What Is It?
Cellulose is the building brick of all plant life. It doesn’t do much except form extremely strong structures in plants; chew out a stick of celery and what is left in your mouth as the stringy stuff is cellulose. It is simply long chains of glucose units strung together.
To make cellulose act differently, it needs to be made soluble in water. This involves a process that adds something that allows the long stringy chains to dissolve; in the case of methylcellulose, this would be methyl groups. The by-product of the chemical reaction is common salt, which is washed out.
The What, Why,Where, How...... And Is It Safe
This page is designed for those cooking at home or small-scale commercial kitchens. For large-scale kitchens and commercial food manufacturers, full details, background and supply information are available.
Why Is It Used?
It dissolves in cold water to make a good sticky ‘glue’ that binds the other ingredients into a formable texture. Most importantly, when you heat it, it gels, like an egg white, which means that your burger (meat ball, sausage etc) doesn’t fall apart during cooking; it also gives a really good bite.
The best methylcelluloses for this job squeeze some water out when they gel, which adds juiciness as well.
How to use it?
Cold, always, always cold. It dissolves in cold water. It won’t work if things are too warm. Conversely, it won’t dissolve in ice, so don’t use frozen mince without allowing it to thaw a bit or adding some water.
For 400 - 500g (approximately 1 lb) mince, you will need 2-3 teaspoons (about 10g) of methylcellulose. Make a dry mix of the methylcellulose with the flavours (salt, pepper, crumbled stock cube, herbs, spices) and sprinkle over the very cold mince. Mix it in and leave it to stand for about 2 minutes, mix again, just gentle stirring will be enough. Then add some cold water and the other ingredients like tomato puree, oil etc.
Is It Safe?
Something that perhaps people are not aware of, is that food additives with an E number are regularly re-assessed. This is to prove that the latest safety information is up to date and the authorities whose job it is to ensure that these ingredients are safe are satisfied that they are definitely safe. Methylcellulose and its ‘sister’ hydroxypropyl methylcellulose both passed the last assessment with no concerns raised.
And the effect it has on the human body?
It goes through totally undigested, as a soluble fibre. That means it helps the movement of food through the bowels but to me, most importantly, it is not fermented in the lower gut so it doesn’t give you wind. It is used as a laxative for people with problems – but like so many things, it’s a question of dose. Once it is out, and in the environment, so to speak, bacteria break it down into carbon dioxide and water; but that takes quite a while, certainly longer than it is in the body.
Where Can I Get It?
There are several manufacturers; it’s not cheap to make and takes a lot of investment, so maybe 10 worldwide at the most. They mainly sell in tens of tonnes amounts to distributors who then sell to food manufacturers in tonnes or as low as 25 kg amounts. This is too large and expensive for the average consumer. Sadly, it’s not available in supermarkets like some other gums e.g xanthan gum.
If you simply want to try it out at home, your best bet is to try specialist restaurant suppliers for chefs. I have given a short list of some of these here. But beware… all methylcelluloses are not the same. I will point you in the right direction when you come to buy. Details on the Suppliers Page.