Forget the finals of MasterChef, or creating a feast for the Queen; when it comes to culinary challenges, a cooking lesson with Heston Blumenthal takes the crab biscuit with crystalised seaweed and oyster vinaigrette.
This is, let us not forget, the man who created snail porridge and whose recipe for chilli con carne contains more than 100 ingredients. His love affair with liquid nitrogen is legendary. So, whatever dastardly dish he is planning to teach me, it is sure to be beyond my ken.
Blumenthal can validly claim to have had more influence on modern British cooking than anyone, while also doing more than most university professors to bring science into the mainstream. As this is the first time he has invited the public into his lab for a cooking lesson, it is too good an opportunity to miss.
Despite the difficulty of some of his dishes – anyone who has been brought to tears by his eight-page recipe for trifle will attest to that – today he is cutting to the chase and showing us a handful of kitchen fixes that you don't need a PhD to try.
"I want to do anything I can to make science more exciting," he says, clad in chef's whites that could easily be mistaken for a lab coat. "In my books, I've worked out recipes that don't require the kind of hi-tech equipment that costs a fortune and requires a science degree to operate."
Blumenthal claims that, in order to undertake most of his recipes, the aspiring molecular gastronomist needs little more than a good thermometer and some accurate weighing scales. Looking around his lab, stuffed with centrifuge machines and Petri dishes, it's a little difficult to believe him. However, it's this passion for science that has led him to explore assumptions about taste, flavour, food preparation and what happens to our bodies when we eat – and win three Michelin stars in the process.
As well as being a self-taught chef, Blumenthal has never received any formal scientific training – although he has impressed the science community enough to be awarded an honorary doctorate of science from Reading University and to be admitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry.
"The whole thing started more than a decade ago with a science equipment catalogue," he explains. "I whipped myself up into a frenzy over these amazing bits of equipment, even though I didn't have a clue what half of them did. I bought a water bath, something that was a fairly standard piece of kit used in laboratories to create chemical reactions. The manual said it would cook at a certain temperature so I tried poaching some salmon in olive oil, and it cracked. I phoned up and they refused to replace it because I was using it for cooking. In the beginning, trying to get hold of this stuff was hard. People on the other end of the phone would say, 'You want it for what?'"
Despite being one of the UK's very few holders of so many étoiles, Blumenthal seems more proud of another achievement – having his first scientific paper published last year. "It was on monoglutamate ribonucleotides in the heart of tomatoes," he explains. Right. "I was tasting tomatoes and I felt that their taste was stronger in the centre. I started researching this with Reading University and discovered that the centre of the tomato has an awful lot of ribonucleotides.
"This may sound relatively insignificant, but it's really key. One of the classic preparation techniques in French cooking is peeling the tomato and then deseeding it by scooping out the middle and throwing the centre away. But when it's ripe, this is the most flavoursome bit." So if it's a tasty tomato sauce you're after, his research has proved that it's a good idea to keep hold of the love apple's innards.
According to Blumenthal, some hardware can give your cooking the X factor. A water bath will open up the world of low-temperature cooking, which keeps meat and fish really succulent. Precise digital scales will always be more accurate than a cloudy plastic measuring-jug.
Dry ice is another Blumenthal favourite: "When we first started using it, we froze everything – I even froze a pair of socks." And the very adventurous may want to experiment with chemicals. Agar-agar, the jelly-like medium used by many labs to grow cultures in Petri dishes, can replace gelatin in many recipes. Xanthan gum, a syrup made from bacteria, can take the place of corn starch.
But, although he seems obsessed with the school science lab, Blumenthal insists it's the cooking that's important, not the kit. "These gadgets and chemicals should be looked at as tools and no more," he cautions, as he stirs cream, sugar and dry ice in a bowl to make ice cream in 90 seconds. "The danger is that young chefs might come along and think it's all about the technique and the gadgets – no, it's the cooking. Before using any equipment, I always ask whether it will make the dish better, whether using it allows me to do something I couldn't do with any other piece of equipment."
Nervous diners can rest easy because, despite his endless experimentations, Blumenthal claims that the gimmicks employed as part of The Fat Duck's tasting menu – with soundtracks played to accompany certain courses, before you are treated to the spectacle of watching bacon and egg ice-cream "scrambled" before your very eyes – aren't there to alienate his clients. "It's not about turning diners into guinea pigs. You're just using as many techniques as possible to get emotion across."
