Molecular Techniques, Spherification

Vanilla Caviar
The ultimate ice cream topping for vanilla lovers.

Food trends come and go, that which was hot one year will eventually fizzle. These trendy food preparations that wow diners of the worlds finest restaurants quickly become caricatures of modern cuisine. One chef creates an influential cooking technique, food writers swoon, other chefs begin to replicate the recipe, and before long there isn’t a restaurant in town who has such a trend absent from their menu. The whole process becomes boring to diners as the market is flooded with shoddy reproductions of what might have started as a noteworthy original idea. Although, there is redemption for food trends that fall to the wayside, as that original technique finally becomes accessible to the home chef. Popular restaurant trends of yesteryear become fun home cooking fodder as complicated and expensive cooking techniques slowly find their way into cookbooks and grocery stores. One such trend of recent turnaround are the indubitably confusticated techniques of “Molecular Gastronomy”, specifically the once buzz worthy spherification. Spherification can now be a fun and inexpensive technique to impress guests at home, as what was once haut cuisine can now be constructive in the everyday kitchen. Here I’ll provide some helpful hints on spherification with a easy recipe for sweet vanilla spheres, the perfect ice cream topping for the vanilla obsessed. 

The term “Molecular Gastronomy” has been around for some time now, a term first established in 1992 by scientists who looked to take advantage of chemical and physical changes to prepare food. As a culinary tagline, molecular gastronomy has become a catch all for many cooking techniques that have long been associated with food sciences and engineering. In most respects, molecular gastronomy is the study of the physics and chemistry of cooking, from complex chemical changes to simple state changes like those seen in the preparation of mayonnaise.  Most of these techniques explored here have already been in use with most mass produced foods found on regular grocery store shelves, from easy mix cake batters to the use of stabilizing ingredients to prolong shelf life.  True molecular gastronomy happens in every kitchen every day, right under our noses.

Most recently, molecular gastronomy has been picked up by food writers to describe many sub-genres of cooking, most notably the avant garde cooking methods pioneered by such chefs as Grant Achatz and Ferran Adrià. These famous chefs might find the comparison of their cooking techniques to molecular gastronomy somewhat dubious, but the connection has already been cemented in the popular lexicon. One such technique, first developed by Chef Adrià at his restaurant el Bulli, is spherification.

Spherification is the creation of liquid filled gel spheres of various sizes by a chemical reaction between sodium alginate and calcium salts. As a cooking technique, spherification can be used to create vegetarian caviar, fruit flavored gel ravioli, or even fun jelly worms for the ultimate in creepy halloween candy! The process is relatively simple, ingredients are mixed with the sodium alginate, which is then dripped into a bath of calcium salt and water. The result are small bird eye sized jelly spheres with a liquid center, the flavor of these are limited only to your imagination.

Some of the difficulties that are encountered while making spheres can be easily avoided with some helpful hints. Firstly, it is always best to weigh out your ingredients as opposed to using measuring spoons. Although it is possible to do otherwise, a sensitive kitchen scale will yield best results. Second, make sure the base liquid has a low acidity, any substance with a ph greater than 5 will not form into spheres. There are chemicals that can be added to change the ph, although it is easier for beginners to just avoid acidic ingredients. Third, use an eyedropper or syringe to drop the alginate solution into the calcium bath. Applying a consistent pressure on the eyedropper from just the right hight will form the best spheres, try various distances from the bath surface to find the hight that works best. Finally, use a wire mesh colander at the base of the calcium salt bath to collect the spheres. Fishing is fun, but time consuming.

The following is a simple recipe that can serve as an introduction to spherification. Using only three ingredients, this Sweet Vanilla Caviar is a snap to make. Try these atop of ice cream, they are amazing!

Sweet Vanilla Caviar

Vanilla syrup

  • 1/4 cup water (about 60g)
  • 1/4 cup Vanilla Paste (about 70g)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

Alginate solution

  • 1/3 cup water (about 79g)
  • 1 teaspoon Sodium Alginate (about 2g)

Calcium Salt Bath

  • 2 cups water (about 500g)
  • 3/4 teaspoon Calcium Salt (about 3g)
First combine the calcium salt and water, set aside. Create alginate solution by combining water and sodium alginate with a stick blender, mix until all of the alginate is disolved and set aside. Prepare vanilla syrup by stirring together vanilla paste, water, and optional sugar. Now stir the alginate solution into the vanilla syrup, stir until well combined. Place a wire mesh colander in the calcium salt bath. Using an eyedropper, drip the vanilla alginate solution into the calcium bath, caviar will collect at the bottom of the colander. After about ten seconds in the calcium salt bath, transfer caviar to a bath of cold water. Serve immediately.

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One comment

    Okay Eric….you win!  You have peaked my culinary taste buds enough to take a trip down to my favorite Spice House store in Evanston to purchase those three ingredients and make this recipe.  My brain is already in overdrive just thinking of how I can use these spheres as a garnish.  One thought that immediately comes to mind is making crab sauce spheres and placing them atop lump crab meat.

    Thanks for the great article and keep them coming…


    Chef Clay 

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