Scientific Cooking: Rise of the Machines

Scientific Cooking: Rise of the Machines

The scientific approach to experimentation aims to be exact: the reproducibility of the experiment is crucial to determining whether the conclusions are accurate. Everything is measured precisely and notes are meticulously taken on how exactly the results came about. To achieve these great heights in scientific reproducibility, the equipment is pretty fan-​​dangled. There are spinny whirligigs (aka. centrifuges) used to separate phases of a solution, and super-​​cool fluids (such as liquid nitrogen) that can almost instantly freeze solid anything you accidentally drop into it. These kinds of machines and materials are creeping into restaurant kitchens, and they have a closer relationship to food than you would think.

Being exact is not a new thing in the culinary world; every bad cook knows that if you don’t follow the recipe instructions to the letter, disaster ensues. Have you noticed the amount of equipment you use to make your dinner or to follow a recipe? There are crushers and slicers and peelers. Special pots and pans do different jobs. Primetime TV shows like Masterchef and Recipe to Riches have more people than ever interested in their food and kitchens: and as such, there has been a rise in more specific equipment to produce restaurant quality dishes at home. Here are some examples of how science has wiggled its way into your kitchen.

The Chamber Vacuum

Their primitive form is the snap-​​lock sandwich bags found in children’s lunchboxes, but chamber vacuums have stepped up the game in the years since. Preserving your food has never been cooler or more precise. Chamber vacuums remove nearly all traces of air from the bag, slowing oxidation of anything inside. This is important, because it’s the oxidation of the food that makes it deteriorate and decompose. The way this is done is super interesting: once you’ve placed your sealed goodie inside the chamber, all the air is pumped out. Then, rapidly, air is reintroduced into the chamber, resulting in the bag, which is still under vacuum, being compressed by the force of the air molecules reintroduced into the space. Pretty sweet, hey. Mainly a preserving technique, this is also used for marinades and prep for cooking sous vide.

Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by snekse.

Beef tenderloin steak vacuum-​​sealed by a chamber vacuum, ready to be cooked sous vide. Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by snekse.

Scientifically, vacuums are used all the time to isolate samples, produce perfect conditions where air has no influence and to direct beams of electrons in microscopy. This high level equipment is usually half a room in size, and now you can have one sitting on your bench top!

The Pressure Cooker

This fancy pot uses the simple scientific idea that different types of carbohydrates and proteins break down at different pressures. By creating conditions where the carbohydrates and proteins can break down at a faster rate, you can turn Regular Joe carrots into caramelised deliciousness in under half an hour. With the aid of a little water and bicarbonate soda, the pressure cooker creates and traps steam to raise the temperature and pressure in the pot, speeding up the disintegration of the carbohydrates or proteins of the food.

Pressure cookers are basically just fancy pots, to be honest. Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by masaassassin.

Pressure cookers are basically just fancy pots, to be honest. Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by masaassassin.

What is achieved is something that previously wasn’t available on the surface of the earth without specialised equipment: a new area of cooking. For example, the boiling temperature of water in normal conditions is 100°C, but in the pressure cooker under 15psi, the boiling temperature of water is 121°C. This higher temperature provides more energy to break down the food, speeding up the cooking process.

The Sous Vide

Did you know that there are different zones within meat that cook at different temperatures? Neither did I until someone explained to me the beauty of cooking sous vide. Essentially, this is a giant water bath held at a regulated temperature to cook whatever vacuum-​​packed bag you’ve dipped in it. Let’s say you are cooking a pork chop: for mouth-​​watering flavour, you want to seal in the juices and cook the meat just enough to keep it moist. Well the sous vide helps you here – by cooking it in a bag submerged in a water bath, you don’t lose any of that juicy goodness and you achieve a tantalising, even breakdown of the proteins so it is perfectly and uniformly cooked through. Sound delicious? I know, I want to give my meat a water bath too. Admittedly, this method is almost the opposite of the pressure cooker timewise, as it takes much longer than simply whacking your food in a frypan – the average cooking time for a pork chop is 45 minutes.

57.1ºC is apparently the perfect temperature to cook these short ribs in a water bath. Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by arndog.

57.1ºC is apparently the perfect temperature to cook these short ribs in a water bath. Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by arndog.

I have only tried these pieces of equipment a small number of times, yet I already love them. However, these new toys can have a price tag ranging from ~$100 for a pressure cooker, ~$200 for a sous vide machine, and $2000+ for a decent chamber vacuum. They’re not cheap or readily available from your local kitchenware store, which may persuade a few against trying something new. Those who will truly appreciate the difference that these machines make to your food are your typical “foodies”, but I’m happy to raise my hand for pressure-​​cooked soy pork belly any day.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr header photo by zanthia]