Merry Christmas and a Happy New Sphere (Part 1)

Amateur molecular gastronomists like me often seem to start their self-education with the same introductory lesson: spherification. The process was developed by Spanish culinary demigod Ferran Adrià, and his creations based on the technique have become international emblems of progressive cuisine; olive caviar, pasta-free ravioli, and eggs that look like eggs but taste like (wow!) truffle and asparagus are among the many marvels of spherification. The technique yields food that has a certain ooh-ahh visual impact, a lovely burst of pure flavor, and at its best, a “how did he do that?” sense of wonder to it. Spherification is actually pretty easy once you work out the dos and don’ts, and the ingredients you need – sodium alginate and calcium chloride – are available and affordable on the internet. It is probably the combination of accessibility and impact that make spherifcation a popular starting point for forays into culinary chemical arts.

Although it is well-known by the small (but growing) community of progressive chefs and gastro geeks, spherification isn’t really known or practiced much in common home cookery. Which is why I was surprised, and also delighted and slightly angered, to discover that the fish roe I used to garnish my Christmas canapés wasn’t actual roe at all but liquidized fish that had been spherified! Our suspicions arose when we noticed the flavor wasn’t quite right – not bad, just less salty and sweet and more smoky and meaty than roe usually is. And sure enough, the ingredients confirmed that we were actually eating a puree of smoked herring, dyed black and made into little balls with sodium alginate. And I got this at Sainsbury’s for four pounds – spherification for the masses! I was excited to find that this little nugget of avant garde cooking had found its way into the mainstream, but I also felt tricked. I thought I was buying roe! That’ll learn me to not read the label (I should have at least noticed the alarming description “reformed herring product).

But I actually liked the fake roe, and some of us actually preferred it to the real thing (typically I just get lumpfish roe, which isn’t great anyway). The smokiness in particular matched the smoked salmon nicely, and it seemed to give the dish a big boost of umami. There is something circuitous about using spherification to make fake roe (why not just use real roe?), but even so I think it was a clever application of the technique, and it made me wonder what else might work in a spherified form. Can you imagine pancetta caviar, maybe on a grilled oyster or scallop? Or melon caviar on Iberico ham? Soy sauce caviar on sushi? Yum yum.

Of course, there is a dangerous element to spherification, and that element is surprise. Half the fun of spherification in its basic form is expecting one thing and getting something else – but therein lies a potential risk as well. An exclamation such as “It’s not caviar after all, it’s licorice!” could be uttered with delight just as easily as it could be uttered with disgust. Heston Blumenthal writes in The Fat Duck Cookbook:

I was in Kyoto to make a presentation on umami at a food workshop. For breakfast one morning our hosts took us to a temple… waiters brought out bowls of rice that had been cooked in dashi until it had broken down. Resting on top of this was a small pool of dashi reduction that had been thickened with starch. It looked exactly like a bowl of porridge with a blob of honey or golden syrup in the middle. I’d had this before and knew what to expect… some of the others weren’t so lucky. They expected one thing and got another, and the barely concealed grimace on their faces suggested that only respect for our hosts was keeping them from spitting it out there and then.

I imagine the surprise of spherification, is pleasant only when the diner expects a surprise, but doesn’t know what that surprise will be. And that comes down to reputation, service, and atmosphere. Guests at The Fat Duck or El Bulli (or Noma or The French Laundry or Ryugin) must know that they’re in for some surprises, and that things may not be what they seem. It’s a risky game to play, but chefs that can make the element of surprise work in their favor introduce an extra layer of excitement and emotion to their cooking. And to me, it can turn a great meal into a thrilling event, and ultimately a treasured memory.

Tomorrow: our love is sphere to stay.

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