A Brief History of Molecular Gastronomy

Foam is big in molecular gastronomy.
Foam is big in molecular gastronomy. / Ivan/Moment/Getty Images

The most iconic dish Spanish chef Ferran Adrià made at his restaurant El Bulli in Catalonia was deceptively simple: a morsel resembling a green olive, served on a spoon. When guests put that sphere in their mouths, it melted into a liquid explosion of concentrated olive flavor. 

The dish was a trick of chemistry. Adrià added olive juice—which contains calcium—to alginate. The substance, typically found in seaweeds, can rearrange its structure to form strong chains in the presence of certain chemicals. And when substances containing calcium are submerged in a sodium alginate solution, a water insoluble, gel-like membrane forms, and the substance maintains a round, droplet shape in a process known as reverse spherification. When Adrià dropped his olive puree into sodium alginate for a few minutes, what came out were perfect, olive-shaped—and intensely olive-flavored—quasi-liquid olives.

El Bulli closed in 2011, but the shockwaves this edible science experiment sent through the food world are still, in some ways, being felt today. Was molecular gastronomy a necessary culinary breakthrough or an elitist misstep? What does molecular gastronomy even mean? Break out your agar-agar and polish off your centrifuge—it’s time to take a look at controversial beginnings of molecular gastronomy.

Molecular Gastronomy’s Centuries-Old Origins

Molecular gastronomy is synonymous with modernist cuisine today, but its origins date back centuries. According to food historian Gilly Lehmann, medieval and renaissance chefs were scientists of a sort. They often incorporated contemporary medical beliefs into their dishes and were known to use the new science around them to contribute to their culinary pyrotechnics. 

That’s not a figurative statement: The 15th-century manuscript The Vivendier has a well-nigh unmake-able and almost certainly deadly recipe to “Make that Chicken Sing when it is dead and roasted.” It involves stuffing the chicken with sulfur and mercury, heating it, and then further manipulating the bird so that air escapes and somehow mimics the sound of a chicken. 

illustration of a bone digester
Denis Papin's bone digester. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

In the 17th century, French physicist Denis Papin created what was termed a “digester.” A diner from the Royal Society, who had gone to check out the invention, wrote that it made “the hardest bones of beef itself, and mutton ... as soft as cheese.” Papin had invented the ancestor of the modern pressure cooker.

In the 1700s, exciting new discoveries from the field of chemistry were applied to the culinary arts. French chemist Antoine Baumé invented a method to measure the specific gravity of liquids now known as the Baumé scale. Specific gravity is also called relative density, which is a good indication of its meaning: It compares the density of substances to a reference material—which, when measuring liquids, is usually water. 

For years, Baumé’s method was an important tool in many areas of food production, from brewing beer to winemaking. It’s since been largely supplanted by the simplified Brix scale, but even today there are vintners who will use a Baumé measurement to estimate the level of dissolved solids in their grape juice. That gives them a good idea of the sugar content in the juice and, by extension, the potential alcohol levels in their finished wine. If we think of winemaking as half art and half science, Baumé helped push the science part of the equation forward.

Baumé is also the namesake for the Baumé egg, which can be made by submerging a whole egg in alcohol for about a month. Over time, the ethanol seeps through the pores of the shell and coagulates the egg inside, effectively cooking it with no heat required. 

Defining Molecular Gastronomy

Preparing a Baumé egg feels closer to modern molecular gastronomy than simply frying one in a pan, but it’s a bit hard to articulate why. After all, the change an egg goes through when exposed to heat is a molecular one, too. For that matter, so is curing meat, fermenting vegetables, and almost every other form of food preparation or preservation humans have been practicing for millennia. This makes molecular gastronomy tricky to define.

Hervé This is a scientist and magazine editor and one of the pioneers in the field; he distinguishes between molecular cookery and molecular gastronomy. In his understanding, molecular cookery involves using new techniques and science to make better food and should be considered an art, rather than a science. Molecular gastronomy, on the other hand, is the scientific discipline of understanding cooking. Even This admits, though, that there isn’t any one universally accepted definition of the term.

When people think of molecular gastronomy today, they’re usually thinking of the intersection of food, science, and even theater that was exemplified at restaurants like El Bulli. And that has its own antecedents in culinary history. 

Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). Artist: Steuben, Charles de (1788-1856)
Marie-Antoine Carême. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

French chef and cookbook author Marie-Antoine Carême became famous for experimenting with a presentation-forward cooking style in the early 19th century. It didn't feature the chemical wizardry that’s essential to modern molecular gastronomy today, but it did bring together art and science in the form of edible architecture. Creations he’s credited with, like the choux pastry puff tower known as croquembouche, were meant to be a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Carême constructed other centerpiece desserts to resemble ancient structures like temples and pyramids. He summed up his attitude in one of his cookbooks: “I want order and taste. A well-displayed meal is enhanced one hundred percent in my eyes."

