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The Science Behind the Art of Cooking

06 July 2011 Teagasc

Dr Juan Valverde believe that Molecular Gastronomy (a scientific discipline that studies what happens when we cook) has a lot of untapped potential in Ireland.

Molecular Gastronomy is a scientific discipline that studies what happens when we cook.  “For example, an egg cooked at exactly 68°C has the texture of cream and a sorbet cooked in liquid nitrogen is superbly velvety,” explains Dr Juan Valverde, a Research Officer at Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown. “I believe that there is the potential, and the market, to rapidly develop molecular gastronomy here in Ireland,” says Dr Valverde.

In Teagasc, for example, several projects have developed results that could be readily applied to small-scale food industries such as restaurants, catering companies and hotels before being up-scaled for bigger food industries. This could have a great impact on the way chefs cook now and in the future and, therefore, how the food industry in general approaches innovation. Under the auspices of a European Union-funded project (ISAFRUIT) being carried out in Teagasc under the supervision of Dr. Nigel Brunton, edible coatings for fresh-cut fruit products have been used to develop fresh-cut probiotic products. The knowledge generated in this project can be used to develop hundreds of innovative products. “Imagine the amount of different combinations that could be generated by the simple combination of different fruits covered in a layer of a tasty gel; it is the ultimate 21st century fruit salad, combining taste and texture,” says Dr Valverde.

In the same project, the use of high pressure processing (an alternative to heat for cooking) on fruit juices and purees could provide caterers with exciting new products that would better retain the flavours of fresh products.

“This is very useful for caterers that need to re-invent dishes constantly, with almost the same products and, at the same time, pay attention to food safety. High pressure products better retain the freshness and raw attributes of fruits and vegetables, keeping them safe for consumers. This is because microorganisms burst at high pressures, while very little happens to the fruit or vegetable. This represents an interesting alternative to the rather dull sterilised and canned vegetable products that are commonly used. Heston Blumenthal, the well-known chef of the Fat Duck Restaurant in Bray, UK, uses this technique to completely extract the flesh from lobsters. Can you imagine the amount of time and money that a chef/caterer could save? Apart from the direct consequences for our taste buds!”

Many other ongoing or finished projects carried out in Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, have gathered and generated knowledge that can be applied for the same purposes. “For example, one project is looking for alternatives to the use of salt in prepared foods (Irish daily intake of salt is among the highest in Europe). Salt has an extremely negative impact on cardiovascular health; therefore, alternative taste enhancers are necessary to provide tasty but healthier food. Alternatives are being explored through the use of natural extracts.”

“It is estimated that only 20% of a tasting experience comes from taste, which is perceived in the tongue, and detects only sweet, salt, sour or bitter (not considering umami as a taste). However, 80% comes from smell. We have around 5-10 million receptors capable of detecting smell, while we only have 9,000 to detect taste. This means that we have a lot of space to stretch our culinary ideas!”

Some odd food–flavour combinations have been shown to give surprising results. There is a whole branch of science studying the reasons for these strange but perfect marriages (e.g., strawberry and coriander, pineapple, blue cheese and white wine, or oysters and kiwi fruit). Dr Juan Valverde said; “In a country where the quality of ingredients is superb, and where people are so passionate about and proud of their food, a stronger effort from all players – researchers, industry, government bodies and professional associations – should be made in 2011 to put Ireland’s gastronomy on the international map. This could, similarly to Spain or Denmark, help to develop Ireland’s gastronomic tourism, targeting high-income tourists willing to spend money on Irish-grown and processed products.

“According to Ireland’s Restaurant Association, 63,000 people work in the restaurant sector and it is worth €2bn. Meanwhile, there are only five restaurants with Michelin stars in the Republic of Ireland and, to date, none of them is in the top 50 restaurants list compiled by St. Pellegrino every year. The future looks promising; let’s not waste the opportunity. Bon appetit, or should I say Bain taitneamh as do bhéil!” 

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