Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Just what is this "hydrocolloid" thing all about?
My aunt Aleli (the food chemist) has an absolutely brilliant definition of hydrocolloids. One, that if I were to memorize, would absolutely blow you away with my Ivy League education and chemist credentials up the wazoo. Unfortunately for you, my gentle readers, I wasn't the summa cum laude of the family...
I barely graduated from prep school.
And hacked the grading computers in college.
But what I can tell you, in very simple terms, is that hydrocolloids are basically thickening and gelling agents that were originally designed for industrial food applications. In a nutshell, they help things stay or stick together. Ever wondered why your commercial coffee syrups (or Log Cabin, for that matter) were so thick and viscous? Lots of sugar, maybe? Nope. That viscosity can be achieved using a hydrocolloid like Xanthan Gum (a corn derivative).
Or maybe how does that Hungry Man Salisbury Steak stay together when it looks like fecal mush? Could be Methylcellulose doing it's thing.
But what does this have to do with food or coffee?
Some of you might be familiar with the term "molecular gastronomy" - that interesting, intellectually stimulating, imagination capturing and just plain weird method of making haute cuisine pioneered by Ferran Adria of El Bulli and carried on at places like Minibar, Alinea and WD-50. Much of this approach is due to the successful use of industrial chemicals, like the hydrocolloids, to make new and novel restaurant dishes and tasting menus.
Unlike its' portrayal in television shows like Ugly Betty or King of Queens, Queens, New York seems to be a pleasant, tree-lined suburb rather than some urban neighborhood in America's largest city. Strolling down this almost idyllic street lined with trees and grass, one gets the feeling that something exciting is about to happen.
Spike and I are in Queens to attend a class on hydrocolloids by Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa, the two rock star chefs who run Ideas In Food. If you've never read Ideas In Food, you should. It's one of my favoites and it's filled with weird, strange, odd and tasty-looking experiments in food. For the initiated, they're the ones playing with things like C-Vap, sous vide, molecular and more. Strolling up to their two-story walk-up in Queens is like knocking on Simon LeBon's door. An odd feeling that, maybe, you're not supposed to be there because they're "rock stars" and well, you're not.
Alex answers the door and he's a friendly fellow who warmly welcomes us into their home. We're the first students there so there's that slightly awkward feeling that comes when you're the first people to arrive. So...the weather's pretty nice... How 'bout them Yankees...?
Turns out that there will only be three of us today which means there will be a bit more interaction than with a larger group. The other student, Max, arrives a few minutes later and we're off to the races.
We're seated in the dining room and as we begin, I'm amazed by their library of cookbooks. I mean, I've got a lot of cookbooks, Spike has a nice collection, the Baltimore County Public Library in Towson (and home to The Spro) has an extensive collection, but Aki and Alex have got us all beat. The dining room is floor to ceiling filled with cookebooks - on all four walls. It's impressive. It's amazing. They even have the El Bulli collection - dammit! Alex offers to sell any of us the Spanish language El Bulli books and while I'm tempted, I have to admit that my Espanol sucks.
It's an intense three hours, filled with tons of information and loads of ideas. There was discussion of a dehydrated cheese disk that melts in the mouth and thoughts of "dried coffee" came to mind. My experience with hydrocolloids has been minor, with limited applications using agar-agar and xanthan gum. Max, however, is fresh from a stage at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck in Bray, and seems to be well-versed in how these hydrocolloids are used in fine dining applications.
What may surprise many of you is the amount used to thicken or gel the items. Typically ranging from .1% to .4% (in ratio to the product), there is rarely an example when you would use more than half a percent. It seems like minute quantities, but when you start going over .4%, things can get a bit hairy.
Basic math skills are a necessity. As is a gram scale - one that can measure to the hundreth of a gram would be best. Oh, and a pen and scratch paper as well, cause there's a bit of calculation (a calculator helps) going on to figure out the proper weights.
Aki hangs out nearby as Alex handles the instruction. The pace is relaxed while imparting a blizzard of information. Some of it technical, most of it easy to follow along and understand. And if you wanted to get geeky about it, there's a couple texts that delve hardcore into the science of hydrocolloids - like if my Aunt Aleli were to be in attendance. He level of scientific discussion is always above my pay grade.
The two of them have got an easy patter. There's a bit of ribbing between them that comes from years of togetherness and their expertise shines through without pretense. It's a great time but I wish I could absorb and assimilate the data faster.
Throughout the session, there are examples on how to use each hydrocolloid. A gelling of carrot puree, of team and more. Problem is that I really need to sit down for a couple hours and compile my thoughts. A couple hours to myself being outside the scope of my reality lately.
As we progress, I make mental notes for my new shopping list: connections at CPKelco, call Le Sanctuaire, call ADM, buy a new VitaPrep blender, CookTek Induction burner, more scales, The Handbook of Hydrocolloids and tons of chemicals. While touring the WD-50 kitchen the night before, we spied a literal wall of chemicals used to create our foods. Time for a little shopping.
After class, Aki took us on a tour of their kitchen. It's a small deal but one chock-filled with toys that warm the heart and excited the soul. I mean, how many people do you know with a Berkel vacuum sealer, PacoJet, immersion bath and CVap cabinet in their home kitchens? It's what I want to have when I grow up!
After a few lingering moments and promises to keep in touch, we're back on this urban suburban road, collecting our thoughts and plotting lunch.
The lingering question in our minds is: how does this apply to what we do? Neither of us run a molecular gastronomy kind of place (at least not yet). Woodberry Kitchen is a down-home kind of cuisine while The Spro is mostly a coffee shop with a little experimentation, but not much.
For me, the techniques are exciting but the USBC states that a signature drink must be "drinkable." Which means that creating a "Cappuccino Knot" is out of the question. Although, that "Coffee Disk" that melts in the mouth might be a viable alternative.
But this is what separates the Men from the Boys and the Wheat from the Chaff. Time to study hydrocolloids more, figure out how to use it in our context and get to work.