Note by Note Cooking: The Future of Food

In an attempt to move the blog away from the virus and nutrition, I have veered off into a different topic this month by reviewing Note by Note Cooking by Hervé This. And, yes ‘This’ is really his last name. Note-by-note cooking is an extension of molecular gastronomy. Since I am not a foodie and not a commercial chef, neither molecular gastronomy nor note-by-note cooking resonates with me as a food scientist. I saw some episodes of a television series on molecular gastronomy. Oddly enough, as a food chemist, I thought it was pushing the envelope and me out of my comfort zone. I must admit that his positions on additives and processing in this book align with mine. His note-by-note concept takes his molecular proclivities to the next level. Responding to his words in bold:

“Culinary activity physically assumes the form of a series of operations: cutting, heating, grinding, filtering, evaporating, assembling, melting, blending, emulsifying, mixing, expanding—exactly the same things, as it happens, that are done in the marvelous field of chemistry.” (p.1) In food processing we call these steps as unit operations. Many of these steps affect the physical and chemical properties of the food itself whether it is at home, in the restaurant kitchen, or at a manufacturing plant. For example, emulsifying permits the mixing of oils and water to keep the food from separating out. In baking egg yolks serve as the emulsifying agent. Recipes are used to guide the mixture of ingredients in the home or restaurant kitchen. A formulation, a more precise, scientific form of a recipe, leads to the preparation of a formulated food in the manufacturing plant.

Each ingredient in a recipe or formulation performs at least one important function in the final dish or product. We call these characteristics functional properties of the ingredient. The chemical and physical properties of the chemical components within each ingredient affect its functional properties. It is lecithin, aka phosphatidylcholine, that allows the egg yolk to function as an emulsifying agent. The safety of emulsifying agents, particularly those that have chemical-sounding names, has come into question. Does that mean we should also be concerned about phosphatidylcholine in egg yolks? Culinology is a field that brings together the skills and techniques of chefs and scientists to prepare unique dishes and food products. Culinologists and food product developers know and understand the functional properties of the ingredients they use to provide unique color, consistency, and flavor sensations in each dish or product they design.

“In recent years fearmongers—for that frankly is what they are—have shamelessly sought to take advantage of a certain mood of ignorant naturalism in order to make people believe that additives are dangerous. But isn’t there more danger in a barbequed piece of meat than in xanthan gum?” (p.99) Readers of this site will know that this statement is music to my ears. As I used to stress to my food science classes “Everything we put into our mouths is chemical.” I was challenged on this statement one day by a student after class. I asked her to name one thing that she put into her mouth that was not chemical. She thought for a moment and then responded, “I put a spoon in my mouth and that is not chemical!” We live in a society that is chemically challenged. It makes much more sense to me to try to understand what chemicals we put into our mouths, which ones are beneficial, which can be toxic, and at what levels of consumption.

The two areas where food scientists differ from real people are the presence of chemicals in our food and the factors that contribute to food safety. Food scientists challenge the assumption that natural is always better. David Rakoff, not a food scientist nor an apologist for Big Food, perhaps said it best when he wrote in Fraud:

There is almost no more urban view of nature than this pastoral, idyllic one: Humankind bad, Nature good. But, it’s a false dichotomy. After all, following this logic, Sistine chapel bad, Ebloa virus good?

Or as he might say today, Vaccines bad, Coronavirus good.

“Polyols can be used as sweeteners, but also as emulsifiers, stabilizers, moisturizers, thickeners and texturizers. Unlike sucrose they do not cause dental cavities, and their caloric content is low—whence their appeal as an ally in combating obesity.” (p.139) Polyols represent the P in a low-FODMAP diet. The most prominent one is sorbitol but the list also includes xylitol and mannitol. These compounds are found in processed foods and sugarless gum. Anyone wishing to avoid polyols can quickly scan ingredient labels on packaged foods or note the warning label. Polyols also occur naturally in apples, apricots, blackberries, mushrooms, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, snow peas, and sweet corn, none of which come with ingredient statements.

It is generally easy to find lactose- and gluten-free dishes in a restaurant, but it would be much more difficult to order polyol-free items. Given the problems associated with polyols, I am not a proponent of using them in commercial or home recipes. As far as combating obesity, I think that concept is a stretch, particularly since their use as sweeteners is dwarfed by aspartame, acesulfame K and sucralose.   

