Fun with Mould?
Michelin-starred chefs using germs and mould to change taste of dishes
Germs and mould - not the most appetising ingredients - are playing a role in the world's top restaurants, according to new research. Cooks are inventing fresh treats by harnessing the ability of bacteria and fungi, or microorganisms, to change into tasty morsels.
Flavour chemist Dr Arielle Johnson, who works for two Michelin starred noma in Copenhagen named the world's Number One restaurant in 2011 said 'food fermentation' been used for thousands of years as a preservation technique.
She believes the current 'artisanal food microbiology' movement stems from a renewed "appreciation for old techniques and their reinterpretation in the kitchen."
One of the most common methods involves soaking food in salty water using bacteria to eat the sugar and produce lactic acid which has a sour taste.
Dr Johnson, head of research at food culture lab MAD in Copenhagen, said restaurants such as noma in Copenhagen, Momofuku in New York, Bar Tartine in San Francisco and Husk in Nashville and Charleston, have turned their kitchens into makeshift fermentation laboratories.
This is providing chefs with new methods for working with bacteria, fungi and algae to transform ingredients and create new flavours, providing "a new cooking tool, every bit as essential as a paring knife or frying pan."
Writing in Nature Microbiology, she went on: " While it is increasingly common for restaurants to offer high-quality bread, made in-house from a purposefully cultivated sourdough starter, the same has not been true of other fermented products that appear on the menu.
"That is, until recently, when cooks around the world have begun to discover the possibilities of using fermentation processes in the kitchen.
"Call it a revival, a natural outgrowth of the 'do-it-yourself ' mentality, or artisanal food microbiology." Examples include katsuobushi, kefir and koji, forms of tuna, milk and rice respectively which have all been fermented in the lab, along with the fermented beverages kombucha and kvass.
Others are miso and tempeh which are fermented soy beans and tsukemono, and pickled vegetables known as tsukemono.
Dr Johnson said: "The cuisine of noma is based around geographical limitation: ingredients must come, mostly, from the Nordic region. "As with many limitations, this has led to a blossoming of gastronomic creativity in the search for flavours, with fermentation at its heart. "My job there is to distil technical and scholarly knowledge from many different fields into practical knowledge that any cook can use. "Most of our lab is dedicated to fermentation, both development and production. "Inside modified shipping containers, which we retrofitted ourselves, are seven rooms that function as climate controlled incubators, able to hold temperatures between -30°C and 60°C, and humidity levels of up to 99 per cent. "This makes it possible to create hospitable environments for exactly the species of yeast, bacteria and moulds that we use to make misos, vinegars, lactic fermentations, kombuchas and other products." Other established restaurants have also drawn inspiration for their cuisine from working with microorganisms. Sean Brock, who runs Husk, was inspired by his grandmother who would ferment sauerkraut, sour corn and wines, leading to greens fermented in the style of sauerkraut, fermented peppers and a 'vinegar pantry' made from strawberries, sorghum and energy drink Mountain Dew. Likewise, the New York restaurant group Momofuku has a lab devoted to developing new food techniques, and has devised fermentations inspired by Japanese miso and katsuobushi, but made with locally-sourced pork, spelt and chickpeas. Bar Tartine in San Francisco, helmed by chefs Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, features a regular rotation of lacto-fermented vegetables on its menu, with koji often making an appearance along with a spectrum of fermented beverages including dairy and water kefir and kvass, all of which are produced in-house. Added Dr Johnson: "It is going to be exciting and, hopefully, delicious to see where the next set of developments takes us."