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Edible experiments

(article, Liz Crain)

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The simple act of transforming sugar into caramel can keep Martin Lersch of Oslo, Norway, up until the wee hours. Not that he's slow in the kitchen; rather, he likes to understand how things work, and often conducts in-depth culinary experiments. In other words, he's fascinated with molecular gastronomy and shares his zeal with readers around the world on his blog, Khymos. 
Lersch, an organometallic chemist by profession, started his blog in August 2006. Under the Khymos name, Lesch also maintains a more static website focused on molecular-gastronomy resources. 
p(blue). Blog: Khymos
Average posts per month: 8
Blogger: Martin Lersch
Age: 30
Blog place of origin: Oslo, Norway
Things you may learn while visiting Lersch's blog: humans cannot be allergic to MSG
because our bodies need glutamic acid to function properly; our tongues have approximately 10,000 taste buds that are replaced every one to three weeks; and salt at low concentrations enhances sweet tastes.
What kitchen habits have you had to break after scientific evidence debunked them?
The fact that searing is not sealing when I fry meat. This was a myth I learned many years ago which Harold McGee proved to be wrong. The sad thing is that many cookbooks still call for sealing meat at high temperatures. It is true that you should use high temperature, but this has only to do with flavor and the Maillard reaction \[the chemistry of meat browning in a pan\]. There is no sealing effect.
How does your own chemistry expertise influence your kitchen endeavors?
Because I've worked in chemistry labs for many years, I often think about cooking in terms of chemical transformations. It's hard to leave the scientific method behind when I enter a kitchen.

[%image reference-image float=left width=350 caption="Without your sense of smell, apples and pears taste the same." credit="Photo courtesy Martin Lersch"]
In the lab, I perform control experiments, and I believe this should be done more often in the kitchen. To do this, you cook several versions of the same dish with slight variations, followed by a blind tasting to see if the variations are significant. If they are, you decide which ones tastes better.
What's your kitchen like?
It's been quite a mess over the weekend. We picked a lot of cherries for freezing and to make jam. I also put some whole cherries in jars and covered them with vodka in order to make a cherry brandy.
What kitchen implements are invaluable to a cook of your lab-minded persuasion?
Despite the increasing popularity of class IV lasers (conventionally used surgically or for welding), vacuum-sealed Dewar flasks filled with liquid nitrogen, Gastrovacs (low-temperature vacuum cookers), Anti-Griddles (quick freezers), Pacojets (specialized ice cream and sorbet machines), and other expensive equipment, I try to persuade people that these are not essential for molecular gastronomy. 
I'd say it makes more sense to approach normal, everyday cooking with scientific reasoning. I think the single most important tool which can improve your cooking is a thermometer, preferably one with a digital readout. A lot of cooking is about temperature-induced changes.
What food mysteries do you think molecular gastronomy can’t crack?
The whole process of preparing, eating, sensing, and enjoying food involves tremendously complex chemistry, physics, and biochemistry. For me, it's interesting to speculate about flavor pairings. A lingering question is, Why do we like to eat food in certain combinations only? Is it cultural, or is biology involved as well? Is our brain programmed for certain combinations?

Talk about the food-blog event you host.
They Go Really Well Together is a food-blogging event that I started where the objective is to come up with new recipes for food pairings that share one or more key odorants (substances that stimulate the sense of smell). Each month a new combination is presented. 
Among my own creations, so far I've been most satisfied with my foamy strawberries with coriander. I went for a sweet combination, but many of the participants came up with savory dishes. It's really fun to see them try completely new and perhaps strange combinations in the kitchen, and amusing to read about how the tastes come out.

What family foods were you raised on?
I grew up in a multicultural setting, so I ate a lot of European, American, and Asian food. My favorite dish when I was young was a tomato-based sauce with minced meat and onions, seasoned with garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, vinegar, sugar, beef stock, salt, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce. It's served with rice, grated Parmesan, and steamed broccoli. The balance between savory, sour, salt, and sweet is perfect, and the colors are great. Needless to say, it's still one of my favorites.
What's a good molecular-gastronomy experiment for a newbie to try at home?
An easy experiment which illustrates the difference between taste and smell is to prepare equally sized cubes of apple and pear. Hold your nose, close your eyes, and taste them randomly. You won't be able to tell the difference, but once you let go of your nose you can tell within a fraction of a second.
I would also recommend a DIY sous-vide. And if you can get hold of the ingredients, it's quite fun to make alginate spheres.


h1. Liz's favorite posts

1. Banana marshmallows with parsley
2. Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy
3. First experiments with sodium alginate
4. TGRWT #1 roundup: coffee, chocolate, garlic

Another topic which I haven't explored in detail myself yet is how mincing, slicing, or crushing influences the taste of garlic. Many have strong opinions \[on this\], but is there really a difference? In order to determine this yourself you would need to do some parallel cooking and perform a blind tasting of the resulting dishes. There are already some reports available about this, but it's an interesting question and a good topic for kitchen experimentation.
How often do you debunk a personal food myth?
Many kitchen myths have already been debunked by the pioneers within molecular gastronomy: Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti. I think the last myth I proved to be wrong in my own kitchen is that cast-iron pots do not stay warm longer than stainless-steel pots.
If you could teach neophytes one thing about molecular gastronomy, what would it be?
On my blog I've started a series with 10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy, and so far I've covered six topics. But if I were to choose only one of them, I think it would be that you should use good and fresh raw materials of the best quality available. 
You might complain that there's nothing molecular about that, but no amount of cooking and preparation — be it traditional, modern, or molecular — can fully disguise ingredients of poor quality. Also, I think it's important that the technical aspects of molecular gastronomy don't overshadow the food.

p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Elsewhere on Culinate: An article about molecular gastronomy.

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