“A dish must be constructed in such a way that its sensory effects will be registered over a succession of moments since perception of flavor is an enduring sensation—or should be one if it is not.” (p.146) Here I am out of my league as I have no culinary training. As a food scientist I have an appreciation for lingering flavor sensations from Flavor Profile Analysis and from running sensory panels, primarily on whole fruits or vegetables. When I was teaching Chocolate Science, I described the series of sensations I experienced when eating a Naga Bar from Vosges. The first sensation is typical milk chocolate followed soon thereafter by a rush of sweet curry and then a wonderfully mellow aftertaste.

8-pack of peanut butter cups
Reese’s milk chocolate
Dove dark chocolate and peanut butter product
A perfect blend!

Although I cook for my family every day, I have no skills to achieve such a progression of gustatory sensations in my dishes. Not only is this cascade of flavor delights important for a food, it can be extended to a meal such that the flavor effects are complementary and not in conflict. Such is the rationale for wine pairings. Back to chocolate, I have tried the dark-chocolate Reese’s peanut butter cups. I love both dark chocolate and peanut butter, but the two sensations tend to be fighting each other in my mouth in these dark cups! Product developers at Dove, however, have found the right combination of ingredients to blend the two flavors.

“we are witnessing the early stages of an obesity pandemic because our bodies were not designed to cope with the abundance of foods presently available to us and because older styles of cooking, which developed in an world of far more limited resources than today, are no longer appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves.” (p.202) The author further proclaims that “traditional foods are no guarantee of good health.My initial reaction to this quote is that before CoVID-19 we may have used the term pandemic too loosely. Is obesity a pandemic, an epidemic or what? It is interesting that despite their disagreement on almost everything else, both Hervé This and Bee Wilson in The Way We Eat Now agree on the cause of obesity. I tend to think that both This and Wilson have greatly over-simplified obesity and its causes. I believe that the causes and problems associated with obesity are much too complex to tag with such a simple explanation.

“I maintain that what we need is more chemistry, not less; more knowledge, not less, about how atoms can be rearranged and manipulated for the benefit of mankind.” (p.219) At the beginning of the book the author ties himself in knots trying to make a distinction between a molecule and a chemical, presumably because the latter has negative connotations. As we progress through the book, the terms ‘chemical’ and ‘chemistry’ seem to become less objectionable. He urges us to delve deeper into the chemistry of all things, particularly with respect to food. By understanding chemistry we are able to distinguish between the healthful, the harmful, and the functional aspects of chemicals that could end up in our food. He declares that cooks are always wishing to push the envelope as far as flavor, color, consistency, and presentation to provide unique eating experiences for their clientele. It is by applying chemistry to cooking that allows new possibilities in sensory stimulation.

Summary. As a food scientist with a specialty in food chemistry I embrace many of the underlying assumptions in Note-by-Note Cooking. The idea that chemicals in foods are hazardous to our health ignores the reality that everything in the universe short of a vacuum is composed of chemicals. Critics of processed foods have been scaring eaters for decades from wholesome food through inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims about the effects of food chemicals. Hervé This takes on such arguments head on. I am not sure if note-by-note cooking and molecular gastronomy will ever be more than a novel trend, but it does bring the pursuit of culinary arts and food chemistry closer together. The rest of the month on this site will be devoted to the interface between the art and science of food.    

3 thoughts on “Note by Note Cooking: The Future of Food

  1. Having lived many years in France and having the privilege of a a year of private cooking for a lovely lady who lived just outside of Paris, I’m full of admiration for how the French eat and how the French cook. I admit however to have not been inspired by the theory of molecular gastronomy. So this was the first time I actually took a look. Watched a couple UTube videos featuring Hervé This and checked out what he has to say on Twitter. When he talks, he is bursting with curiosity and passionate about understanding why. Why for example a whip emulsifies mayonnaise better than a wooden spoon. Listening to him explain his love of science, he makes the very clear distinction between the science of cooking and the art of cooking. As he put it, cuisine is for eating and we do it for love. I was also able to determine from an Twitter exchange from 2019 that he is not a fan of the NOVA food classification system. As for the science of molecular gastronomy, I’m not any more tempted now that I was before my search.

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