demonstrates several possibilities for the rational application of meat glue.

Roasting and braising both result in browning reactions which develop a lot of flavor. Carme Ruscalleda, chef of the 3 Michelin starred restaurant San Pau, demonstrates several amuse gueules served at her restaurant and all based on browning reactions. Although she doesn’t give a live demonstration and shows only video recordings, the preparation of the dishes is explained in great detail, so it’s still worth to watch.

Dan Barber‘s lecture was really an eye-opener to me and therefore it’s also one of my favorites. He takes a step back from the kitchen and explores the cultivation of plants and breeding of animals. Based on recent research results he clearly shows that our grandparents are actually right when they tell about missing flavors in todays produce. For rediscovering real flavor we need to skip conventional agriculture and recreate the vibrant network of organisms in our soils.

Besides browning reactions the most flavor in food is developed by fermentation – which is actually a controlled form of a rotting process. During fermentation microorganisms transform the food – and in some cases they develop really delicious flavors, like in bread, meat or soy sauce. David Chang, the head of the Momofuku world shows several discoveries from his ongoing research in partnership with Harvard. According to his presentation, the possibilities in microbiology are endless and he also calls it the future of cooking.

Nathan Myhrvold demonstrates several modern techniques he studied in his recently published encyclopedia Modernist Cuisine. He also presented the story of the book, which collects not only the knowledge about cooking up to nouvelle cuisine, but also summarizes all modern techniques of the last 30 years.

The lecture held by Bill Yosses, the pastry chef of the White House, demonstrates almost only techniques which were featured in previous lectures too. Compared to his lecture given last year, he seems tired and slightly unfocused in this presentation.

Finally, the originator of the Science & Cooking lecture series, Ferran Adria himself presents the development of el Bulli in the past and the current state of the transformation into the el Bulli Foundation, which will open in 2014. His very wise view and thoughts about cooking make it clearly comprehensible why humankind should invest more effort in cooking.

Apart from the aforementioned 1-2 exceptions, all lectures are packed with valuable knowledge and enrich the viewer with numerous new information. I highly recommend the lectures to everyone who likes to cook or who is interested in only one of the topics. The videos are available both on Youtube and iTunes.

2 thoughts on “Science & Cooking

  1. Robert Post author

    The lectures given by José Andrés and Dan Barber are my favorites, but they are all worth to watch (except for the one about thickeners). I hope you find them interesting too.
    I’ve read only parts of On Food and Cooking. But I read similar books like Molecular Gastronomy by Hervé This and German books about kitchen physics by Thomas Vilgis – they are great too.

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