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Spherification Technique

The Basic Guide to Spherification

Cooking innovations have emerged during the past couple of years, and leading-edge kitchen equipment and complex food processes have been combined with tried-and-tested cooking methods. One of these innovations includes Molecular Gastronomy, a term devised by Hungarian-born Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti that fuses physical and chemical cooking methods along with a choice of ingredients (or solutions) in order to produce reactions. These reactions create amazing new food compositions and flavors that can satisfy any discriminating palate.

By using shreds of scientific and artistic disciplines, molecular gastronomy has been acknowledged as a specialized culinary principle. Using this culinary principle in new cooking styles, molecular gastronomists conceived different techniques from it and spherification is one of them.

What is Spherification?

Spherification, a process discovered by Unilever but modernly applied by visionary chef Ferran Adria and his Michelin 3-star restaurant elBulli team in 2003, is the formation of a liquid into orb-like beads or spheres encapsulated in a gelled skin. These spheres, which look like little eggs or caviar, when bitten explode a liquid flavor in the tongue. Liquids that can be transformed into spheres include a choice of fruit and vegetable juices like melon or olive, dairy products like milk or yogurt, even alcohol.

The spherification process consists of two versions - direct and reverse.

In direct spherification, gelling solutions like sodium alginate is mixed directly with the chosen liquid and dropped in calcium chloride and water to form a thin gel shell. In this version, the spheres are easily breakable and should be consumed immediately.

In reverse spherification, alcohol and milk are fitting liquids. It uses calcium lactate, as it is found in dairy products, added with calcium chloride and dumped in a sodium alginate bath to form the covering around the liquid food. Unlike the direct version, the gelling stops and does not continue into the liquid orb. This result in having thicker shells so they do not have to be consumed immediately.

What is Spherification Commonly Used For?

Spherification is typically used in preparing and creating avante-garde dishes that have a caviar-like resemblance. In 2003, the famous Cantaloupe melon caviar was created by Adria's elBulli team which garnered a following. One can find delicious green tea or apple juice caviar in various modernist cuisine restos. Spherification is not limited to making fruit caviar, however. That same year, the elBulli team used the spherification technique to make truffle pellets.

By direct spherification, you can make ravioli by using a spoon in place of a syringe. Spherical liquid pea ravioli was the first dish Adria's elBulli team prepared with spherification. Continuing with the success of their ravioli experiment, they tried to make miniravioli, a smaller version of the ravioli. Other modernist cuisine chefs followed suit. There is even a Coca-Cola ravioli recipe creating a major buzz among spherification enthusiasts today.

Spherical balloons are also variations of spherification. They are created with the use of soda siphons. Difficult to make, the balloons were formed by mixing sodium alginate with rose-scented water into the siphon. With a special adaptor, the elBulli team dropped the siphon on a calcium agent that causes thick orbs. The orbs then transformed into transparent balloons.

Another thing that spherification is used for is making spherical noodles. Using a syringe poured with lychee juice and sodium alginate, while tracing laces over a calcium agent, lychee-flavored spherical noodles were created.

Furthermore, spherification is also used to cook spherical gnocchis. The elBulli team made two gnocchi versions: One is the potato gnocchi and the other is made from pumpkin pur?e.

How Spherification Works

Bringing that perfect sphere shape and flavor quality to the table is important in the spherification process. Here's how the technique works:

Viscosity. Getting the proper thickness and consistency of the chosen liquid and solution is the key to good-looking spheres. The liquid ingredient should be thicker and the solution bath should be thinner. This enables droplets to shape easily into spheres.

Proper release. When not done properly, the process could result in oval or flattened shapes. Releasing the droplets from a proper distance to the calcium bath surface is the right thing to do. This way, the droplets have time to transform into a sphere with sufficient movement to bore into the bath surface.

Constant syringe pump pressure. When making spheres, a syringe is the typical equipment to use. For uniform sphere size, allow droplets to separate on its own by forcing steady pressure to the syringe pump. Horizontally grip the syringe to achieve larger spheres.

Buffer ingredient acidity. For direct spherification, ingredients with high acidity levels do not achieve the right texture or composition of the food. Even if sodium citrate is added to curtail acidity, having large amounts of it will result in a salty main ingredient.

Let spheres rest. For less than a minute, allow the spheres to sit down and "cook". This enables them to have the right amount of liquid inside. Produce spheres in batches by using multiple syringes. Use a round strainer to easily pull out all the spheres right away. Also, do not let the spheres float at the top or stay at the bottom to avoid deformation and flattening.

Serve. For direct spherification, remember that the spheres continue to jell even if they are already fished out of the bath and rinsed. They are formed with thin gel covering so they need to be eaten immediately.

Ingredients Used In Spherification

These are the basic ingredients used in the spherification process.

Calcium lactate, often detected in aged cheeses, is a crystalline salt that is whitish in color. When used in the spherification process, it enhances the calcium content and tastes less bitter when poured to the main ingredient. It dissolves in fat and is added to fruits to lengthen shelf life.

Calcium lactate gluconate, a flavorless component, is ideal in reverse spherification as it can augment calcium-rich products. Also called calcium gluconolactate, it is a merger of two salts, calcium gluconate and calcium lactate.

Sodium alginate is a flavorless ingredient derived from brown seaweed that thrives in cold water areas. It is used to form gel coverings in the presence of calcium. It is also a thickening and binding agent.

Sodium citrate, sometimes dubbed as a sour salt, have a salty and sour flavor. It is used as a food additive and preservative, often found in citrus and lemon-flavored sodas. Sodium citrate is ideally used in direct spherification to buffer the acidity of the main ingredient.

Calcium chloride is a firming, stabilizing, enhancing, and pickling agent. For direct spherification, it is used in the calcium bath since the chosen ingredient is not affected by its sodium content. It is also deemed as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Xanthan is commonly used as a thickening agent in reverse spherification specifically with liquid ingredients that have high-alcohol content. It is acquired from corn starch fermentation and is water soluble and gluten-free.

Spherification Recipes

Melon Soup Spheres Recipe

Cantaloupe melon soup party spheres
This recipe makes fresh cantaloupe and honeydew melons into a simple flavorful soup, then turns it into little spheres that my guests can pop into their mouths. By using a modernist spherification technique and the modernist ingredients of calcium lactate and sodium alginate, you too can make a fun take on this favorite summer food!

Chipotle Caviar Recipe

Using miniature spheres, referred to as caviar, is a great way to add little bursts of flavor to dishes. Here we use a chipotle water but you can use the same technique on any liquid that doesn't contain calcium.

Sodium Alginate

Cranberry reverse spherification 2
Sodium alginate is most well known for its use in spherification. It is a natural gelling agent taken from the cell walls of brown algae.

It easily disperses, hydrates, and gels in any temperature of liquid. Sodium alginate gels when it comes in contact with calcium. It also has many uses other than spherification such as thickening and general gelling. It works best in non-acidic mixtures.

Spherified Mango Ravioli Recipe

Alginate spheres mango
One of the most interesting things in molecular gastronomy is spherification. Spherification is basically a process that seals a liquid in a jelly like membrane. There are several ways to accomplish this but in this article we will focus on the method of reverse spherification using calcium lactate and sodium alginate. When the calcium and the sodium alginate come in contact they form a membrane, encapsulating anything inside of it.
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