On a recent Monday morning a group of Los Angeles chefs and bartenders metaphorically traded their chef coats for lab coats at a food science class given by Fany Setiyo of Le Sanctuaire. Neal Fraser had set up the class at Grace restaurant for chefs wishing to learn more about molecular gastronomy and how they might use these techniques in their bars and restaurants around town.

Let's just say there was a lot of science – hydrogen bonding, pH and molecular chains – it wasn't rocket science but food science comes a close second. As Evan Kleiman noted towards the end of the session “I now feel like I've had the introduction to the introduction.” When she got home from the session she posted on her Facebook page “My brain hurts.”

Setiyo, wearing a T shirt emblazoned with the words 'size does matter' proceeded to give us an introductory lesson on hydrocolloids. Setiyo explained that 'hydrocolloids' is the scientific name for a mixture in which one substance is dispersed evenly though out water. “You control the movement of the water,” said Setiyo, “you thicken it by slowing it down. When you create a gel if you stop it completely.”

Traditionally in cooking, the movement in the water has been controlled using flour, starch, pectin, agar or gelatin. However, these methods have limitations. You have to heat the fat and flour in a Roux mixture to get a sauce to thicken. “Good luck trying to get lemon juice to gel using agar” says Setiyo with a laugh as she went on to explain the limited pH range of agar agar. Setiyo never travels without her pH meter because this is one of the most important factors in getting the expected results from hydrocolloids. The litmus paper found in restaurant kitchens (to test the dishwashers) is not nearly sensitive enough. Another important factor is the level of the calcium ions, which in tap water varies from city to city. If present they will prevent the gelling agent from working, so Setiyo advises always to use filtered water or use a sequesterant, for example sodium citrate, that vacuums out the calcium ions in the tap water).

Thickeners, like flour or cornstarch, often need to be used in large quantities that compromise flavor, texture and color. Not so for these newer thickening and gelling agents. Food scientists have come up with ingredients that when used correctly and in tiny amounts (think lots of math, precision weighing and pH testings) can produce amazing results with food.

Xanthum gum, gellan gum, cellulose gum and carrageenan have been developed to act with liquids at different temperatures, a wide range of pH levels and in tiny amounts so that flavor isn't changed to form foams, elastic gels, emulsion stability and suspensions. Think hot ice cream, solid vegetarian purées to replace tofu that can be sautéed, fruit juice caviar balls, flavored foams and cocktails with suspended fruits. In the hands of creative chefs the possibilities are endless. Ferran Adrià has developed many recipes using these ingredients to surprise and delight customers at his 3 star Michelin restaurant elBuli in Spain, often referred to as the best restaurant in the world. Here in Los Angeles dinner at Providence begins with a trio of cocktails – bit size 'pieces' of a gin and tonic, a greyhound and a mojito, all made using modern techniques. José Andrés, who trained under Adrià, creates his Modern Olives at The Bazaar using an algin bath.

Neal Fraser experiments with Xanthan Gum; Credit: Lucy Lean

Neal Fraser experiments with Xanthan Gum; Credit: Lucy Lean

These modern molecular gastronomy techniques have come under fire, Colman Andrews summarized reactions to dining at elBuli for the Los Angeles Times this week. People complain they are not comfortable eating chemicals and some have gone so far as to say they are harmful when consumed, even in small quantities. Water is a chemical – H2O – as Fraser pointed out “remember the Mickey molecule in chemistry class.” Why is putting a teaspoon of baking powder in a cake to make it rise any different from adding 0.6 grams of xanthan gum to a salad dressing so that the spices are evenly suspended in the liquid?

If by chemicals these naysayers mean something made in a laboratory rather than grown in a field, these skeptics might also be interested to learn that gellan gum, that acts like agar-agar to gel, and amongst other things is the chemical used in spherification was discovered in 1978 on a lily pad in Philadelphia and is produced by bacteria fermentation (sphingomonas elodea). Xathan gum another thickening agent used in a lot of packaged foods as well as molecular gastronomy was discovered in the late fifties and is a byproduct of fermentation of cabbage leaves. Sodium alginate used to make spheres of liquid surrounded by a thin jelly membrane is extracted from the cell walls of seaweed.

The chefs at our science class seemed most interested in tapioca maltodextrin, known simply as 'malto'. This powder when combined with another ingredient using a 50:50 ratio creates an exciting flavored powder. Ludo Lefebvre recently used this to create a conversation piece, foie gras 'cocaine', at Ludobites 4.0.

If you are feeling creative and want to whip up a batch of 'caviar' at home here's a basic recipe. As for me, I'm ordering some 'malto' to make powdered Nutella with the kids inspired by David Lebovitz.

All chemicals can be ordered in small quantities from Le Sanctuaire.

Basic Recipe for Forming Beads (Spherification) using Low Acyl Gellan Gum

From: Fany Setiyo of Le Sanctuaire.

Note: You will need a pH meter, a finely calibrated gram scale and a calculator to work out the percentages.

Part A % (weight)

Water 91.30%

Sugar 7.61%

Kelcogel F Gellan Gum 0.60%

Keltrol T630 Xanthan Gum 0.22%

Sodium Hexameta Phosphate 0.27%

Part B (Flavor)

Sugar + Color

Part C (Calcium Bath) % (weight)

Water 73.64%

Sugar 12.73%

Calcium Lactate 13.63%

Part D (acid)* % (weight)

Citric Acid 50%

Water 50%

*Part D is optional, you can also use lime/lemon juice


1. Combine all the dry ingredients in Part A.

2. Add to water while stirring with a wire whisk.

3. Mix solution A for 30 minutes or until xanthan gum (Keltrol T630) is hydrated.

4. Add Part B.

5. Prepare calcium solution (Part C) by adding sugar and calcium lactate to water Mix until dissolved. Adjust the acidity by slowly adding the acid solution (Part D) until the pH is 4.0.

6. Drip the solution made from Part A and B into calcium bath (Part C and D) to form spheres. The spheres will set in the solution in a couple of minutes. Remove and rinse under water. The longer the spheres are left in the calcium bath the harder they will become and the larger the sphere the longer it will take to set.

Lucy Lean can be found at LadlesandJellyspoons.com

LA Weekly