The Mystery of Gel, Sauce and Purée

This week I was inspired by the metamorphosis of rain and ice. How are liquefied foods the same? I wanted to make something that held together but was fundamentally liquid. I could only do this through the lens of sauces, purées and fluid gels.

Fluid gels are by far the most mysterious. Silky, semi-solid spreads capable of delivering an intense and crisp flavor.

Most sauces we encounter are either aerated, emulsified or bound together. Egg yolks and cream, oil and vinegar, veggies and butter. These familiar combinations create liquified derivatives of the foods we love. Whether it’s a butternut squash purée, custard or vinaigrette, they have always transformed how we enjoy fatty proteins, starchy roots and delicate greens.

Unlike a purée or emulsified sauce however, fluid gels are molecularly sophisticated and rely on the unique properties of hydrocolloids or, gelling agents. These agents suspend tiny particles of flavorful liquid in a viscous and sticky matrix. Producing an uncanny and full-bodied texture that retains bright flavor integrity.

In my last post, I investigated the age-old practice of pasta making, which relies on egg yolks to turn flour into gluten. This process and many more like it (agar agar derived from dried seaweed and gelatin in animal bones) were the earliest gelling agents used to make bread, noodles and stews.

Gelling agents nowadays vary significantly. And some are more popular than others, like Xanthan Gum’s unrivaled value in gluten-free and vegan baking. No matter the kind, we consume products held together by gelling agents everyday, from Jell-O to gravy.

Fluid gels are simply the newest iteration of this process. But rather than simply binding ingredients together, these gels are shiny, smooth and vibrant on their own. Giving chefs like Wylie Dufresne (wd-50 and Adler) the ability to create different profiles and textures that bend conventional wisdom, as he did with his famous Eggs Benedict dish. Chefs have used fluid gels to design beautiful plates, liquefy meats and vegetables and change the structure of foods that are otherwise constrained by the laws of nature.

I experimented with a number of gelling agents: agar agar, gelatin and high acyl gellan gum. Most of my ‘gels’ came out either chunky or totally liquid. The variance in temperature resistance was my biggest challenge. Gels made with gelatin for example, would set only at colder temperatures, overheating the liquid reduced the strength of the gel rendering it unusable. Agar agar on the other hand was brittle and not sticky enough to suspend those delicious particles of flavor, becoming very chalky.

The winner was the high acyl gellan gum, which I used to make a bright pink Blood Orange gel. It was smooth, elastic and very soft. In other words, this gel was delicate and incorporated enough to produce a semi-rigid gel perfect for plating and complimenting food. In this case, I used this fluid gel in a bright summer crudo salad, to create some warmth in the dwindling days of winter.

 

Cured Salmon, Strawberry and Cucumber Salad, Blood Orange gel, Chevré, Red Pepper

Gel

 

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