It’s that time of year: gift-guide season has arrived and there’s no shortage of ideas for cooks—we all love indispensable kitchen tools, after all. In previous years, our gift guides encompassed our favorite equipment and tools, including suggestions for photographers. This year, however, we decided to take some of our favorite seasonal songs literally. We’re having a white Christmas and letting it snow by dedicating our gift guide to the powdery wonderland of Modernist ingredients.
Modernist chefs adore ingredients that make the culinary impossible possible, by transforming starches into sugars, stabilizing emulsions, gelling liquids, and creating cloud-like foams. Unfortunately, misinformation about Modernist ingredients is abundant, especially online. Because these substances are able to transform foods somewhat magically, they are often misidentified as being the byproducts of misguided science experiments. In reality, most are derived from naturally-occurring ingredients and processes, and many have been in use for decades.
The usefulness of these ingredients has made them staples in many contemporary kitchens. This guide features background information and ingredients (in no particular order of importance) deemed essential to Modernist techniques—it also serves as a foundation of a well-stocked pantry. We think they make fantastic gifts or stocking stuffers for anyone interested in Modernist cuisine, from seasoned professionals to adventurous home cooks. Create gift sets of different ingredients or provide helpful tools like digital scales, rapid caviar makers, or even a label maker, which comes in handy when you have a pantry full of identically-colored spices.
1. Xanthan gum is the “sliced bread” of Modernist ingredients. It’s an easy-to-use, tasteless, and flexible additive, made by fermenting bacteria, just like vinegar. It’s an incredibly useful thickener and stabilizer because it is effective under a wide range of viscosities, temperatures, and pH levels. Use it to create salad dressings, sauces, pestos, soups, gelatos and baked goods, including gluten free recipes.
2. Tapioca starch is a traditional thickener made from ground cassava roots. Also known as tapioca flour, it thickens gently, without modifying flavors, making it a great choice for broths, jus, gravy, fruit fillings, and our at-home version of dairy-free gelatos. Additionally, many Modernist chefs make use of modified starches, such as Ultra-Sperse and Ultra-Tex, that are derived from tapioca. These specialty starches are specifically formulated for different thickening tasks and are a great addition to any chef’s arsenal.
3. Transglutaminase is a family of enzymes that form chemical cross-links between muscle proteins so that they bind to one another. These enzymes are found in animal, plant, and microbial cells and play many roles in many functions, such as blood clotting. Despite the nickname “meat glue,” it is a naturally occurring ingredient commercially manufactured via bacterial fermentation, making it no more or less artificial than yeast-leavened bread, vinegar, or fermented sausage. It can be used to raise the melting point of gelatins and increase overall gel strength; in Modernist cooking, however, it’s most commonly used to glue meats or seafoods together. One brand of transglutaminase, called Activa, comes in various grades, each one optimized for a different use. We use Activa as a binder in our recipes for coarse-ground sausages and to create a show-stopping chessboard of bonded tuna and escolar.
4. Soy lecithin, as the name implies, is derived from soy beans. It’s a naturally occurring phospholipid used to emulsify or create foams. Often found in chocolate, this ingredient is commonly used to make salad dressings and sauces, like our Modernist Vinaigrette or Home Jus Gras.
5-6. Sodium alginate is a natural thickener and hydrocolloid derived from brown algae. It’s an ingredient that is commonly associated with spherification. This technique was made popular (and named) by Ferran Adrià—it is now one of the hallmarks of Modernist cooking. When alginate (a sugar) comes into contact with a calcium ion coagulant, gelling occurs—the secret to spherification is to delay the reaction by creating a gel mixture that cannot set. In the original spherification technique, sodium alginate is used to create a gel mixture that contains no free-floating calcium. When the liquid is dropped into a calcium bath, such as calcium chloride, a shell forms on the surface, enveloping the liquid inside. Spheres of juice add bursts of flavor to drinks and can transform familiar ingredients like olive oil into surprising pops of texture.
7. Guar gum, of no relation to the band Gwar, is a thickener and stabilizing agent extracted from the seeds of guar beans, which are indigenous to India and Pakistan. This hydrocolloid can thicken both hot and cold liquids, stabilize emulsions and foams, and help prevent syneresis (the tendency of gels to weep liquid). Guar gum is used to create constructed broths and coating sauces as well as cold cream sauces, constructed creams, and ice-cream bases.
8. Agar is derived from seaweed and has been used in Japanese cooking for centuries. It’s a clear, tasteless gelling agent that also works as an effective thickener and stabilizer. Although it’s available at Asian markets, specialty retailers sell agar powders, graded by gelling strength, that perform more consistently. We use agar to create fluid gels, like our Vegetarian Panna Cotta and Onion Fluid Gel. When making foams with a whipping siphon, the addition of a small amount of agar will give thin liquids enough body for foaming.
9. Sodium citrate is the salt of citric acid, which is a natural component of citrus fruits. With a slightly sour taste, it is sometimes used to add flavor (think of club soda), although we most often use it in cheeses as an emulsifier in order to keep droplets of water and fat from separating. A tiny amount will give your favorite cheeses a silky smooth texture when melted, allowing you to develop new spins on cheese-based dishes.
Looking to try out these Modernist ingredients? Our recipe library is full of wonderful options for cooks of all skill levels.