In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut explores the cutting-edge chemistry of the modern fine dining experience.
Nicholas Leadbeater is an associate professor of organic and inorganic chemistry at the University of Connecticut, where he heads the New Synthetic Methods Group. Leadbeater and the NSMG research cleaner and more efficient methods for creating synthetic materials. Dr. Leadbeater holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where he was a research fellow until 1999.
Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater – Molecular Gastronomy
In my laboratory I love making molecules. We often take two compounds, put them in a flask, heat them up and make something new. Perhaps my love of chemistry is also the reason I enjoy cooking at home, making all sorts of exciting creations in the kitchen. Fundamentally the two are the same, cookery is just chemistry but with the advantage of being able to eat the product at the end. In some of today’s restaurants chemistry is being brought to the forefront of what is now called molecular gastronomy. Molecular gastronomy experiments have resulted in innovative dishes like bubbly syrups, faux caviar, and air bread Philly cheesecake.
One interesting technique used is spherification, which involves making liquid-filled beads that explode in the mouth with a pleasingly juicy pop. It relies on a simple gelling reaction between calcium chloride and alginate, a gummy substance that can be extracted from brown seaweed. To make coca-cola caviar, you first take some coca-cola to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, mix in sodium alginate and then allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. In a separate container you blend calcium chloride into water. Then comes the fun bit. You delicately drop the coca-cola mixture into the calcium chloride solution. The calcium ions cause the alginate polymers to interlink, forming a gel. Because the coca-cola mixture enters the calcium chloride solution in the shape of droplets, the gel forms beads looking very much like real caviar!
So unlike many of the chemistry experiments I do in my research lab, I can for once say “go try this at home.”