We get a lot of questions about how we create some of the more unusual dishes in our kitchen. The theory behind mozzarella gnocchi and warm foie gras terrine can be confusing unless you know about some of our secret ingredients. The tools we use to create some of these specialties are known as food gums. The term food gums sounds more ominous than the reality, in fact, most people have food gums in their kitchens. Cornstarch and gelatin are common examples of a food gum. These ingredients are used to change the texture and composition of different foods. Less common food gums which are often at work behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens are three that we use on a regular basis, carrageenan, methyl cellulose and hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose. For the purposes of simplicity I will group the last two together under the heading of methyl cellulose in this explanation.
In general there are four basic reasons to use food gums:
1) They are used to thicken products, such as the filling in a pie.
2) They are used to emulsify products, for example a sauce or a vinaigrette.
3) They are used to change textures, in food products that usually translates into a thicker or chewier texture.
4) They are used to stabilize crystals such as ice in a frozen product of sugar in a caramel.
Carrageenan is a obtained from the red seaweed family. There are three different types of Carrageenan, kappa carrageenan, iota carrageenan and lambda carrageenan. They each have different gelling properties and can be blended for use in different applications. Carrageenan’s most important characteristic for food preparation is the ability form different gels at room temperature from soft to firm. Once a gel is formed using carrageenan it is very stable and can be taken through a range of temperatures with no visible breakdown of the gel. In other countries it is often used to create puddings and other sweet desserts, an application that we have also applied in our kitchen.
Methyl cellulose is used to create what is known as a thermoreversible gel. The methyl cellulose hydrates in cold water, after which it is added to your food product and thoroughly dispersed. Like the carrageenan, methyl cellulose comes in different formulations that can be tailored to the desired final effects. Once you have the methyl cellulose thoroughly incorporated into your product it will gel when heated. For example, when we created our warm foie gras terrine, we de-veined the foie gras, incorporated the methyl cellulose, formed the individual terrines and then seared them. By using this product, we were able to create a dish that had all of the positive aspects of a terrine while still retaining the warmth and the texture of seared foie.
These are just a couple of the ways that we have utilized food gums in our cooking. Hopefully, this bit of background information will help people understand what they are and why chefs use them in their kitchens. We tried to keep this first post relatively simple, but feel free to contact us with any questions and we will expand upon this information as time goes by.
*This post has been edited to reflect standard terms for methyl cellulose instead of proprietary names.