We’ve been to a bar or two in Baltimore that gave the vague nod to the concept of molecular mixology—the alcoholic brother of molecular gastronomy, which uses scientific methods to change the texture and flavor of foods. But in all honesty, we haven’t been overly enthusiastic about the potential of burning our lips off with leftover liquid nitrogen used in a fruity cocktail for aesthetic purposes. And let’s be honest: That’s a bullshit attempt at what is actually a culinary art form, if you really get the concept of mixing at the molecular level.
But the bars employing the true concept of molecular mixology are doing so authentically and embracing the same concepts of the Baltimore dining scene, such as sustainability and farm-to-table cooking, using high-quality ingredients, maintaining a focus on preservation, creating interesting flavor combinations, and often incorporating an element of surprise.
Hearing that Bryan Voltaggio's newest addition to the city's dining and drinking scene, Family Meal, utilizes culinary techniques in nearly all of its cocktails inspired us to dig a little deeper to see what's really happening behind the bars.
The harborside restaurant embraces molecular mixology with its cocktail program's focus on interesting flavor combinations, achieved through sophisticated kitchen techniques.
Dane Nakamura, bar director for Voltaggio's restaurants Aggio, Range, and Family Meal, prefers using the terminology "culinary-based program" over the classification of molecular gastronomy or mixology, and is adamant that the program is "not about reinventing the wheel." He utilizes techniques that were previously used solely by kitchen staff, such as transforming fruits and vegetables via a sous vide method, in which meats and vegetables are sealed in airtight bags and slow-cooked in a water bath, allowing the foods to retain moisture and cook evenly. Another technique he uses is blast-chilling then aerating ingredients with a Paco Jet, a spinning tool that aerates and shaves a frozen product—without any need for thawing—to create a creamy consistency that can be used for sorbets, pâtés, mousse, and concentrates. While the techniques are elevated, the end result is intended to be a humble presentation of high-quality ingredients that allows bartenders to quickly prepare cocktails, freeing up time to spend with drinkers and diners at the bar. More importantly, all of the work is done behind the scenes. The whole purpose, for those dedicated to the process, is to make an exceptional product without the flair.
"We're trying to break down the ingredients on a molecular level to get the most flavor out of them," Nakamura says. "Every chef will talk about layers of flavor. It's the same behind the bar."
Nakamura's bloody mary at Range is one of the simpler examples of kitchen-created mixes, though it's created through a relatively long process requiring perfect execution. He creates a consommé from a chopped vegetable mix, tomato water from the strained tomatoes used for the restaurant's pizza sauce, bacon, garlic, onions, peppers, fennel, lemon, and peppers. He then uses an egg white raft for clarification before further straining, so that the mix is nearly clear, as opposed to the more typical bright red mixes used for bloodys.
Nakamura describes it as a bit of a mind-fuck, really. "It looks like iced tea, but it tastes like a bloody mary." Instead of the tomato-forward flavor of the typical bloody mary, which often relies on added sauces or spices (think Worcestershire or Old Bay) for its kick, this smoother version features tomato flavor balanced with a complex flavor profile from the other vegetables and herbs used to create the consommé. It's rare that a cocktail is described as having umami, but this bloody epitomizes the fifth taste, with no one particular flavor overpowering another, but instead all working together to make each sip a satisfying one, much like chefs describe "the perfect bite."
At Family Meal, Nakamura uses the same technique but infuses flavors of Baltimore's native pit beef into the mix, resulting in a bit thicker and more brightly colored beverage with equally complex flavor.
One of the most simple molecular techniques Nakamura has used at some locations is in his rendition of a mojito. Any bartender will admit that muddling is, at best, a time-consuming task. Instead, Nakamura freezes mint leaves using liquid nitrogen. Upon order, warm rum is simply poured over the super-frozen mint leaves, causing them to instantly release their flavor into the beverage and eliminating the need for muddling. Not only is beverage production time drastically reduced, but the experience of watching the cocktail being prepared feels a bit like a grown-up science experiment as drinkers watch the smoke billow off the quick-thawing mint while the oils release into the rum.
Nakamura has also slow-cooked the mint leaves in an immersion circulator, the tool that is utilized to cook using the aforementioned sous vide method, at 53 degrees Celcius in order to extract the oils of the mint leaf to also eliminate the muddling process.
The liquid nitrogen, though, is where the "simplicity" ends (at least behind the scenes - everything looks simple at the bar, and that's the point). Some of the most frequently used products for mixing are "jams"—fruit-based substances slow-cooked with complementary ingredients (pepper, salt, herbs) to create what would be considered a traditional jam were pectin included. The absence of pectin allows it to retain its liquid state.