Spherification? Molecular gastronomy? It sounds tricky but tastes great.
IN THE PAST decade or so, some chefs have embraced a style of cooking referred to as molecular gastronomy. By incorporating methods and equipment traditionally found in a science lab, they create dishes that surprise us with their flavor combinations (caviar and white chocolate!), trick us with their textures or temperatures (a liquid olive!) or simply amaze us with their whimsy (a floating sugar balloon!).
All cooking is science. For a fascinating history and explanation of the science in the food we cook and eat every day, look to Harold McGee’s comprehensive volume, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” first published in 1984.
If you want to go beyond the realm of the everyday kitchen, spherification is a gratifying place to start. Chef Ferran Adrià first used the technique at his restaurant, El Bulli, in Spain. He used it to form liquids into spheres with very thin membranes that burst in your mouth when you press on them. It relies on the reaction between sodium alginate, an algae extract used as a food stabilizer, and calcium, which causes it to gel.
Adrià realized that reversing the process also would work. Rather than putting the sodium alginate in the food and dipping it into calcium, a calcium-rich food could be dipped into a solution of sodium alginate, and the gelification would stop when it’s removed.
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This method requires only one special ingredient and no special equipment (although a perforated spoon helps remove the spheres from the bath).
3 cups water
5 grams (1¾ teaspoons) sodium alginate
1 cup whole milk Greek yogurt (not reduced or nonfat)
1 tablespoon whole milk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1½ teaspoons minced fresh dill, or ½ teaspoon dried
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 English cucumber, washed and cut into quarter-inch slices
8 ounces sliced, lox-style smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1. Make the alginate bath: In a 2-quart bowl, add the sodium alginate to the water, and mix with an immersion blender until smooth and opaque, about 1 minute. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to let the liquid clear.
2. Stir together all the ingredients for the yogurt. Cover, and keep cold.
3. Fill a flat-bottomed container (such as a plastic food storage container) with cold water, and set aside.
4. Use a teaspoon to gently drop dollops of the yogurt onto the surface of the bath. Try to keep them roundish, rather than leaving them with a tail, and start by placing them about 2 inches apart. Make 6 to 10 at a time. If they are not falling through the liquid on their own, use a clean spoon to gently cover them with the alginate solution.
5. For the first batch, set a timer for 2 minutes, 30 seconds for the yogurt to cure in the bath. About every 20 seconds, use a spoon to gently move the spheres so they don’t stick to the bowl. When the time is up, use a spoon (perforated if you have it) to gently scoop up the spheres and place them in the fresh water. As you get used to handling the spheres, you might want to reduce the curing time to 2 minutes, if you prefer a thinner membrane.
6. To serve, place a piece of salmon on a cucumber round, and grind a little black pepper on top (it will help keep the yogurt from slipping off). Remove a yogurt sphere from the water, and lay it gently on a paper towel. Use the towel to flip it back onto a dry spoon, and place it on top of the salmon. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Serve right away.