The appliance of science

Heston Blumenthal was voted Chef's Chef of the Year by his fellow professionals in the 2002 AA Restaurant Guide. He was the Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year in 2001. His restaurant, The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, has one star in the Michelin Guide and has become a place of pilgrimage for discerning eaters and curious chefs alike. And all because he and his team serve up dishes that are utterly unlike anything else in England - dishes such as crab risotto with crab ice cream, cassonade of red pepper, saddle of lamb cooked at low temperature, roast onglet, and coffee and garlic dentelles, and parsnip cereal with parsnip milk. Yes, that's right.

"I was tasting the milk that we'd been poaching parnsips in," Heston explains with characteristic ebullience; he seems, quite literally, to be bursting with theory, explanation, observation, ideas. "It took me straight back to my childhood: it had exactly the same flavour as the milk left in my cereal bowl after I'd finished my Frosties. And that started me thinking: what could I do in the restaurant that might look like Frosties with milk, but that would also fit into the Fat Duck's menu? It took us about three weeks to come up with the parsnip frosties with parsnip milk served in a breakfast bowl."

Food, fad or foolishness? Well, it's just a bit of fun, but it tickles the mind as well as the tastebuds, and shows that there's more to the restaurant menu than confit of duck's leg, roast cod, lentils, balsamic vinegar and tiramisu. In fact, if you start thinking about it, really start thinking about it, there's much more, and Blumenthal really likes thinking about food and cooking.

In reality, we know very little about the food we eat, the way it reacts when we cook it, how we react when we eat it, and what effect it may have on us when we have eaten it. Cooking is the most tradition-raddled of all human pastimes, and none is more riddled with received wisdoms, misleading advice, half-baked theory masquerading as quarter-baked fact, and plain nonsense. We tend to cook how we have always cooked, because that's how we've been told to cook, and the people who told us - parents, cookery writers, chefs - told us because that's what they were told.

Few, very few, people actually sit down to consider basic questions . Why, for example, are we always told to brown meat? Or boil vegetables in masses of water laced with salt? And why do we start salivating at the mere mention of some foods, but not others?

It may be worth asking these questions if, when we find the answers, we can cook better and cook more easily, or even just cook differently, to produce different effects. And some people -physisists and chemists, as well as chefs such as Blumenthal - are beginning to ask them, and some of the answers they are coming up with are surprising, to say the least, although the science of gastronomy, and of molecular gastronomy in particular, is still in its infancy.

If molecular gastronomy sounds a bit, well, fancy or intimidating, Blumenthal feels much the same. To be truthful, science was not a subject at which he exactly shone at school. He was born in London and brought up in Buckinghamshire, and cooking never suggested itself as a future calling until, on a family holiday in France, the Blumenthals went to what he describes as "a restaurant" for the first time. Heston was 15, and he knew, just knew, that that was what he wanted to do. It has been the only thing he has ever wanted to do since. Aside from 10 days at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, he is completely self-taught. Indeed, happy ignorance may have been responsible for him setting up the Fat Duck in Bray five years ago.

He wasn't into molecular gastronomy in those days, more the bourgeois classics of French cuisine. Even then, he brought to duck liver parfait and petit salé aux lentilles a degree of technical skill that raised those dishes from the humdrum to the sensational. In so doing, he attracted the custom of such discerning diners as Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, although only once on the same night, and then never again.

But it was the great French bean mystery two and a half years ago, which he will explain next week, that opened up his mind to other possibilities, and revealed a scientific bent that his school had never managed to locate. This has since led him to question the traditional ways of doing things in the kitchen, and to come up sometimes with different methods, sometimes adapting existing processes, to different ends.

It isn't too much to claim that the approach that he is taking represents the biggest shake up to ideas about how we cook of the past 50 years. That's why we've asked him to carry on the great tradition of intelligent food writing in the Weekend Guardian.

