The Kitchen as Laboratory


By Chris

May 21st, 2012



The late Oxford physi­cist Nicholas Kurti is best known for con­duct­ing cool­ing exper­i­ments that came within a mil­lionth of a degree of absolute zero (-459 °F / –273 °C), the tem­per­a­ture at which the motions within atoms cease.

A less-celebrated endeavor–but one of equal achieve­ment in our minds–is the col­lec­tion of essays on the sci­ence of food that he pub­lished with his wife, Giana, in 1988. But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society was one of the ear­li­est efforts to bring the scrutiny of sci­en­tific minds to bear on the ordi­nary mir­a­cle of cook­ing. Along with Harold McGee, we can thank Kurti for insist­ing that the culi­nary arts are a wor­thy sub­ject for science—a posi­tion that was unpop­u­lar before now.

And we do thank Kurti, by name, in a chap­ter we wrote for an anthol­ogy pub­lished ear­lier this year: The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking. Our chap­ter on cryo-cooked duck com­bines two of Kurti’s favorite themes: low-temperature physics and crispy, crack­ling skin. Although Kurti never vis­ited The Cooking Lab, we couldn’t have done it with­out him.

Like our chap­ter on cryo-cooked duck, the book itself is an homage to Kurti, lov­ingly assem­bled by edi­tors César Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik van der Linden. I’m proud to say I knew César way back when he was get­ting a Ph.D. in food sci­ence at the University College Cork, Ireland. He applied for an intern­ship at The Fat Duck’s Experimental Kitchen, where I was found­ing chef; and, even in our first brief phone con­ver­sa­tion, his knowl­edge, com­mit­ment, and pas­sion impressed me. We’ve stayed in touch ever since.

César and his col­leagues col­lect a vari­ety of essays and share myr­iad opin­ions. There are gas­trophilic dis­cus­sions of spher­i­fi­ca­tion, mouth­feel, and xan­than gum, along with trea­tises on the inter­ac­tions among food, soci­ety, and eth­nic cuisines, all of which inte­grate the senses into the eat­ing and cook­ing experience.

For exam­ple, food physi­cist Malcolm Povey of Leeds University, who awak­ened me to the impor­tance of sound in mak­ing delec­table fish and chips, described the acousti­cal exper­i­ments by which he arrived at “the uni­ver­sal def­i­n­i­tion of crispi­ness.” Chemist and Khymos blog­ger Martin Lersch expounds on how—and why—to speed up the Maillard reaction.

Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food devote a chap­ter to the per­fect chocolate-chip cookie dough (the secret ingre­di­ent isn’t an ingre­di­ent at all but a tech­nique: vac­uum seal­ing). In a clos­ing chap­ter, Micheal Laiskonis, exec­u­tive pas­try chef at Le Bernardin, cau­tions against the fevered fol­low­ing of trends and gim­micks in science-based cook­ing and calls for a renewed inves­ti­ga­tion of basic processes and ingredients.

Other essay top­ics run the gamut from insights on famil­iar, beloved food­stuffs (e.g., grilled cheese, soft-boiled eggs, bacon) to expla­na­tions on more exotic fare (e.g., pig trot­ters, “fox tes­ti­cle” ice cream). Needless to say about its 32 chap­ters, The Kitchen as Laboratory has some­thing for every pas­try maker, butcher, sci­en­tist, pro­fes­sional chef, home cook, restau­ra­teur, and food enthusiast.

We are hon­ored to have our work included among these fun and fas­ci­nat­ing explo­rations. Kudos to César and his coed­i­tors for build­ing on Nicholas Kurti’s legacy, in print and in the lab­o­ra­tory of the kitchen.

Whose fault is it when a recipe doesn’t work?


Posted by Rebekah Denn


I sat in on a French pastry class at PCC last week, where instructor Laurie Pfalzer gave us a skillful demonstration on how to make mouth-watering pate brisee and gougeres and crepes — all much easier than you might expect — and then gave us something entirely different to think about. One of the students asked Pfalzer for advice on a souffle-like cake recipe that had been baffling her. She tried it again and again and it never seemed to work. What, she asked, was she doing wrong?

There was a chance that the non-stick pan the woman was using was the problem, Pfalzer said — the cake didn’t have anything to grab onto as it rose. But also, “There’s always a chance it’s the recipe,” she said.

“The first time it doesn’t work I’d assume it’s my fault. The second time it doesn’t work I’d assume it’s their fault. The third time is just to make sure it’s their fault.”

It reminded me of something I’d found in my years of testing recipes at home before printing them in the paper: Some cookbooks are complete duds. Some of them have recipes that clearly haven’t been properly tested or edited before going into print. They might be missing key steps, or oversimplifying a professional recipe to the point where it won’t work at home.

Pfalzer’s advice? Rely on cookbook authors with a great track record of successful recipes that work for the home cook. She’s a fan of books by Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz, and I’d second those nominations. (I once spent most of the summer happily working my way through Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop.” ) I also count on Jerry Traunfeld‘s cookbooks and on recipes by Jess Thomson (more soon on her new gem, “Pike Place Market Recipes.”)

There’s also the point that Beth Howard reminded us about in her pie-baking talk: Not all recipes can be written to the point where they’re one-set-of-directions-fits-all. A pie’s success depends on the humidity and on the quirks of your own oven and a dozen other factors, and you just have to know how to assess the dough. Similarly, a writer in The Guardian recently argued that you need to know how to cook rather than how to follow a recipe. That’s true sometimes — if I’d been reading from a book rather than watching a pastry chef like Pfalzer at work, I doubt that cream puffs would seem as unintimidating as they do now. But plenty of times it’s not as complicated as that, it’s just a problem on the other end.

Which cookbook authors do you trust (or avoid)?


Working trip to SOSA Barcelona – Castelltercol, catalonia


Michelle Gillott`s Blog

Spain for the Day…

Had a fantastic day working at SOSA Barcelona with access to a dry stores you could only dream about. Read on for my tour around the factory, photos a look at a few products and recipes..

Sosa is a company servicing the savoury and patisserie sides of the kitchen and their products are being used worldwide. A former biscuit manufacturer, Sosa has extended their product range in recent years and focused their attention on flavour compounds, chemicals, equipment and freeze dried products. Led by Director Francesc (Quico) Sosa an enthusiastic and  talented professional, whom many know by SOSA and his work as researcher and producer of ingredients.  Delivering cutting edge technologies to the industry.

Collected from the Airport by Quico gave me chance to have a good old chat and ask so many questions on the one hour drive to the SOSA factory in a small village Castelltercol, Catalonia. Where…

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Why the Beard Awards Matter

Rozanne Gold

A very good friend — a force in the food world — was watching television in the early evening hours of Monday, May 7th when she saw Beyoncé, on the red carpet in front of a bevy of paparazzi, being interviewed. “Wow,” exclaimed my friend. The James Beard Awards have come a long way. Beyoncé?” We both laughed as she found out that the carpet beneath Beyoncé’s feet actually paved the way to the high-society Costume Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same night. But at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall across town, there was a similar buzz as chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers and TV food stars had their own tomato red carpet to walk upon. At the end of that carpet? Hope, anticipation, excitement and desire to go home with a ribbon and medallion to mark one’s importance in the food world hierarchy.

The beloved gastronome James Beard…

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