Cold oil spherification…..mwahahahahaha…oh…sorry..I have a tendency to get a little bit melodramatic at times when it comes to cooking. But one tends to do that when dealing with molecular gastronomy. After all, its all about the show with this discipline of cooking.
Molecular gastronomy is a sub discipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. Its program includes three axis, as cooking was recognized to have three components, which are social, artistic and technical. Molecular cuisine is a modern style of cooking, and takes advantage of many technical innovations from the scientific disciplines.
The term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1988 by late Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti and the French INRA chemist Hervé This. Some chefs associated with the term choose to reject its use, preferring other terms such as multi sensory cooking, modernist cuisine, culinary physics, and experimental cuisine.
As we all know, cooking itself is chemistry. Regardless of what you are doing there are always complex chemical reactions happening in food. Making a simple vinaigrette is a chemical reaction. The browning of meat triggers the Maillard reaction. Caramelizing sugar to form the crispy crust on a creme brulee. It’s all chemistry. And you don’t always need fancy expensive gadgets to do it. Sometimes all you need is a tall glass filled with ice cold vegetable oil, a syringe, some gelatin and a liquid of your choice.
This past weekend I spent a majority of my time experimenting with spherification. Spherification is the culinary process of shaping a liquid into spheres usually using sodium alginate and either calcium chlorate or calcium glucate lactate, which visually and texturally resemble roe (caviar). Now you dont necessarily need all those fancy chemicals to achieve this. It can also be done with a product called Agar Agar. Agar Agar is a vegetarian gelatin substitute produced from a variety of seaweed vegetation. It is sold in health food stores in both flake and powder varieties, and can be used in a variety of dairy-free and vegan recipes as a stabilizing and thickening agent for custards,puddings, sauces and even vegetarian marshmallows and when used in the right way can also make liquid pearls.
How do you achieve spherification using gelatin? By using extremely and I mean EXTREMELY cold oil (either vegetable or olive). The cold oil spherification method consists of cooling droplets of a hot agar solution below 35 ˚C (95 ˚F) by releasing them in cold oil using a syringe or pipette. Agar agar needs to be heated to boil for jelling and sets at a temperature of about 35-45 ˚C (95-113 ˚F). The droplets need to cool down and set before they reach the bottom of the cold oil container to keep a nice spherical shape. The amount of agar will differ based off the acidity level of your choice liquid but most recipes call for at least 1 teaspoon. The reason for the tall glass is that the droplets need a longer period of time to travel through the cold fluid in order to completely solidify. If dropped in a short glass by the time they hit the bottom they run the risk of bursting and becoming a rather gooey mess which hey might be tasty but from an artistic technical stand point is a huge flop. Can’t find Agar Agar? Gelatin sheets also work but make sure you bloom them (soften them) prior to incorporating them with your liquid.
For this experiment I went with just random run of the mill items found in my house. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sorry about the quality of the photos, my camera was being flaky. The recipe will be listed below. Before I begin I will state that measurements are everything with this process. If you don’t use enough of the gelatin in the boiling phase you run the risk of not getting a solid in the end. I eventually for the sake of it went out and purchased a digital scale for around $20 at Target to make sure I got the right increments. If you don’t feel like doing that then it will be a process of trial and error.
I was able to find Agar Agar powder rather easily at my neighborhood International Food Market Jays. I’m using balsamic vinegar as my liquid and EVOO as my suspension fluid. I started the process by placing around 1.5 cups of olive oil in a tall glass and placed in in the freezer for about 45 minutes. Now anyone who knows me knows that when I experiment with something the first time I get all anxious and can’t wait the full amount of time so I pulled it out at 30 minutes. Needless to say the early extraction was evident in the final product.
I measured out 100 grams (7 oz) of balsamic vinegar (see why a scale is helpful?) and brought it to a low boil. Once bubbles were achieved i added 1.5 oz of Agar Agar powder and whisked for two minutes until thoroughly combined. Then I had to wait, again, for five minutes. The point of the waiting is to allow the liquid to cool to roughly 50-55 C (120-130 F) is due to the fact that if the liquid is to hot upon entering the oil the droplets may not cool down completely before reaching the bottom. This causes deformed beads, again not a bad thing but when its about the aesthetic of end result its vital.
After the cool down process (around 5-6 minutes) you want to load up your pipette, syringe, squeeze bottle, whatever you are using as your method of delivery. Place the bottle at a 90 degree angle around 6 inches above the top of the glass and slowly squeeze in your cooled gel liquid. The heights is also important if your glass isn’t tall enough as it provides additional travel space to cool down prior to hitting the oil. Also it increased the air speed velocity of your liquid (anyone get the reference? anyone at all? Please god say someone did) will cause the drops to submerge themselves. To close and they will hover on the top and not sink. Move your bottle around slowly to ensure appropriate distribution of your pearls. Once done, take a strainer and pour out your pearls rinsing them completely under cool water. This is to remove the access oil from the final product.
After they are rinsed you want to make sure to dry them off gently with a paper towel before using. As I rushed my first batch of pearls I opted to not show the final product because well they were kinda slimey, tasted great but again aesthetically not to grand. These however were the sriracha pearls I made which I was more patient with and although there are some inconsistencies with size and shape the method was better.
All in all it was a success and something fun to do to pass the time. I plan on continuing to make these end implementing other methods such as reverse spherification which causes a skin on the outside of the liquid but maintains a liquid core. If you want to learn more about molecular gastronomy, especially spherification please click the link below. With just a few basic ingredients you can turn something as simple as sriracha into something unique and different 🙂 Remember you are only as limited as your imagination 🙂
- 100 g (7 oz) Balsamic Vinegar
- 1.5 g (1.5%) Agar Agar
- 1 cup of oil, cold from being in the freezer for at least 60 minutes
Sriracha Vinegar Pearls Ingredients
- 50 g (3.5 oz) Sriracha sauce
- 50 g (3.5 oz) chicken stock or water
- or replace the above with 100 g of the desired liquid***
- 1.5 g (1.5%) Agar Agar
- 1 cup of oil or enough to fill tall glass, cold from being in the freezer for at least 1 hour
***if using something with a high acidity level you may need to increase the amount of Agar Agar. I found with pineapple juice it required at least 2.5 teaspoons of Agar Agar to achieve gelification.