Mystery is something that shrouds any new ingredient. The less we know about something the more intimidating it becomes. On the other hand I find that the opposite happens, the more I know the more comfortable I become. This way a healthy respect can built for whatever it is you are working with. Methylcellulose is one of those ingredients that can be intimidating. Methylcellulose seems like an ingredient out of science fiction, defying all the laws of gelling. How is it possible that it can gel when heated and liquify as it cools? This is the reverse of any gelling agent and opens the door for so many new textures. This begs the question I love to ask… but why? I know, I sound like my 3 year old son but thankfully I can read, write, and use google to find the answers I crave. So why does Methylcellulose work like it does?
“Why does methylcellulose gel when heated?”
Well, this has proven to be the most difficult answer to find, as well as the most difficult one to understand. But I pride myself on being able to effectively explain difficult things, so buckle up. Methylcellulose is a type of surfactant, surfactants can connect to both water and oil. The best example of a non edible surfactant is dish soap. Dish soap can mix with water but it also helps the water become really good at removing the oils from a dirty pan. So in food, surfactants are good at emulsification, the process of mixing oils and water. So you may be wondering, what does this have to do with gelling? So as the methylcellulose is mixed into water the hydrophilic (water loving) ends of the methylcellulose hydrate and this causes the mixture to thicken. The best way I found this being described is the methylcellulose being held in tiny cages. But as the mixture is heated (energy is added) the little cages are opened up and the methylcellulose starts to move around briefly. This is so brief and on such a small scale we cannot see it with the naked eye. These methylcellulose molecules become disorderly, this is known as entropy. Entropy is a confusing topic and the most simple way I can explain it as the disorganisation of a system as heat energy is added. As quickly as this occurs, the hydrophobic (water fearing/ oil loving) ends of the methylcellulose become connected creating a gel system. As the heat penetrates the methylcellulose mixture the molecules are released from their cages and begin to wander and get caught up in a net of sorts. The network of bonds works its way inward from the heat source until it reaches a point of equilibrium where all of the molecules have been heated above the gelling temperature. As the mixture falls below its gelling temperature the bonds will separate molecules and return to their cages in a nice orderly fashion. Once all the molecules have been returned to their cages the mixture will be back in its original liquid form. The best way to see this for yourself is in our recipe for Hot ice cream. The moment the mixture hits the simmering water you can see it begin to gel. After 1 minute you can remove the hot ice cream from the water and cut it in half. The center will be liquified and the exterior will be gelled. So the next time you need a bit of a helping hand prevent your apple crisp from boiling over or repelling oil in a donut recipe know there is no fear in using a little methylcellulose.
Give our Some Like It Hot Ice Cream recipe a try! If the notion of a hot ice cream blows your mind you’re not alone. This recipe takes your favorite traditional ice cream flavor and flips expectations on its head using methylcellulose and a bit of modern technique. When was the last time you served up ice cream and shouted “Get ’em while they’re hot!