When I was passing through Roses, Spain last year, I made a feeble last minute attempt to procure a reservation at El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s earth shattering (in price at least) restaurant. Reservations for the year are taken on a single day in June. I started calling three weeks before I arrived. Adria, best known for his groundbreaking work in Molecular Gastronomy, unfortunately was unable to find a seat for me and now that he’s closing up shop for good, it looks like I never will.
Your loss, Senor Adria!
In any event, I decided last year to delve into the interesting world of Molecular Mixology. I searched blog after blog after blog, looking for any information on how to get started. I found Willpowder, Chef William Goldfarb’s molecular supply company that would ship to the VI.
(As with buying anything online, the hardest part of trying to procure any goods is to find someone that recognizes the USVI as a territory and not an international destination)
Now, this stuff is not cheap, in fact, just to get the initial products to experiment with set me back around $300 bucks. So, if you’re looking to play around with this in your home kitchen, consider this a cautionary economic forewarning!
I decided to start my journey by working on a technique known as Spherification to create alcoholic “caviar” or “pearls” using the reactive qualities of Sodium Alginate & Sodium Chloride. Alginate is extracted from seaweed and when introduced to water dispersed with the chloride, forms a sort of viscous gum.
By mixing the alginate with another fluid, such as juice or booze, then placing it in the chloride bath, the alginate reacts and forms a membrane around the liquid creating spheres of goodness. The goal is to temper the spheres in the bath long enough to build a stable membrane wall but not so much to become a solid gel. What we want is to bite into the pearl and get a quick burst of flavor from the liquid inside.
I determined to break my molecular cherry with the ingredients of the Negroni. I have been addicted to Negroni’s since my first sip so many years ago, thanks to Phil at the Clinton St. Pub in Portland, who became a good friend and the first inspiration behind my cocktail exploits.
The Negroni is a blend of equal parts
- Sweet Vermouth
I chose to attempt some caviar & pearls of Sweet Vermouth & some of Campari.
The general recipe for spherification calls for ¼ oz of alginate to every 5 oz of liquid. So first in to my mixing container went 5 oz of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. I then slowly added the alginate while mixing it all with an immersion blender.
Surprisingly the vermouth started jelling quickly with the alginate, leaving little alginate clumps throughout. On subsequent tries I’ve found that heating the liquid first, helped to dissolve the alginate with minimal clumping.
I let my vermouth/alginate rest for 15 minutes to let some of the air escape. Next, I transferred it to a pack and vacuum-sealed it to suck out the rest of the air trapped inside the liquid.
While my vermouth/alginate rested in the vacuum pack, I made my chloride bath.
I combined .05 oz sodium chloride and 16 oz of warm distilled water, once again using my immersion blender to mix it up.
Bath ready, I cut off a corner of the vacuum pack and poured the vermouth/alginate mix into a standard kitchen squeeze bottle.
Now, the process of making uniform caviar sized spheres took me a while to get right. The first few attempts at dropping the mix straight from the bottle into the bath resulted in long, wormlike shapes. Then my caviar all had little tails, making them look like oblong vermouth teardrops. I finally got the hang of dropping in minute amounts to create small caviar sized spheres and made a significant amount quickly.
Through trial and error I established that leaving the caviar sized drops for any longer than 30 seconds results in too solid of nips that lack the defined taste, punch and that explosive quality we’re looking for. I remove the caviar into a handy small strainer and immediately wash it in distilled water by pouring the water over the caviar.
30 seconds was the key.
Still, the small caviar drops don’t really hold much flavor unless you have a bunch of them at once, which consequentially leaves too much of the membrane texture that is a little difficult to get used to.
On to Pearls
Unsuccessful with using the squeeze bottle alone for larger pearls, I tried a few different methods until finding the solution in the bottom of a kitchen ladle.
I discovered squeezing a good marble sized (a little less than the width of a penny) glob into the cup of the ladle and swirling the ladle in a circular motion achieved the desired spherical pearl I was looking for. Removing and washing in the same fashion of the caviar.
I played with the proportions, creating a couple golf ball sized spheres and some the mass of a macadamia nut. Leaving the marble sized amount in the bath for around 1 ½ minutes has proven to be the best option of them all, ensuing in fun pearls that have a solidish texture but still pop in your mouth with the intended flavor.
I followed the same process with the Campari, only omitting to vacuum seal the mix, which was accidental but had an interesting result. (Besides looking like the evil goo from Ghostbusters 2)
Since there remained some air in the mix, the pearls would float to the surface of the bath, bobbing around. (These air encapsulated pearls are fun to use in a bubbly wine as they dance in the glass.) The trapped air has no other discernable effect and after a few refrigerated days, the air seems to be absorbed by the mix and the pearls become firm. Now, I typically let the mix sit after initial blending for about an hour in the fridge to release most, but not all the air.
I keep every batch of pearls I make in a bath of equal parts water and their respective liqeuers, but they only reveal the secret pop inside for a few hours after creation before completely gelling through.
Now that I have been working on spherification for about a half of a year, my technique has improved considerably and I can bang out a few dozen pearls in under an hour. The general recipe is deceptively easy as the end result depends more on your technique and practice with individual ingredients. Alcohol is especially difficult to work with and I haven’t had much success using anything over 40 proof. Also, the acidity and sodium levels can factor in on how the alginate and chloride react. Read more about that here.
The more I play with Molecular Mixology, the more I have learned about the way we perceive taste and how to utilize texture as an added component to my cocktails. I can’t use these tools to make new drinks every night as it is just to damn cost prohibitive. Nonetheless, I’m having fun with it and hope that this helps motivate more bars and restaurants on the rock to experiment as well.
Expect more posts in the future on my bumbling adventures in this brave new alcoholic world…