And being hi-tech in the kitchen doesn't have to mean eschewing real food for freeze-dried ingredients or chemical compounds. Blumenthal's latest plan for the menu at The Fat Duck is to use his scientific skills in recreating historic British dishes. "I'd expect to create 10 or 12 dishes in six months for the new menu. When you're looking at the creative experimental stuff, it's a longer process – one dish can take up to two years to perfect."
Sounds too long to wait for supper? Try one of the following experiments, which Blumenthal hopes will provide a quicker route to epicurean excellence.
Fat Duck food made easy
By Heston Blumenthal
Jersey milk ice cream
The most fun you can have in a kitchen is using a dry-ice machine to make ice cream. All you need is dry ice (which you can buy from disco suppliers); a standard food mixer, such as a Kenwood, and the basic ice-cream ingredients. I once put too much dry ice in and by accident created fizzy ice-cream.
500ml Jersey whole milk
300ml double cream
80g unrefined caster sugar
100g glucose syrup
1kg dry ice
1. Put the milk, cream, sugar and glucose syrup in a pan, and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and the glucose is liquid. Set aside.
2. Put on safety gloves and protective goggles, and open the packet of dry ice. Wrap it in a tea towel and then a hand towel and smash it into a powder with a rolling pin. Unfold the towels and shake the powdered dry ice into a glass bowl.
3. Pour the milk and glucose mix into the bowl of a food mixer. Shake a little dry ice into the bowl and, using the mixer's paddle, mix on the slowest speed until the dry ice dissolves and its vapour clears. Add dry ice a little at a time until the ice cream has absorbed it all. Add the dry ice in small quantities to stop the ice cream going grainy. Once the dry ice is absorbed, beat the ice cream on the next fastest speed until smooth.
4. Quickly scrape the ice cream out of the mixer and into a container. Store in the freezer until required.
This is a classic tipple from The Fat Duck menu – everyone loves it.
1 bottle Mas Amiel Maury
75g Valrhona Tanariva (33 per cent cocoa)
185ml skimmed milk
1. Bring the wine to the boil. Carefully set it alight and allow the flame to burn off. Continue boiling until the liquid becomes syrupy and reduces to about 150ml.
2. Grate the chocolate or finely chop it and put to one side in a saucepan. In a separate pan, bring the milk slowly to the boil, pour it over the chocolate and stir.
3. Add the reduced wine to the chocolate milk, heat and froth using a whisk or hand blender. Serve immediately.
Taste or flavour?
This quick experiment shows that a food's taste and its flavour are two different things.
A little chocolate
A pinch of salt
1. Grate a small amount of chocolate on to a plate, then pour a little salt on to another plate.
2. Hold your nose, and put a small amount of chocolate in your mouth. You won't be able to taste anything until you let go of your nose. The reason? Chocolate has a flavour but isn't a taste.
3. Repeat with the salt. This time, despite clamping your nose, you will taste the saltiness of the salt. That's because salt is a taste sensation and taste receptors are located on the tongue, while the flavour of chocolate is made up of the experience of both taste and smell.
The science behind making a perfectly clear stock is really interesting. You can use the stock to make a classic consommé.
Make a stock, as you normally would. Add a little gelatin to the liquid. Freeze the stock. Take it from the freezer and (assuming you don't have a vacuum line fitted with a 0.2-micron filter to hand) place it in a colander and allow it to melt through a muslin cloth or a filter-coffee paper. It works because the gelatin molecules cross-link and in effect create a "filter" that traps particles. When you freeze a gelatin gel and defrost it, it will weep liquid. This is called "syneresis".
At The Fat Duck, we supply diners with iPods that play the sound of waves crashing on to a beach while they eat a fish pie. Research shows that environmental cues can make a dish more enjoyable; 87 per cent of people who listened to sea sounds while eating oysters enjoyed them more than without the soundtrack. See what effect music has on what you eat! If music is too loud, your flavour perception and taste receptors are inhibited, so you don't taste as much. Play fast music, and people's eating times are speeded up.
Win a day cooking with Heston Blumenthal
In common pursuit of perfection, Heston Blumenthal has teamed up with Finish Quantum dishwasher tablets to offer one of our readers the chance to win a meal at The Fat Duck, and a complementary masterclass with Heston. For your chance to attend the Diamond Standard Finishing School, tell us about your best culinary innovation, in no more than 50 words. The closing date for entries is 30 June 2008, and the usual Independent competition rules apply. For more details see link at the top of the page.