Recently, I returned from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) conference in Chicago. IFT is a huge organization of 20,000 food scientists that are responsible for creating all of the products on the shelves that you adore. From Reese’s to Cheerios, food scientists are the ultimate foodies. As you can imagine, this conference is pretty epic. Free samples and new technologies for days. Pork belly ice cream anyone? How about freeze dried cheese puffs? An enormous expo floor showcased all of these ideas and more while technical talks tackled hot button issues and complex health and safety ideas.
Whenever I come back home after these conferences, I feel inspired to get crafty in the kitchen. I decided to pull out my molecular gastronomy kit and make the kitchen my lab. This recipe will specifically require one ingredient that might not be common to your pantry—agar (aka agar-agar). However, it is easily purchased online or at your nearest specialty food store. You could also just sit back and read about the awesome science behind this ingredient. It is pretty cool. Read on to learn how to make jiggly little beads out of just about any liquid you can think of.
Agar is a gelling agent found in algae. It is a polysaccharide (a large carbohydrate network) that forms the support for the cell walls in algae. When you heat agar, the polysaccharide essentially becomes active and begins to solidify—further networking with units around it. When that happens, the network sucks any liquid up around it and gels!
The second cool part about this recipe is how to form the actual beads. The best way to do this is with oil. If you let the agar mixture just sit around, the whole thing will solidify in your saucepan. Dropping the agar mixture into cold oil will form perfect spherical beads. But why? When you cool an oil, such as canola or vegetable oil, down to low temperatures, it stays liquid while maintaining a very low temperature causing the agar to solidify right away. Furthermore, the oil and agar mixtures do not like to mix with each other because one is oil-based (the cold oil) and one is water-based (the agar mixture).When the agar mixture is dropped into the oil, it prefers to have the least amount of contact with the oil. The best way to do this is to curl up on itself into a sphere. The agar will keep the mixture in that sphere because, as mentioned earlier, agar will immediately gel upon cooling. If the container of oil is tall enough, the agar will solidify enough so that when it bounces off of the bottom, it won’t be affected at all in its shape.
The agar will not influence the flavor of your food in this application, so it’s the perfect way to try your hand at food science! The first recipe explains exactly how to form the beads, while the second is an easy idea on how to use them. Feel free to play around, and let me know if you create some fun things in the comments!
Soy Sauce Beads
¾ cup soy sauce
2 grams agar powder
At least 3 cups vegetable oil
1. In a tall container, pour the oil in and place it in your freezer for 30 mins-1 hour.
2. When your oil is almost ready, combine the soy sauce and agar powder in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil whisking continuously.
3. Once boiling, turn the heat off on the sauce pan and let sit for 2-3 minutes.
4. Take the oil out of the freezer, and drop the soy sauce-agar mixture into it dropwise. You could either use a plastic dropper to do this (easily purchased online) or a small spoon. Work rather quickly here as the longer the mixture sits, the more it will begin to solidify in your saucepan. Don’t worry if some of the first drops sit at the top. They will begin to sink as you add more.
5. When you have created all of the desired beads, or when you have used all of the agar mixture, you are ready to collect your beads.
6. Over a large bowl (do not just dump the oil down the sink!), pour the oil mixture out so that it is running through a fine-mesh strainer. The beads will be at the bottom of the container and collect in your strainer as you pour them out. Set the bowl of oil aside, and rinse the soy sauce beads with cold water over your sink.
7. Store the beads in the fridge until you are ready to use them, or put them on your dish immediately.
8. As for the oil, pour it into a sealable container and throw it away or reuse it as you see fit.
Also a great idea: balsamic vinegar!
Open-faced Soy Sauce, Egg, and Turkey Sandwich
2 pieces of toasted bread, or 1 bun sliced in half and toasted
2 tablespoons ricotta cheese
1-2 slices of deli turkey
Salt (if desired)
Soy Sauce Beads
1. Prepare your egg to your liking—I prefer a 5 minute soft boiled egg, so that’s what you see here.
2. Arrange the bread on a plate so that the sides are touching. Spread with ricotta cheese and cover with the turkey slices.
3. Peel the egg (if applicable) and place it on top of the bread in the middle of the two slices/halves.
4. Top with cracked black pepper and salt if you like it really salty. The soy sauce will add quite a bit of salt to the dish.
5. Add a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce beads to the top of the sandwich, and dig in!