Adventures in Transglutaminase (Meat Glue)

As tonight’s instructor, Michael Cirino of A Razor, A Shiny Knife said, modern cooking isn’t about recipes. With more toys, more chemicals, and more scientific knowledge about our ingredients and the way cooking changes them — it’s about technique and applications. More curiosity, intuition, educated experimentation … less rote direction-following!

The Tranglutaminase class was the third in a series of Molecular Gastronomy classes at Brooklyn Kitchen. Molecular gastronomy (and I use that somewhat obnoxious term reluctantly) intrigues me because it is basically about reimagining the primal acts of eating and cooking. This type of revolutionary thinking can scare people, but ultimately molecular gastronomy enables us to create new stories out of old characters who haven’t changed in a long time. And that creates progress, complexity, a richer narrative.

What is tranglutaminase? Well, you can read about it here. Basically, it’s an enzyme that creates covalent bonds between proteins at 50% the strength of naturally-occuring muscle fibers. The applications? Well, here are some we covered in class.

Bkkitchen_chicken_noodle_soup

The noodles in this “chicken noodle soup” are made entirely out of a simple chicken mousseline (basically whipped up chicken, optional milk or cream) that is bound by tranglutaminase and activated in hot broth. We piped this mixture from a pastry bag and let it set in the broth. Wylie Dufresne does a preparation like this at WD-50, but you get to pipe a shrimp paste mixture with a personal squeeze bottle.

Bkkitchen_chicken_sausage

These guys are not scallops…

Bkkitchen_chicken_sausage_bite

…but casing-less chicken sausage, made with the same mousseline, molded into a roll, then sliced. You can add other aromatics, vegetables and herbs into the mousseline, but that will of course decrease the protein surface area and weaken the bonds.

Bkkitchen_chicken_skin_chip

This is a chicken skin chip, made from a torchon of chicken skin, bound with transglutaminase. The torchon looked like pancetta without the meat, and — because of the high fat/low protein — fried up into a lacy bird’s nest, like a savory palmier.

Bkkitchen_chicken_nugget

This chicken nugget is actually a cube. The mousseline was frozen in a silicone ice tray and coated with the actual KFC secret recipe (from Michael’s friend who is writing a book on Colonel Sanders, presumably Josh Ozersky). Colonel Sanders dabbled a little in the molecular, because the coating, in addition to herbs and spices, also includes transglutaminase and milk powder to keep the breading tightly bound to the meat.

Bkkitchen_chicken_nugget_bite

As you can see, the chicken nugget looks more like the inside of a streetside pretzel than a nice piece of juicy chicken. Which brings us to the next question…why bother? Well, like a Food Photoshop, transglutaminase can simply enhance what’s already there. It can make a filet mignon a consistent diameter for even cooking. It can make a loosey goosey mayonnaise stand a little straighter. True, it can manufacture dubious products like McRib patties with no bones, chicken nuggets with mechanically separated meat, and “crab sticks”, but it can also create bold, ambitious, creative things you’ve never had before, like salmon wrapped in chicken skin, a scallop and prosciutto pinwheel, or perhaps a interspecial roe sack.

Also, one of the frustrations in being a food writer is many people want you to be a recipe writer, too. I am not a scientist, I am a writer and storyteller. I hate recipes. For better or for worse, I’ve never followed a recipe in my life. But in the end, I think I’m a better chef for that reason. Understanding a substance like transglutaminase opens your mind to food as material, tool, practical joke, piece of art, and vastly widens what taste and perception can mean.

Got my own bag in the freezer. Want to do a molecular dinner party. Who wants in??

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