Spherification is a spectacular cooking technique we introduced at elBulli in 2003 which enables us to prepare recipes that no-one had even imagined before. It consists of the controlled gelification of a liquid which, submerged in a bath, forms spheres.
There are two kinds: Basic Spherification (which consists of submerging a liquid with Algin in a bath of Calcic) and Reverse Spherification (submerging a liquid with Gluco in a bath of Algin). These techniques can obtain spheres of different sizes: caviar, eggs, gnocchi, ravioli... In both techniques, the spheres produced can be manipulated, since they are slightly flexible. We can introduce solid elements into the spheres, which will remain in suspension in the liquid, which obtains two or more flavours in a single preparation. In Basic Spherification, with some ingredients it is necessary to use Citras to correct the acidity; in Reverse Spherification, Xantana is generally used for thickening. Spherification requires the use of specific utensils (Eines), which are included in the Kits.
Birth of spherification
One of the primary methods of discovering new techniques in haute cuisine is by working in conjunction with the leading companies engaged in the food industry. This fact, together with a certain degree of chance, gave rise in 2003 to one of elBulli’s most significant techniques. On one of our increasingly more frequent incursions into the industry we visited Griffith España to see their installations and exchange know-how. At a given moment they showed us a Mexican sauce that contained little balls in suspension which when eaten added a hint of acidity and a slightly spicy taste to the preparation. At the time it reminded us of a refreshing drink we knew that also featured these little spheres. It was a liquid that contained a proportion of alginate and which, on being submerged in a base of water with calcium, produced the formation of these balls.
Fortunately they gave us a sample of the alginate and on arriving at the el Bullitaller workshop we quickly bought some calcium chloride with which to try it. We made the mixture with water and alginate and the base with water and chloride, took a syringe and began to make little drops, which at first simply disappeared into the water. Our excitement grew however when, after straining the water, we saw that small balls had been formed which, unlike those in the sauce, were liquid inside! This quickly encouraged us to swop the syringe for a spoon. Thus was born the first liquid yolk (or put another way, the first spherical ravioli), made solely with water. The thrill of realising we were witnessing something so entirely new represented one of those magical moments that happens once in a lifetime.
2003 The first preparations
Spherification produces spherical forms of varying textures and consistencies. In the following lines we explain the first preparations.
1. Spherical ravioli, filled ravioli, marbles and miniravioli
The first preparation we were able to materialise with spherification was spherical pea ravioli. We chose this name because the sensation in the mouth was precisely that of a liquid ravioli. We then made mango, raspberry and even a filled ravioli, with Gernika pepper broth and pepper seed filling. After that came the miniravioli, extending a family that continues to bear fruit. As regards the marbles, they also maintain some reference to the miniravioli concept, but in this case we wanted to create a completely round shape and to make the outer membrane thicker so they would “explode” on being eaten.
2. Spherical caviar and pellets
It is true to say that creating this preparation was one of the most thrilling moments in our lives. First we tried it with ceps and then with apple, but later realised that the one which convinced us most was made with Cantaloupe melon. To make the preparation we had to create a “caviarer” ‐ a battery of dispensing syringes that could be activated simultaneously. This snack was one of the icons of 2003 in elBulli. For their part, the pellets were born out of the idea to make truffle “chips” that never set. Following this line we deviated from the concept however and decided to make a kind of chip that was not frozen, which we called pellets. We created them using the spherification technique and then macerated them throughout the night in truffle juice to intensify their flavour.
3. Spherical balloons
If surprise was the predominant sensation even among professionals in the kitchen when they first tried the caviar or spherical ravioli, sight of the balloons turned their surprise to amazement. This is in fact one of the most difficult preparations to make if one lacks practice, and represents the fusion of two of elBulli’s most notable techniques ‐ spherification and the world of the soda siphon. The balloons are made by pouring rose-perfumed water and ALGIN into the siphon. Then, thanks to a special adaptor, we activate the siphon over a CALCIC solution, making opaque spheres. A minute later transparent balloons are formed.
4. “Spherical” noodles
These noodles are made by filling a syringe with a lychee-juice and ALGIN mixture, then tracing zigzagged laces over the CALCIC solution, thus producing lychee noodles.
2004 The evolution of a technique
Most of the techniques we create in elBulli begin to mark a line of evolution shortly after their appearance, and this was precisely the case in 2004 with spherification. The uses to which spherification gave rise that year were four in number:
1. Spherical filled ravioli
The concept is remarkably simple ‐ we had made a ravioli filled with Gernika pepper seeds in 2003; in 2004 we created two versions of filled ravioli, but this time they were served cold. The first consisted in placing a tablet of frozen lemon juice in the spoon containing the tea with which we went on to form the tea sphere.
2. Spherical gnocchi
From a conceptual point of view, the undoubtedly most significant evolution of this technique took place in 2004. While in 2003 we had created the spherical balloon, here we went a little further by developing a spherical foam, a preparation that provided an entirely new texture. The result is very different from that of normal spherification, as the siphoned air inside the membrane, which forms as a result of the spherification process, makes the preparation take on the form of a creamy foam. The first version was made from pumpkin purée. The second was an adaptation of the classic potato gnocchi.
2005 Inverse spherification
In 2005, as the result of research being carried out by the elBullitaller scientific department in parallel to our trials we were able to effect a change that would have far reaching consequences on the spherification technique. Up to then, the process had been carried out by mixing ALGIN into a liquid and dropping the resulting solution into a bath of CALCIC. The outside surface of the ALGIN mixture then jellified and produced the spherification. This procedure, which we now call basic spherification, was difficult or impossible to apply with certain products that already contained calcium in their natural state, given that mixing them with ALGIN triggered an unwanted jellification process.
The fact is that when we thought we had exhausted all available options we realised that it was in fact possible to carry out a reversed spherification, in other words, to insert a product that already contained calcium into an ALGIN bath. This breakthrough, which we call inverse spherification, enabled us to make spherical preparations with dairy products, olives and other foodstuffs for the first time ever. Instead of adding CALCIC to the preparations we used gluconolactate (GLUCO) in proportion to the product’s natural calcium content, and in every case concluded the technique by bathing the result in an ALGIN mixture. Furthermore, inverse spherification allows us to detain the jellification of preparations, something we were unable to control in basic spherification. As the ALGIN fails to penetrate the sphere in this method, jellification only occurs on the surface.