You’ve likely heard tell of the fairy dusts employed by modernist chefs to create novel textures, amp up flavor, and just generally have a lot of fun with food. In fact, these powders aren’t storybook fodder at all—they’re developed in the service of food science. (And despite their high-tech origins, most are derived from natural ingredients). The stuff that makes Velveeta melt so winningly? You can use that to transform any cheese into something equally gooey and delectable. The bonding powder developed to make artificial crab, meanwhile, can help you create an uncommonly well-textured beef roast.
To begin playing with powders, check out these five ingredients—all available online and all essential to the modernist kitchen. Use them in our recipes and techniques, and you’ll see how they got their magical reputations.
Xanthan gum is a food-thickening agent that’s common to bottled salad dressings and other condiments, including ketchup and the ever-so-popular Sriracha sauce made by Huy Fong Foods. To create our Blini-topping Beet Fluid Gel, we used xanthan along with a hydrocolloid called low acyl gellan, which helps create a smooth, shiny product that envelops your tongue in bright beet flavor. (Psst: If you want to learn (a lot) more about hydrocolloids, enroll in our Fluid Gels class).
Sodium Citrate and friends
You say you love baseball; we suspect you’re partly in it for the stadium nachos dipped in spicy, technicolor cheese sauce. The secret to the superior melty-ness you get with the processed stuff? Melting salts. A cornerstone of the commercial cheese world, salts such as sodium citrate, sodium hexametaphosphate, and sodium caseinate allow manufacturers to create sterile products that don’t “oil off”—an industry term that refers to the tendency of the fats in melting cheese to separate from the proteins.
Tinker-prone chefs have taken advantage of melting salts to alter the texture of great cheeses, creating slices that have all the melty, creamy quality of the plastic-wrapped stuff you’ll find on supermarket shelves, but also the wonderful complex flavors of the best fromages. If you want to try the technique at home, make Nacho Cheese, Cheddar Cheese Sauce, or Melty Cheese Slices.
Ah, meat glue—an unfortunate nickname that undersells the game-changing possibilities of Activa, also known as transglutaminase and capable of bonding proteins together to create glorious frankenfoods. First developed to make imitation crab, Activa can improve texture and flavor in everything from fish to fried chicken. But one of our favorite applications is this Reconstructed Roast—a killer technique for taking home-cooked beef to the next level.
Everyone loves throwing shade on MSG—the sodium salt of glutamic acid that’s used as a flavor enhancer, primarily in Asian food. For the moment, we’ll leave it to Smithsonian magazine to dissect the veracity of MSG’s unseemly reputation, and just tell you that it can seriously up the umami factor in all sorts of stuff, offering a pop of flavor that can really level up a dish. If you’re dubious, definitely don’t try it in our Potato Chips, a simple example of how MSG can be used to make a good food great.
Love sour candies? Then you’re already a fan of citric acid, which lends a tart contrast to all sorts of sweet foods. We sprinkle it into our bright Lemon Curd, a tasty topper to dishes both sweet and savory.
Want to learn more about modernist cooking? Join the ChefSteps community today.