Deconstructed food is pretty big right now. You’ve probably seen some posts on social media that explore this crazy new trend. It’s a fun thing to play around with, too, and it’s applicable to virtually every recipe you can think of.
Here’s a quick primer that will help you bring deconstructed food to your kitchen with hardly any effort at all.
What Is Deconstructed Food? (“Deconstruct” Definition)
Deconstructed food is a rebranded, palatable offshoot of the vague culinary trend of the last few years. Whether it’s a symptom of too much communication, boredom, or earnest thought, chefs have begun to experiment heavily with how they present their food.
Ideas like molecular gastronomy and deconstructed food take this one step further.
Instead of fiddling with the presentation of a given recipe or dish, chefs instead try to boil down a dish to a core idea and then rebuild it up from there. The result is a chicken parmesan (or whatever) that’s somewhat different from what you’re accustomed to seeing. Instead, you’ll get a dish that best reflects the spirit or idea of chicken parmesan in the eyes of the chef.
Specifically, deconstructed food involves separating the components of a dish and presenting them together. This doesn’t usually go all the way down to the most basic ingredients. A deconstructed cake, for example, isn’t a plate with some flour, sugar, butter, and raw eggs on it.
Instead, a chef might present you with a small cake (the cake), a small bowl of pudding, a bit of frosting or whipped topping, and a scoop of ice cream. All of these things are frequently used in cakes (ice cream pudding cakes, at least), but they’re also delicious and edible on their own.
The Word “Deconstructed”
The word “deconstructed” means “broken down into the parts that make it.” In this case, it’s a very apt way to describe what deconstructed food is. When chefs deconstruct a dish, they present all of the key components of that dish at the same time, but not necessarily mixed together.
Deconstruct’s synonyms include interpret, decipher, and dismantle. In this case, the meaning lies somewhere between all three. Chefs interpret their own version of a dish, decipher what the core idea is, and dismantle food down to its component parts. All three of these ideas are vital to creating your own deconstructed dish at home.
Why Deconstructed Food?
By presenting them separately, chefs give diners a chance to eat food in their own way while letting the individual flavors of delicious components come through. Consider the example above.
In an ice cream cake, do you actually get to taste the icing, the cake, the ice cream, and any pudding that happens to be in your cake for some reason with each bite? Deconstructed food lets all of the flavors of each of these foods through while still presenting something that’s true to the core idea of a cake.
How To Make Deconstructed Salad
In order to examine this idea further, let’s take a look at a cobb salad. A cobb salad is pretty “deconstructed” already. Most presentations involve all of the ingredients arranged fairly separate from each other. Despite this, the salad has a fairly cohesive identity. You can definitely tell a cobb salad apart from a pile of arbitrary ingredients
You can “cobb-ify” other famous salad dishes in order to create a cheaty deconstructed salad. A deconstructed Greek salad might use feta cheese instead of Roquefort, onions instead of chives, black olives, cucumber instead of cheese, and a selection of peppers instead of bacon (when compared to a cobb salad).
The dressing might be switched out to a homemade Greek dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Even if you arrange these ingredients in fairly disparate piles on a plate, your guests will appreciate that it’s still a Greek salad.
At the same time, they’ll be able to pick and choose which ingredient to eat when, and they’ll be able to enjoy the flavors of the greens you use without the “loud” flavors of peppers and olives drowning them out. At the same time, they’ll still be able to eat peppers and olives.
I think that this is a bit cheaty because you’re skipping an important step in deconstructed food. The most interesting part of the trend, to me, is the part where you identify the core idea of a dish. Simply presenting a greek salad with the ingredients unmixed isn’t really a riff on a beautiful concept. It’s still a tasty way of doing things, but it’s not particularly edifying or creative.
In order to properly deconstruct a Greek salad, then, we have to determine what the core of the dish is.
I think that the things that separate a Greek salad are the cucumbers, the feta cheese, the dressing, and the peppers, onions, and olives. The cucumbers cooperate with the dressing to create a taste that’s unlike most other salads, the feta cheese serves to provide a unique texture and plenty of savory flavor, the dressing is tangy and strong without being overpowering, and the peppers, onions, and olives offer piquant variety to different bites of salad. I think that tomatoes are pretty important, too, but at the same time, I think I could call a salad Greek if it didn’t include any tomatoes.
So how can we create a unique dish that incorporates these ideas? I would start by choosing a bed of greens to form our salad on. We could use romaine or a blend of spinach and other types of lettuce, but I think it’d be more interesting to use very thinly sliced cucumber instead. To me, lettuce (or spinach) isn’t too important to the idea of a Greek salad.
I’d toss these sliced cucumbers with plenty of feta and dressing. “Deconstructed” doesn’t always mean that you have to put everything in its own container. A Greek salad is all about the marriage of these separate ingredients. While I’m going to keep some things separate, I think that it’s important to mix the cucumber, the dressing, and at least some of the feta. I’ll still put a big mound somewhere in the dish.
Next to this mix of cucumbers, I’d put piles of black olives, sweet peperoncini, and sliced onion. I’d thoroughly toss these piles in dressing, of course, but I’d omit the feta. To me, the point of these ingredients is to provide variety in each bite. They don’t all need feta.
As I mentioned before, I’d also provide a mound or container of feta alongside these other ingredient piles. It’s in keeping with the deconstructed idea and I’d like people who eat my dish to be able to enjoy the unmarred taste of feta if they so choose.
Is this better than the cobb-ified presentation mentioned above? Not significantly. It’s more fun to think about, however, and I feel like my version is a bit more true to my experience with Greek salads. It’s also way better to post on social media since you get to talk about the decisions you made while exploring the core of the dish.
I don’t dislike deconstructed food of any sort. If you give me a bunch of edible items on a plate, I’m usually happy to eat them. At the same time, however, certain food items are notable simply because of their construction. If you deconstruct them, there’s not a lot of point left.
Burgers are the best example of this.
Burgers are a wonderful combination of meat, cheese, vegetables, and sauce. When you stop combining these things, you have a ground beef patty, a slice of cheddar cheese, the world’s lamest salad, and a small serving of ketchup (or mayonnaise or both or whatever you put on your burger). Presenting these items “deconstructed” is a clear downgrade.
If you put some thought into it, of course, you can definitely get away with this. Serving a steak, some tastefully chosen vegetables, a pan sauce, and a garlic roll with some cheese melted on it is absolutely fine. You can even call it a “deconstructed burger.” It’s a clear riff on the kinds of things you’d expect to find in a burger.
I think it’s somewhat disingenuous, however, since a burger is very clearly a dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The essence of a burger is the combination, not the ingredients. Any attempt to break things down is simply inferior.
Adding Deconstructed Food To Your Kitchen
You can use these examples in order to make your own deconstructed dishes. Simply figure out what you think is important in a dish, break down those things into separate components, and present them to your dinner companions! Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that you can’t “break down” things like cakes or cookies, either. Instead, draw inspiration from similar types of dishes or companion foods.
Your deconstructed cakes can include ice cream, brandy, chocolate chips (or bars), icing, whipped cream, pudding, or simply different types of cake. Cookies might be similar. A deconstructed chocolate chip cookie might involve brownies, fudge, a couple different types of cookie, some chocolate chunks or chips, or anything else that represents an aspect of the taste of a chocolate chip cookie to you.
Deconstructed food is great to play around with. Don’t think that you need to apply it to everything, however. If you like a dish as it is, you don’t need to deconstruct it every time! If it’s already perfect, there’s no need to change anything. It’s still fun to try to come up with variations every once in a while to get your creative juices flowing and mix things up.