News: AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting News
Nathan Myhrvold: Scientist in the Kitchen
Nathan Myhrvold’s Recipe For Whirled Peas
Place frozen peas in a laboratory-grade centrifuge. Spin them so fast that they experience about 40,000 times the force of normal gravity for one hour.
And the serving suggestions? The final concoction consists of three layers: a clear and fresh pea bouillon, a thick layer of starch that can be used in pasta, and a rich substance that Myhrvold enthusiastically calls “pea butter.”
Most everyday cooks won’t employ a centrifuge in their kitchens, Myhrvold admits, so he has developed a more user-friendly home edition of Modernist Cuisine, his six-volume manifesto on the science of cooking. But science has always been in the kitchen, he said. “Science is how the world works. It’s ignorance of science that I’m trying to remove from the kitchen.”
At the AAAS Annual Meeting, Myhrvold explained how science applies to the mysteries of meat and wine, illustrating his lively talk with descriptions of french fries crisped in an ultrasonic bath and describing the culinary pleasures of freezing olive oil with liquid nitrogen and smashing it into glassy shards.
Nathan Myhrvold lecturing about the science of cooking. Credit: Atlantic Photography Boston
Myhrvold told the story of how he, the first chief technology officer of Microsoft Corporation and a theoretical physicist and applied mathematician, came to be freeze-drying basil in the laboratory. Today he serves as founder and chief executive officer of Intellectual Ventures, but Myhrvold began his second career as a chef at an early age: “When I was nine years old, I told my mom I was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner and chased her out of the kitchen.”
Like scientists, chefs over the years from Auguste Escoffier, to Julia Child, to Spain’s molecular gastronomist Ferran Adrià have “developed empirical rules” along with their recipes. But, as chefs look for innovative ways to make a meal, Myhrvold said, they are less attracted to recreating dishes from a formula and more interested in learning why and how cooking works, as the basis for improvisation.
That’s where physics comes in, and Modernist Cuisine is “the only cookbook to contain partial differential equations,” he joked.
Nathan Myhrvold’s Recipe for the Perfect Medium-Rare Steak
Choose a well-marbled cut of meat. Apply Fourier’s heat equation.
Fourier’s heat equation describes heat distribution in a region over time, and it explains why a hot pan may not be the best way to get a medium-rare steak to the plate. If the temperature difference between the hot pan and the interior of the steak is too great, Myhrvold said, a chef could end up with 30% of the steak well done before its interior reaches the perfect temperature. Fourier’s equation suggests that cooking at lower heat will bring the entire cut to medium rare at the same time, albeit at a slower rate.
And the physics of crispy french fries? They can get their crunch from cavitation in an ultrasound bath, where thousands of tiny popping bubbles scour the potatoes and increase their surface area for frying. The reason toast burns so easily? It’s all about albedo, Myrhvold said. Because toasting makes the bread darker, it decreases the slice’s surface reflectiveness. The bread’s ability to soak up heat thus increases exponentially. That’s why two minutes in the toaster is just right and two and a half minutes leads to a charred mess.
Mayonnaise and cream, two emulsions made from the suspension of droplets of fat in a second liquid, are opaque and white for the same reason that clouds are white: bending of light by the large suspended droplets, Myhrvold noted. Stripped of its fat globules, skim milk can be blue like the sky. In both cases, the colors are due to Rayleigh scattering, in which particles smaller than light’s wavelength cause the light to diffuse.
Nathan Myhrvold’s Recipe for Decanting Wine
Uncork wine, pour in blender. Blend to a froth. Serve.
Myhrvold said scientists are still not sure why decanting wine—pouring it into a wider vessel to increase the surface area of the wine—changes its flavor. It could be that decanting causes more oxygen to mix with the wine, or allows it to release dissolved gases like sulfur dioxide or other volatile chemicals. But the mystique surrounding wine, he suggested, makes it a perfect target for scientific exploration.
Blending can improve the flavor of young red wines and it’s faster than traditional decanting. But the real reason to do it, Myhrvold suggested, is to shock your dinner guests.
“It’s food!” he exclaimed. “Why is it OK for daiquiris, and not Bordeaux?”
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|Annual Meeting News|