New Year, new challenges. And strange as it may sound, I am intrigued by the idea of caviar. It is one of those foods that are seen as impossibly glamorous and thus very expensive, and things like amber salmon roe do look pretty. However, I am also not that into the idea of even trying it – I mean, it’s basically fish eggs! Yuk…
That aside, I recently came across an intriguing technique that allows you to make small spheres out of pretty much anything by using like (see here). Basically you just mix agar agar with your liquid of choice, then allow it to cool, fill a pipette, and let drops fall into a tall glass of chilled vegetable oil. At this point, chemistry and physics take over. As the droplets are denser than the oil, they sink to the bottom of the glass. The almost-set agar solution coupled with the chilled oil means that the droplets set, and you end up with a glass filled with lots and lots of little spheres. As the oil also acts to prevent all the spheres lumping together into a single mass, you end up with something that looks pretty amazing indeed. In my case, I used beetroot juice, and ended up with a mass of garnet-like pearls.
I used this technique at a recent dinner to make canapés – I used small Dutch buckwheat pancakes (poffertjes) as blinis, added some of the beet caviar, then topped at the last minute with sour cream and dill. I think they looked rather jolly, and they were certainly something unexpected from a vegetarian kitchen!
This technique looks a little like the molecular gastronomy technique of mixing liquids and powers to produce liquid pearls that burst on the tongue, but it’s great for the novice like me, as the use of agar agar makes the process easier, and the result is more robust – as the spheres are made from a gel, they can happily be rinsed, moved around and even stored until the next day.
As an aside, I’ve tried using the more “scientific” approach to spherification using sodium alginate and calcium lactate. It was a disaster. I had grand plans to present a spoon with pearls of Swedish akvavit topped with dill as a palate cleanser during a dinner. Great in theory, but I used the wrong powders in the wrong order, and the whole lot ended up as a bit of a mess in a bowl, and I managed to achieve little other than wasting some perfectly good akvavit. I doubt I’ll be trying that technique again…
My approach might be a bit more low-tech, but it works for me and I love the result. I think I’ll be inflicting fake caviar in various guises on various people for the foreseeable future. However, I’ve learned a couple of things that are worth keeping in mind.
First, what flavour are you going for? You’re not going to be consuming these spheres in huge quantities, so it’s worth going for ingredients that offer a bit of a flavour hit. Remember that the agar agar makes a gel rather than holding a liquid, so you won’t get a pop and a burst of something as you might get with molecular gastronomy techniques. If a flavour is mild, you might want to allow it to concentrate down before use. You may also want to think about the oil you use – I opted for flavourless sunflower oil, but olive oil might be a good idea if you want that flavour to come across in whatever dish you are making.
Next, how much agar agar should you use? I tried this with half a teaspoon per half-cup of liquid, and you get very soft spheres. I found that one teaspoon of flakes worked better (note – flakes, not powder!). However, while these were more robust, they still went ever so slightly out of shape when left overnight in the fridge. I didn’t mind, but if you really want spheres that hold their shape, you might even want to increase the amount of agar agar you use.
Finally, think about colour. I used pure beetroot juice, which does make the most wonderful deep ruby-red spheres. However, if you go for something this intense, remember that the colour of the juice will affect other ingredients, so be warned that if you want to put this on top of blinis with sour cream, the tell-tale beetroot pink colour will start to appear after a few minutes. However, you may prefer to go for lighter hues so that they catch the light. Whatever you prefer!
To make beetroot caviar:
• vegetable oil
• 120ml beetroot juice (or other liquid)
• 1 teaspoon agar agar flakes
1. Fill a tall glass with vegetable oil. Chill in the freezer for around 40 minutes.
2. In a small saucepan, heat the juice and the agar agar flakes. Bring to the boil, whisking occasionally, then boil for two minutes. Remove from the heat, take the oil from the freezer, and allow the agar agar mixture to cool to just lukewarm but still liquid.
3. Using a pipette, allow drops of the liquid to fall into the chilled oil. They will sink and form spheres! (If the agar agar mixture gets too thick, you will need to re-boil the liquid. If you just use the liquid as it gets thick, the resulting spheres will be too fragile).
4. Remove the spheres with a spoon, or pour everything through a sieve. Use however you want! You can save the oil and re-use for cooking or more spherification.
Worth making? This is a really fun challenge to try your hand at in the kitchen. There is an element of trial-and-error in getting quantities to work if you’ve got something specific in mind, but the results are superb and allow you to make some really smart-looking dishes.