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A Premiere Chef Explores The Jiggly Joys Of Gelatin

If you think gelatin's charms go no further than wobbly, crimson cubes of lunchroom Jell-O, one of the most celebrated and ambitious chefs in the country would like to convince you otherwise.

"Gelatins are one of most unbelievable areas in cooking today," said Jose Andres, the Spanish-born restaurateur and innovator of avant-garde cooking, earlier this month. And then he went on to prove it in an engaging presentation at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The venue, and the introduction by a Harvard biophysicist named David Weitz, might seem a bit odd for a flamboyant, jet-setting chef like Andres. But the unappreciated potential – and mechanics — of gelation in food fit right into the "Science & Cooking" lecture series, organized by Weitz, which brings some of the most creative minds of the food world to talk about pushing the limits of ingredients and their infinite combinations. The lectures also allow scientists like Weitz help chefs problem solve in the lab.

So, about those gelatins. Why are chefs like Andres so excited about them? Because they're one of a chef's greatest tools in tricking the mind and tastebuds. And they're handy substitutes in an age when many ingredients aren't so palatable anymore.

Gelatins turn liquids into solids, and can make cream-based dishes into a lighter, more flavorful affair by eliminating the need for heavy, flavor-distorting fats. They can also replaces starches in pasta, egg whites in meringues, and shark fins in shark fin soup.

Most gelatins out there today are derived from seaweed, animal proteins, fruit pectins or vegetables. Andres uses them all. They're essential to the famous mousse, foam, "air" and "cloud" he serves at minibar in Washington, D.C. They allow him to enhance textures and flavors, he says. And "when you use a simple gelatin like collagen, you can get flavor that is 100 percent pure, maybe event 150 percent. The combustion that happens in the mouth is exponentially higher," he noted.

Of course, Andres didn't invent all these gelatin tricks. He credits much of the innovation to his mentor, Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli restaurant in northeastern Spain revolutionized cooking and launched the molecular gastronomy movement. "Ferran shared everything," Andres said.

And indeed, there's a lot more sharing going on between scientists like Weitz and chefs like Andres than ever before.

"The chefs like Jose we interact with are beginning to appreciate that science has something to offer them. ... There's a real dialogue between us," Weitz tells The Salt. "And we gain enormous appreciation of the beauty of what they do."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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