The haute cuisine pioneered by Carême was a hit in the dining rooms of the wealthy, but he didn’t intend for his style of cooking to be exclusive. In the several cookbooks he authored in his lifetime, he shared instructions for pulling off complicated cooking techniques in a home kitchen. According to Eater, Carême’s were the first cookbooks to use the phrase you can try this for yourself at home.

The Workshop That Gave Us the Term Molecular Gastronomy

Carême may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for one strand of what would become molecular gastronomy, but it would take a long time for the term itself to arise. In 1988, cooking school instructor Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas and physics professor Ugo Valdrè met in Italy and agreed on the potential value of a workshop focused on the science of food. At that time, new scientific advancements in the culinary arts were generally the domain of industrial food manufacturers; they weren’t viewed as tools for home or restaurant chefs. The idea sparked by Cawdry Thomas eventually became the Erice Workshops, which began in Sicily in 1992.

This is where the term molecular gastronomy first appeared publicly, according to Dr. Harold McGee, who eventually became one of the workshop’s co-organizers. The original posters publicizing the event advertised an “International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy,” but the blend of science and cooking discussed at these conferences was different from the theatrical, innovative style of fine dining that rose to prominence in the coming years. “The purpose was really to understand traditional cooking—the science of foods that have been traditionally prepared in restaurants and were considered the height of the art of cooking,” McGee tells Mental Floss. As for why the word molecular was chosen in the first place, it was all about timing; molecular biology was a trendy field in the early 1990s—even people outside the scientific community were hearing about it.

Cawdry Thomas recruited Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti to be the workshop’s director. Hervé This also signed on. Cawdry Thomas’s contributions didn’t stop at the conception stage; once the event was up and running, she led several workshops, including a blind tasting of tomatoes with various kinds of salts and another blind tasting comparing foods prepared in a microwave versus conventional cooking methods. 

Though she was integral to the endeavor, Cawdry Thomas’s role has often been overlooked, with media highlighting This’s and Kurti’s contributions instead. 

“There was the professional hierarchy,” McGee says. “You know, there are professors of physics and then there are cooking school teachers. And, you know, the hierarchy back then and still now, I'm sure, was pretty clear. And then, also: The world of cooking back then and the world of science back then—and still—were dominated by men. There were, to my recollection, no women cooks, no women chefs invited to this meeting. Elizabeth was always there to make things happen, to introduce people to each other. Just a wonderfully warm, welcoming presence. I think, actually [she] probably felt more comfortable behind the scenes than on stage. But that doesn't excuse the fact that all along her contribution was really neglected. I don't think the workshop would have taken place without her.”

The goal of that initial workshop was to bring together chefs, writers, and scientists to discuss four areas of interest: what was already understood about the science of cooking; how a better understanding of science could improve existing cooking methods; the benefits of developing new kinds of cooking techniques and ingredients; and whether approaches used in industrial food processing could be adapted to smaller kitchens. 

Though these summits are sometimes thought of as the birthplace of modern molecular gastronomy, they weren’t a forum for chefs to brainstorm whimsical dishes for $300 tasting menus. Rather, the participants were more concerned with the practical applications of science on the broader culinary scene. 

Ferran Adriá and Molecular Gastronomy at El Bulli

Around the same time as the Erice workshops, Ferran Adrià was pioneering the foam and eyedropper style of cooking that’s more commonly thought of as molecular gastronomy today. 

“What we were doing in the Erice meetings was along the same lines, you know, part of the zeitgeist in the culinary world. Classic French cooking that then became standard international hotel cooking was: You just followed a book, the Escoffier playbook,” McGee says. “In the 1960s, in France, along with nouvelle roman, the new novel, the new movies and so on, there was also a movement for the new cooking: nouvelle cuisine. I see what happened in Spain as kind of the explosive outgrowth of something that really began in the sixties in France—and, in particular, with this one guy, Ferran Adriá, who was just you know, he was the Gaudí of cooking.” 

Ferran Adrià
Chef Ferran Adrià. / JB Lacroix/GettyImages

McGee explains that Adrià “had a completely new way of thinking about things, an approach that would, in the end, really benefit from a scientific understanding of food and cooking—which is, I think, why the science of food and cooking, or one of the reasons that the science of food and cooking became of such general interest. What he had done was taken ingredients and completely transformed them physically. And that just changes the experience of eating because, you know, you look at a leaf of lettuce, you know what it’s going to taste like, but you look at a green blob, you have no idea until you put it in your mouth.”

Those flavored foams—made with whipped cream canisters—were so sensational that they led to a spate of knockoffs, often perceived to be covering up for sub-par cooking. In a piece by Jeremy Repanich for Robb Report, the chef Alex Stupak likened the use of once-daring techniques by lesser chefs to the “pyrotechnics at a Kiss concert. Take that away, take your face paint away and you suck.” 

