Spherifications, gelations, foams, hydrolosates… The cuisine that nowadays enjoys worldwide success has created new textures previously unknown to the human palate, thanks to the incorporation of procedures born in the laboratory. The new chefs have not abandoned all the art and inspiration that cooking has, but within their kitchens they have also opened up a space for science. Modern culinary techniques transform food by physical and chemical processes that go far beyond the simple use of fire. At the forefront of this innovative trend is the so-called molecular cuisine, which others prefer to call techno-emotional, vanguard or, simply, new.
Perhaps the most popularly known facet of the new cuisine is its ability to surprise by means of textures and presentations that at times play with surprise and misperception: potatoes that look like river stones, olive oil caviar or hot ice cream. But beyond this, is it possible to create new flavours?
The question is not trivial; according to the current scientific consensus, the taste buds on our tongue are only able to detect five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). The existence of these basic tastes is based on a biochemical interaction of molecules or ions with receptors on the cells of the papillae. But we also know of a number of additional taste sensations, such as spicy, calcium, fat or metallic, among others. The physiology of taste still hides many secrets, but it is known that the trigeminal nerve is involved in the perception of some thermal sensations, such as the effect of spiciness or the coolness of menthol. Some are candidates to be classified as basic tastes, but they have not yet been generally accepted.
Even taking into account the latter, the list does not exceed a dozen. With such a limited repertoire of basic tastes, how can it lead to such a wide range of flavours that we can taste? The answer is found a little above the tongue, in the nose: “We don’t have five or six flavour receptors, but five or six taste receptors. Flavour arises by integrating the five or six basic tastes with other senses, most notably the sense of smell,” explains Per Møller, a professor at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and co-director of the journal Flavour, to OpenMind.
The art of mixing tastes and scents
“Think about how food tastes when you block your nose. Not of very much! Next time you drink a glass of wine, try to hold your nose while the wine is in your mouth and while you swallow it,” says Møller. And the contribution of smell is quantitatively overwhelming. The olfactory receptors form the largest gene superfamily in the mammalian genome. Even humans, with olfactory organs more limited than in other species, have 851 olfactory receptor genes spread across almost all of our chromosomes. Many of them are not functional, but an average of 273 are found in the nasal mucosa of each person.
Since these receptors are not specific, but each one of them can respond to a certain range of odours, and taking into account the possible combinations between them, the result is a huge olfactory repertoire; a study published in Science in 2014 estimated that we can perceive at least a trillion different scents. Scientists often compare the versatility of the olfactory system with that of immunity; in the same way that the repertoire of genes can produce antibodies against any existing antigen, even those that it has never encountered before, olfactory receptors are able to respond to any possible stimulus. “By integrating these with basic taste you generate the very, very many different flavours we can perceive,” says Møller.
In fact, the search for new flavours is one of the most active areas in culinary research. According to Møller, in laboratories around the world, science continuously offers a helping hand to the art of cooking in the discovery of new flavours. Moreover, as in fashion or music, there are also trends: “In my part of the world (Northern Europe/USA) fermentation flavours are much investigated at the moment, both by scientific labs and cooks,” says Møller.
One approach currently being used in this culinary research is to replace the typical ingredients with pure compounds. This is the trend launched by the French chemist Hervé This, from the National Institute of Agronomic Research of AgroParisTech. In 1988, This, together with Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, founded molecular gastronomy. They defined it as a branch of physical chemistry designed to study the phenomena that take place during culinary transformations. The chemist insists that molecular gastronomy is not cooking, but rather knowledge; “Molecular cuisine is cooking,” This adds.
Based on molecular cuisine, in 1994 This created “Note by Note cuisine”, which replaces the animal and plant tissues with their components in the same way that a musician uses notes to compose. In this case the notes are amino acids, lipids, organic acids, phenols… “It’s like with a synthesizer in music,” explains This to OpenMind. “You control all the flavour PERFECTLY and ENTIRELY, because you control all its components: consistency, taste, odour, trigeminal, colour, shape, nutrition, etc.”.
The chemist says that Note by Note cuisine is ideal for discovering new flavours, since they are created from basic substances. For example, fruit odours are perhaps the most characteristic among plants, “but they are only a minor subgroup,” says This. “There are about 10,000 odorant compounds in plants, and the number of combinations is infinite.” Furthermore, says This, this method of creation will also help in the study of the physiology of taste. On June 10 of this year, Paris will host the 4th International Contest for Note by Note Cooking, one of whose themes will be the trigeminal effect. It will be an opportunity to discover new flavours at which, suggests This, perhaps “the next Ferran Adrià” will appear, “but for Note by Note.”