Scientific American A New View of Food and Cooking By W. Wayt Gibbs Modernist Cuisine, LLC Take visual tour through the scientific phenomena at work in the kitchen—and explore the new world of high-tech, science-inspired cuisine March 11, 2011
CRYSTALLINE VITAMIN When viewed through a microscope fitted with polarizing lenses, a crystal of vitamin C takes on a colorful fractal appearance.
POTATO SECRETS : Granules of potato starch form shapes in this photomicrograph.
pH EFFECTS : The color of some foods shifts dramatically when their environmental pH changes. Even the difference in pH between hard tap water and purified, de-ionized water can have visible effects on the brightness of some greens. Red cabbage juice undergoes dramatic shifts in hue as the pH rises from a highly acidic 2 [far left] through a neutral value of 7 [purple flask at center] to a highly alkaline 13 [far right].
WATER BALANCE : Fresh foods are mostly water—so to understand cooking, you must appreciate the unusual chemistry and physics of water in all its forms. These graduated cylinders show the percentages of the mass of various foods that comprise water (clear liquid) and fats (yellow liquid). From left to right: cucumber, whole milk, pork belly, pork loin, red wine, walnut.
COOL TRICK Next time you throw a party, try this fun trick with supercooled water. Place a clean bottle of pure water in the freezer for a couple hours until it is very cold but not yet frozen. Then gently pour it from a height into your guests' glasses and watch the water freeze on contact.
HOPPING HOT Water droplets skitter across a screaming hot griddle because the part of the droplet that hits the hot metal bursts into steam and forms an ultrathin layer of vapor that suspends the droplet. This phenomenon, called the Leidenfrost effect after the German doctor who described it, also occurs when liquid nitrogen droplets are spilled onto a surface at room temperature, as shown here.
STEAMING CROSS-SECTION When steam condenses back into liquid water, it deposits an enormous amount of energy—the so-called latent heat of vaporization—on the surface supporting the water. We thus expected steaming to almost always be faster than boiling at cooking vegetables. But when we did experiments to test this idea, the reverse turned out to be true: nearly all vegetables actually cook faster in boiling water than they do in steam. A subtle phenomenon, called film condensation, slows the transfer of heat from the steam into the food. Modernist Cuisine includes 36 cutaway photos like this one. To slice apart pots, grills, rotisseries and ovens, the publishing team used tools including an abrasive water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machine and an industrial band saw.
INSIDE YOUR GRILL Hamburgers cooked over a bed of coals are irradiated to perfection by infrared waves. Grills cook foods mainly through radiant heat, so the sweet spot of the grill—where food cooks evenly—is affected by the height of the grill above the coals. But the temperature of burgers in the center of the grill hardly varies at all with height.
EDIBLE FOAM RULES Edible foams, like the vacuum-inflated chocolate shown here, follow the same simple geometrical rules that all foams do. Among those rules: the intersection of bubbles always joins exactly three films and each pair of films always stabilizes at an angle of exactly 120 degrees.
SWEET STOCKING STUFFER With modern culinary tools like vacuum chambers and ingredients like gum arabic and trehalose, innovative chefs can create delicious dishes that fool the eye. These airy "coals" are entirely edible and actually quite tasty. They are made from prunes, Armagnac, sugars and baking soda. The baking soda produces bubbles of carbon dioxide, which swell when the food is placed in a vacuum chamber.
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (The Cooking Lab, 2011) is a six-volume, 2,348-page work that relies heavily on photography and illustrations to make the science and technology of modern cooking accessible and engaging to everyone from science buffs to professional chefs. One of our goals in producing the book, by inventor and physicist Nathan Myhrvold, along with co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, was to give readers insight into what happens inside food as it cooks. So we developed a unique "cutaway" style of photo illustration that reveals all the action occurring at the center of, say, a pot of steaming broccoli or a pair of burgers on a Weber grill. To make these striking images, we actually sliced pots, grills, rotisseries and even a $5,000 water-vapor oven in half using various tools, including an abrasive water-jet cutter, an electrical discharge machine and an industrial band saw. The book contains 36 cutaway images of this kind. Some of the most interesting aspects of food and cooking occur at scales of time and space that are too short or small for normal photography to capture. So we used an ultrahigh-speed camera to shoot fast-moving phenomena, such as popcorn kernels popping and Leidenfrost droplets skittering across a hot surface. We also employed high-powered microscopes to capture the many beautiful patterns and structures visible inside foods. Modernist Cuisine also uses thousands of photographs to document the novel dishes that modern chefs (including those at our research kitchen in Bellevue, Wash.) have invented by using high-tech equipment and ingredients, such as vacuum chambers and liquid nitrogen as well as hydrocolloid gelling and thickening agents. These recent additions to the kitchen have vastly expanded the range of culinary ideas that creative chefs can express through their cooking. View photos of food in a way you've never seen before. W. Wayt Gibbs is editor in chief of Modernist Cuisine
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