And, before you start worrying, he won't be suggesting that you cook sweetbreads cooked in salt crust hay, crusted with pollen and served with cockles à la plancha, or white chocolates filled with caviar, at home. You'll have to go to the restaurant for those. He is married with three children, and has a sound grasp of the pressures on the domestic kitchen. So the recipes that he'll be suggesting aren't difficult or particularly complicated. They may just ask you to do something differently from the way you've always done it.

All recipes serve six.

Let's get physical
Heston Blumenthal

When we cook and eat, physical, chemical and psychological processes occur. There is absolutely nothing that we can do to stop them. If we can understand even a small part of some of these processes, much of the ridiculous mystique that surrounds cooking disappears, leaving the kitchen a far more enjoyable and friendly place. My articles are not going to read like the pages from the Open University - not least as my science background at school was non-existent. My interest developed purely as I was cooking, and realising that there were many things in the kitchen that I did not properly understand. There are so many received wisdoms, accepted truths and traditions to do with cooking, many of which turn out to be complete nonsense - and some that aren't. What really happens when we cook our meat? Why do eggs thicken things? Do we need salt in our water to preserve the colour of green vegetables? Where do we really taste our food? How much is controlled by the brain?

We are increasingly bombarded with recipes designed to make us want to cook. Many of them, however, seem to me to be no more than gastronomic wallpaper, designed to adorn our coffee tables and fit into our newfound interest in lifestyle magazines and television. The problem with making recipes as short as possible is that they don't explain why we perform certain tasks in the kitchen, or remotely prepare the home cook to think for themselves.

Over the past few years, I have spent many hours researching cooking techniques and looking at the way we eat our food. I really do hope that these insights will give you something to get your teeth into, encourage you to get into the kitchen and liberate you from following a recipe robotically - and, if possible, get kids sharing in the pleasure of cooking and so get their excitement motoring. Here are three simple dishes that will give you a taster of what is to come. I hope you enjoy them.

Green tea and lime sour

How many times have you sat down to eat with your mouth still ringing with toothpaste or bearing the traces of the last thing you ate? I never used to enjoy brushing my teeth just before going out to dinner. Not because I have a problem with personal hygiene, but because I felt that the taste the toothpaste left in my mouth interfered with my tastebuds. So I set about devising something to be served at the start of a meal that would cleanse the palate and stimulate it for what was to come.

At the restaurant, we work with a flavour and aroma company called Firmenich, based in Geneva, for which Professor Tony Blake is the head of research. Last July, I asked his advice on anything that had great mouth-cleansing properties. Green tea emerged as the main contender, closely followed by lime. I already knew that acids are very good at stimulating saliva glands - you only have to bite into a lemon or lime to see how much your mouth starts to water. And then I found out that alcohol is very efficient at dispersing fatty deposits on the tongue, and hence would work just as well on the after-effects of toothpaste.

So, I needed to find a medium in which to combine all of these ingredients successfully, and it needed to be light and completely fat-free. After a good deal of experimentation, I eventually settled on this recipe. The green tea essence is not essential for the cleansing effect, but it does add extra freshness to the foam, while the tannin within it helps leave the palate more neutral.

You'll need a siphon to make this dish. These are easily obtainable, and are the re-fillable bottles used for whipping cream. This recipe will make about 750ml of mix, which may seem a lot, but it will keep for a few days in the fridge, and you can keep refreshing those parts that other mouth cleansers never reach. Actually, it's pretty addictive stuff.

For the syrup

500ml water
40g green tea
100g unrefined caster sugar
100g lime juice

Bring the water to the boil, stir in the sugar until dissolved and, off the boil, pour over the tea. Leave to brew for five minutes, then strain. Add the lime juice and leave to cool. When it is cool, add the following:

60g egg whites (roughly, the whites of two medium-sized eggs)
35ml vodka
2 drops green tea essence (optional)

Fill the siphon to three-quarters' capacity and pressurise with two gas bottles. Store in the fridge for half an hour, before serving. To serve, shake the bottle, turn upside down and, starting with the nozzle close to the bottom of each glass, gently squeeze out the foam, raising the nozzle upwards as it fills. And please do not blame me if you get splattered. You'll need to do this at the very last minute, as the foam will not hold the syrup for very long and will start separating within three to four minutes. Eat with a spoon.