After taking over El Bulli as head chef, Adrià launched his own series of culinary workshops centered around developing new menus. The restaurant was open for six months out of the year, and for the other six months, he led his team of chefs in experimenting with new cooking techniques and translating them into finished dishes. This combination of meticulous, empirical experimentation and total artistic freedom may be at the heart of molecular gastronomy, and it led to El Bulli being named Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant Magazine five times throughout the 2000s. 

The Pioneering Chefs of Molecular Gastronomy

At the same time, a new class of chefs were expounding the bounds of cooking in their own restaurants. At the Fat Duck in Bray, England, British chef Heston Blumenthal—who actually attended the last two Erice workshops—put a mad scientist spin on haute cuisine. One of his influential trademarks was the use of liquid nitrogen in cooking.

With a boiling point of -321°F, the substance allows chefs to bring ingredients to freezing cold temperatures in seconds. One reason frozen food gets a bad rap is the propensity for ice crystals to form and disrupt an item’s cellular structure. The bigger the crystals are, the more the texture of the food changes. But when food freezes quickly, these crystals are smaller and the structure of the ingredients remain intact. Blumenthal used this principle when developing Nitro-Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse, a palate cleanser served at the Fat Duck, flash-frozen tableside. 

Wylie Dufresne
Chef Wylie Dufresne. / Neilson Barnard/GettyImages

American chef Wylie Dufresne is considered another pioneer of molecular gastronomy. At his New York restaurant wd~50, which closed in 2014, one of the signature dishes was a deconstructed eggs benedict. It consisted of sous-vide egg yolks, Canadian bacon wisps, and fried hollandaise. That last component was apparently the trickiest to perfect. Dufresne and his team pulled it off by adding gelatin to the sauce so it could be cut into portions and adding starch to protect the egg yolks in the hollandaise from high heat, thus preventing them from scrambling. 

Today, Dufresne's passion for tinkering has taken him in a seemingly different direction, running his own doughnut shop and pop-up pizzeria in New York City. But these humble foods are no less the products of food science than noodles made with methylcellulose—or, indeed, “pizza pebbles,” a deconstructed dish that was once on the menu of wd~50. Dufresne even gave a lecture at Harvard in 2021 about his quest for pizza dough perfection, touching on topics like gluten levels, cold fermentation, and manipulating carbon dioxide.

Grant Achatz
Chef Grant Achatz. / Juan Naharro Gimenez/GettyImages

Perhaps the other American chef most commonly associated with molecular cuisine is Grant Achatz. It’s not hard to see the influence of chemistry in the menu of his Chicago restaurant Alinea. The famous translucent pumpkin pie is made by setting concentrated pumpkin pie stock in clear gelatin. And perhaps even more so than some of his peers, Achatz celebrates the artistic side of molecular cooking as well. Like Carême two centuries before him, he prioritizes serving a “well-displayed meal” that takes heavy inspiration from the art world. A famous dessert course at Alinea is literally painted onto the table to resemble an abstract art piece. A different dessert features edible sugar balloons filled with actual helium guests are encouraged to inhale—calling to mind Carême’s whimsical pastry towers, but cranked up to 11. 

In a 2021 article for InsideHook, Achatz explained the emotional part of molecular gastronomy that balances out the cold science, writing, “I like to say that this style of cooking uses emotions as seasoning: intimidation, confusion, intrigue, happiness, magic, and nostalgia are layered over delicious food by using newly developed techniques, ideas, and equipment to manipulate the food in unexpected ways.”

A Controversial Label

These chefs are credited with shaping molecular gastronomy, but they haven’t all embraced the label. Some of them have outright rejected it. 

When discussing the phrase, Heston Blumenthal told The Guardian, “Molecular makes it sound complicated … and gastronomy makes it sound elitist.” Ferran Adrià has expressed similar sentiments, and instead refers to his style of cooking as “deconstructivist.” Achatz prefers “progressive American.” 

Olive-like spheres on spoons
An olive-shaped, olive-flavored sphere. / Pam Susemiehl/Moment/Getty Images

Other names that have been tossed around to describe a science-based approach to fine dining include avant-garde, modernist, and experimental cuisine

None of these terms have succeeded in replacing molecular gastronomy in the cultural lexicon. Sure, the phrase originated with a workshop that had nothing to do with liquid olives or sugar balloons, and maybe the word molecular is both too broad and too specific to describe the cuisine it’s associated with. But it’s apt in its own way. The futuristic name points to the crucial role science plays in creating deliciousness, and to the possibilities unlocked by experimentation. 

“Ingredients are physical and chemical materials and when we cook we transform them from one state into another,” McGee says. “And those transformations are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry. So, any time you cook an egg, you’re doing physics and chemistry both. And the more we understand about what it is we’re exactly doing when we cook in the kitchen, the better we can control those processes and come up with the results that we want.”

The label may be a little over-the-top, but in a fun and sometimes frustrating way, that was the case with much of the food served at the most innovative restaurants of the 2000s.

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube. Subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel here.