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Deconstruction of avant-garde cuisine could lead to even more fanciful dishes. One of the most iconic forms of avant-garde cuisine, also known as molecular gastronomy, involves the presentation of flavorful, edible liquids — like cocktails or olive oil — packaged into spheres. Now a team of scientists, in collaboration with world-renowned chef Ferran Adriá, is getting to the bottom of what makes these delectable morsels possible. Their findings appear in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry B. Christophe Chipot, Wensheng Cai and colleagues explain that the technique of “spherification” was invented 70 years ago but was popularized in avant-garde cuisine more recently by Adriá. The process of making the spheres involves packaging juice or other liquid ingredients in envelopes of calcium alginate, a gelatinous substance made mostly out of molecules extracted from brown seaweed. Although spherification has become a prominent technique in molecular gastronomy, no one had investigated the formation and stability of the alginates at the atomic level. Chipot’s team wanted to change that. The researchers used classical molecular dynamics techniques to probe how alginate spheres form. Among other discoveries, they found that alginate chains spontaneously wrap like a net around liquid droplets and that calcium ions were key. They concluded that studies such as these, which bridge the gap between material science and avant-garde cuisine, could help chefs and food scientists rationally design the next generation of innovative cooking techniques. The authors are indebted to the team of El Bulli Foundation, to Oriol Castro Forns and to Pere Castells Esqué. They acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Natural Science Foundation of Tianjin, China and the Cai Yuanpei program of the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et du Développement International. American Chemical Society press release, 2014.

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