Confit of salmon with lentils

This is a fantastic way to cook fish, and it is also absurdly easy. You may have to leave some preconceived ideas behind, however. I'll go into the details of slow-cooking fish and meat in a couple of weeks (it has something to do with oil as a conductor of heat), but for the time being you'll just have to take my word that, although the fish will have a raw look in appearance, it will definitely be cooked through, and also that you will be amazed at the texture of the flesh.

4 skinless salmon fillets (wild, if you can stretch to it, as it tastes like an altogether different beast from the farmed variety), about 2-2.5cm thick
Up to 1 litre olive oil, depending on the size of your pan (the oil must cover the fish completely)

Pour the oil into a heavy casserole and heat to 45C (use a kitchen thermometer). Place the fish fillets in the oil and cook for 20-25 minutes. Remove the fillets from the oil, drain on kitchen towel, season and serve with the lentil dish as a garnish.

As well as cooking the lentils with aromatics, I usually add a little pineapple. I'll come back to this fruit's wonderful protein-destroying abilities another time, but as lentils have one of the highest sources of protein of any vegetable, pineapple has a fantastic tenderising effect on them. For this recipe, you should also use bottled mineral water with low calcium content. This may seem a bit precious, but calcium hardens the skins of the lentils and prevents them from cooking properly. Use this water both for blanching and cooking the lentils.

200g Puy lentils
1 litre mineral water
5 rashers smoked streaky bacon
75g fresh ginger, or pineapple, peeled and sliced
1 carrot
1 onion
2 sticks celery
2 cloves garlic
1 large leek
1 bouquet garni comprising thyme, rosemary, bayleaf and parsley
Salt and pepper

First, prepare the vegetables. Wash them all. Top, tail and peel the carrot, and cut it lengthways into four. Peel the onion and, keeping the root on, cut it in half. Trim the celery and cut each stick into three. Cut off the dark green part of the leek, discard and cut the rest across into three equal lengths. Finely chop the garlic, and tie up the herbs.

Tip the lentils into a heavy-bottomed pan, pour over just enough water to cover, bring to a boil and immediately tip the lentils into a sieve. Rinse under the cold tap, return to the pan, and cover again with water, this time to about twice the depth of the lentils. Add the other ingredients, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer very gently for around 35 minutes - cooking time will vary greatly, depending on the quality of the lentils. They should be soft but still whole. At this stage, the skins may still be a little tough. If so, just add a little salt, about five grams, and continue simmering very gently until they have softened.

When done, drain the lentils and discard the aromatics. The lentils can be kept, covered, in a little water in the fridge for a few days. Re-heat them in a little reserved cooking liquid, as long as it is not too salty, along with a couple of knobs of butter, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Hervé This's chocolate Chantilly

There really are few new things in cooking. This, however, is one of them. My friend Hervé This is a chemist with a PhD in molecular gastronomy. He is employed by the French government to uphold or dispel cooking myths and techniques. He has a laboratory in Paris and holds gastronomic workshops. This dish is so simple it almost defies belief. The emulsification of chocolate and water creates a mix that resembles chocolate-flavoured Chantilly cream, although it has a purer taste as it contains no cream. Chefs have long been taught that water is the enemy of chocolate and, although in some cases it is, it does not hold true for every recipe.

200ml water
225g best-quality bitter chocolate

Break up the chocolate and put it into a pan with the water over medium heat to melt. Stir the chocolate in the pan until completely melted. Have ready two bowls, one that will sit inside the other. Into the bigger bowl, put some ice and a little water, and place in it the smaller bowl. Pour the melted chocolate into the smaller bowl and whisk over ice - the mixture will gradually thicken and take on the appearance of whipped cream, at which point it is ready to serve.

The beauty of this dish is that, if you over-whip the chocolate mix, simply tip it back into the pan and start again

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.