Gastronomy in the modern era has evolved, technological developments turning the art of cooking into an exact science. It focuses on the physical and chemical reactions that occur during the cooking process, and how those reactions affect the aroma and flavor of the dishes being made. Sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy, this scientific approach to making food is becoming more and more common as time passes. This can involve the use a variety of chemical compounds and devices, the most popular of which being liquid nitrogen.
Nitrogen is the seventh element on the periodic table, and it makes up more than seventy-five percent of the air in the atmosphere. It is difficult to change nitrogen into its liquid form, as it only maintains that state between the temperatures of negative 346 and 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of these incredibly low temperatures, liquid nitrogen can cause extreme damage if ingested or applied directly to living tissue. Despite these challenges to an average cook, liquid nitrogen is gaining popularity among professionals and amateurs alike in order to freeze food.
The first culinary use of liquid nitrogen goes back as far as the nineteenth century, mentioned in the recipe book Fancy Ices by Agnes Marshall. Due to the extremely cold temperature of the nitrogen, it is able to freeze foods pretty much instantaneously. The speed with which it does this freezing causes microscopic ice crystals to form, exponentially smaller than those created by the use of a conventional freezer. These smaller crystals give the food being frozen a smoother texture, which is the main reason for the growing popularity of liquid nitrogen in cooking. Also, because of the rapid rate of the freezing process, chefs are able to make their customers these dishes right at the table within seconds. As a result, these lucky customers are paying for a dinner with a show.
Heston Blumenthal, a renowned chef and molecular gastronomist, is one of the men who can be credited most with bringing liquid nitrogen to mainstream cooking. At his Michelin-star restaurant The Fat Duck, Blumenthal serves ice cream made with liquid nitrogen on a trolley, allowing customers to watch the ice cream being made directly in front of them. This method quickly became popular across the world, delighting customers with both the spectacle and the unique texture offered by liquid nitrogen ice cream.
The second most popular use of liquid nitrogen in cooking is in the preparation of mixed drinks. Often used simply to quickly freeze ingredients, liquid nitrogen is most commonly used in the making of cocktails for aesthetic purposes. Because it boils at a temperature of negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit at normal atmospheric pressures, when added directly to a mixed drink, liquid nitrogen causes a smokey effect. This fog is created when the frigid nitrogen comes into contact with water vapour in the air around it, causing it to condense. It is in this use that the most danger is present. In 2012, a young woman in England consumed a drink prepared with liquid nitrogen. Shortly afterwards, she was admitted to the hospital due to abdominal pain, and had to have her stomach removed. The liquid nitrogen in her beverage had not been given enough time to evaporate completely, and as a result it gave her severe internal injuries. Despite these health concerns, the use of liquid nitrogen in the culinary arts is only in the early stages of its popularity. Soon it will be common in any kitchen in the world.