How food spherification works

On IO9, Esther Inglis-Arkell does a great job of describing the molecular gastronomy practice of "spherification," whereby food is liquefied and then coaxed into forming gelatinous spheres. It has its origin in a 1950s drug-delivery project from Unilever, but was revived by chef Ferran Adrià around 2003.

What spherification does is put back in what the manufacturers of sodium alginate take out. First, the food, whatever it is, is pureed until it's liquid. Then the calcium content of the food is determined. If the calcium content is high, adding sodium alginate will solidify the whole thing immediately. To high-calcium foods extra calcium chloride is added. To all other foods, sodium alginate is added. Then, as with all delectable meals, it's off to the centrifuge. The mixture gets centrifuged to remove any bubbles or impurities there might be in it. Once that's done, drops of the stuff are tossed into a bowl of liquid. If the food contains calcium chloride, the liquid will contain sodium alginate. If the food contains alginate, it will be tossed into liquid containing calcium.

Immediately, the process begins. The outer edge of the spherical drops is the front line. When the sodium alginates hit calcium ions, the ions bind the long strings together, until they form a kind of haphazard net of polymers. The outer layer of the gel solidifies before any of the inner liquid can leak out. Depending on the concentration of both chemicals, and the time spent in the 'bath,' the gel will either be a tiny skin, or an extremely firm layer. Even if the mix of chemicals is weak, the reaction will keep moving inwards, so the balls have to be whisked carefully out of the bath, put on a plate, and rushed out to be set in front of the strained smiles of dinner guests. Then there's just enough time to say, "Oh. You served me vegetable soup in cold, quivering ball form. How original," and it's down the reluctant hatch.

Better living through chemistry.

The Horrific Practice of "Food Spherification"

(Image: Huevas de Té Verde, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jlastras's photostream)


  1. The exquisite irony being that with only minor textual adjustments the very same essay could be published under the title “The Horrific Practice of French Frying”.

    1. AND THEN in “The Horrific Practice of Making Pie”  the chef cuts the chilled, rendered fat of a pig into the finely ground endosperm of a wheat berry.

  2. Horrifying maybe, but also deeply compelling.  I have had well made spherical salad dressing, and sauce, and once even soup.  I love the weird texture and fish-egg like pop.

    While at Ikea recently I purchased seaweed “garnish” which appear to be little black seaweed balls to use in place of fish eggs for vegetarians.  I look forward to trying them.

  3. Then there’s just enough time to say, “Oh. You served me vegetable soup in cold, quivering ball form. How original,” and it’s down the reluctant hatch.

    They forgot the part about the subsequent $300 dinner bill.

    1. $300? Maybe? Not actually though.

      I’ve eaten roe which were actually an onion aspic in spheroid form, as part of an amazing, and not unaffordable ($<30 without wine) enormously filling and satisfying multicourse dining experience.

      It was at Nudel in Lenox, MA. I may have the details wrong. I will eat anything there.

      If you think that only ever  costs 300 dollars and therefore is inaccessible, you may be missing out on some great great possibilities because your refuse to see them, but not because they are out of reach.

      1. you may be missing out on some great great possibilities because your refuse to see them

        WTF?  The existence of affordable restaurants in Massachusetts does not preclude that of overpriced establishments that offer “molecular gastronomy”, and vice versa.

        1. “They forgot the part about the subsequent $300 dinner bill.”

          they also forgot the part about the potential for a $30 dollar dinner bill, is the fuck.

          Although, it could be you. Your call.

  4. When I was in Japan, one of my friends found a candy sushi making set, in which all of the sushi is made by mixing various powders and water to create gummy sushi.

    The process for making the fake salmon roe looks to be exactly what’s described here – and the results were impressive. Looked exactly right, and the people who’ve eaten the real thing described the texture as being identical, though the candy obviously tasted better.

    1. I can imagine him making “green peas” out of spheriefied pea purée. Ha, the juxtaposition of pea flavor and pea shape! Brilliant….

  5. I’ve been playing with this stuff at home.  It’s fun, tastes great and  – so long as you don’t fall into the trap of making technique the focus of your meal – not at all horrifying and rather delicious.

  6. I’d love to make my own faux Ikura that way (as it is not available where I live) … but sounds like a lot of work, i don’t have a centrifuge, and I wonder if / how I would need to adjust to high altitude … 

  7. This is quite interesting, just had a course at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong that did a entire pork & chinese red vinegar soup in a ball. Excellent flavors…

  8. don’t call it “molecular gastronomy”.  many chefs feel that term is prejudicial.   just call it experimental or modernist. 
    many techniques are extremely useful and produce flavors and textures unavailable otherwise. 

  9. That’s actually a surprisingly terrible & confused job of describing spherification.  When the cations are put into alginate, this is typically referred to as ‘reverse speherification’, and author neglects to explain that the thickness of these shells can be precisely controlled and importantly are subsequently stable, while normal spherification (alginate into cation bath) is the only process where the drops once prepared must be rushed to serve, as the gelation process will continue (cations keep diffusing inward).
    Better choices are Texture: Harvard’s Science & Cooking class, which is available through itunes U for free, where you can have people with a modicum more knowledge like Ferran Adria and David Weitz explain it.

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