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Casseroles & Eprouvettes

By Hervé This

The subject of this meandering and rather appealingly eccentric if always well researched and reasonably well written book is quite fascinating: the actual science of cooking and of taste. What the author argues in the most general of terms across a variety of essays on a range of different gustatory and gastronomic subjects is that science, and specifically chemistry and biology, can be used to explain various aspects of the human sense of taste, along with various culinary behaviors and traditions, and methods of food production.
    Unfortunately, a much too abbreviated and lightweight introduction stands before the first of the extremely interesting case studies that comprise this book,  two of the most compelling of which are “Le Bouillon,” or a history of the art of bouillon making matted against a backdrop of what science now shows us is the optimal way of producing same, or “How Salt Modifies Taste” (the presence of salt enhances our ability to taste sugar, and reduces our sensitivity to tastes that are bitter).

Description of  Hervé This’s Work

Hervé This is the sole holder of a French Chemistry doctorate in a field of research named molecular gastronomy, a field set in motion by the late Nicholas Kurti, Professor of Physics at Oxford, and a member of the Royal Society. He is presently a physical chemist on the staff of INRA, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (National Institute of Agronomic Research). He works in the laboratory headed by Jean-Marie Lehn, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the CollËge de France.  His research centers on the chemistry underlying many aspects of nutrition, including the preparation of food, the relationship between flavors, textures and fragrances, taste education, the characteristics of foodstuffs, products and harvests, and the culture and history of cookery.

The novelty of his research is his collaboration with prestigious chefs, including the Michelin three star chef Pierre Gagnaire. He has organized various seminars that bring together scientists engaged in the laboratory and cooks who work in the kitchen.  These are been held under the auspices of prestigious sponsors, in addition to the CollËge de France, the CNRS (Centre national de la recherchÈ scientifique), the Center Ettore Majorana, Erice Sicily, and the Italian Research Ministry.

Reputation in France

A prolific author—in addition to scholarly articles, he has published several cookbooks and he is a regular contributor Pour la Science, and a frequent guest on French television, he is prominent in France where he enjoys an excellent reputation.  His work has been a major factor in various projects that explore the French cooking tradition throughout the school system: taste education programs, reliable information about nutrition and safe preparations of food, teaching of culinary techniques and food management. Many of the leading French culinary society have honored him, including the AcadÈmie nationale des arts et sciences du gout, the ConfrÈrie Saint-GrÈgoire du Taste fromage de la vallÈe de Munster, the Commanderie des Talmeliers du bon pain, to name only the more picturesque groups. He serves as advisor to important scientific centers, including the SociÈtÈ FranÁaise de Chimie, the Conseil Scientifique of the Palais de la DÈcouverte.

How well known is he in the US?

I believe leading professional cooks seeking to apply modern scientific methods to their kitchens know the author’s works.  Scientists of such research centers as the Monell Chemical Senses in Philadelphia are also familiar with it. His books have yet to be translated, and the general public is probably unaware of this major French figure.  

Brief Description of this Book

Hervé This began writing articles on science and gastronomy for the French popular science magazine, Pour La Science more than twenty years ago. Casseroles et Èprouvettes, (“Pots and Pans and Test tubes”) grew out of these successful essays.  This beautifully illustrated book, well received and widely reviewed in France is divided into four parts: 1. “Tricks of the Trade;” 2.”Physiology of Taste, Cooking Fundamentals;” 3.”Explorations and Normalizing;” 4. “Cooking of the Future.” The manner is lively and provocative, and the style is in the tradition of French classics of gastronomy, including Jean Antelme Brillat-Savarin and Alexandre Dumas.

“Tricks of the Trade” assesses whether supposedly tried and true cooking methods of traditional cookbooks actually work.  When the author seeks to establish once and for all how to slaughter soup stock particles the point is to determine scientifically whether you should use hot or cold water for meat and chicken in a stock. The chapter devoted to how to cook a perfectly hard-boiled egg debunks several myths perpetrated by traditional cookbooks. How to puff out a soufflÈ also runs counter to received wisdom. The seasoning, salting and timing of vegetables, potatoes, and pasta are carefully analyzed. For example, salting the water into which vegetables are cooked does not allow them to keep their color, but adding ascorbic acid, lemon juice, leads to surprising results. The point is to study and describe what you do in the kitchen scientifically in order to make cooking tasks easier and more transparent.

“Physiology of Taste,” focuses on the eating of food, rather than its preparation. Topics of this section include how the brain perceives flavors and how we detect textures. Sensations are analyzed and the physiology of what is bitter, sour, spicy, and salted is examined.  There are interesting insights into children’s taste, the act of chewing, and how bringing certain foods together may enhance their flavors.

“Explorations and Normalizing” focuses on the products themselves, and include the mundane and the sublime: bread, hams, and salamis, and also foie gras; mushrooms, potatoes, and also truffles, white and black; cheese, yogurts, preserves, chocolate, and tea, but also wine, whisky and champagne. Chocolate and cocoa, in particular, engage the author’s attention, and I understand that many chefs,  Heston Blumenthal whose English restaurant, The Fat Duck has two Michelin stars to cite but one instance, have applied techniques suggested here. Also reviewed are the advantages of roasting meats and fowl at very low temperatures. 65C for at least seven hours, a technique also favored by many chefs who follow the author’s experiments. 

“Cooking of the Future,” suggests new cooking processes and new dishes.  We are shown how it is possible to make mayonnaise, that is to say an emulsion without egg yolks and solely with egg whites, but also with no eggs at all, only oil and gelatin. A chocolate mousse can be achieved without eggs, and a flourless chocolate cake can be baked in the microwave in very little time and without much work.

How it compares with other books on this topic?

Other recent books on this topic include:

  • Peter Barham, The Science of Cooking
  • Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
  • Harold McGee, The Curious Cook:  More Kitchen Science and Lore
  • Robert L. Wolke, Food Chemistry

Hervé This has written a very “French” book that completely integrates gastronomy and science down to the molecular level. Readership will include  “foodies,” scientists, and also Francophiles.  Cooks, both professionals and amateurs, will appreciate the fact that Science serves as handmaid to the kitchen much more than in the other titles. 

Does it make a significant contribution?

Yes, the book makes a significant contribution insofar as the author is the leader of this new cooking wave that may eventually revolutionize food habits of this new century and millennium the way “nouvelle cuisine” did a generation ago.

Who is likely to buy the book in English?

The market for this book may be substantial.  It seems to me that many more people buy cookbooks than actually use these books to cook.  While this is not actually a cookbook, the market may be the same.  Certainly, it should appeal not only to cooking enthusiasts but also to general readers with a curiosity for science and/or things French. Everyone who eats (and all of us do) will find it appealing.  Furthermore, it makes a perfect gift.

It will probably be required of all students preparing for a career touching on cooking chemistry, nutrition, food and food preparation.

Is publication recommended?

I recommend that Columbia University Press publish a translation of this book.  Editing it for an American audience will be required.