Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Kitchen as a Lab

             I fill a large, metal pot with a large volume of water, rest it upon the stove, and adjust the temperature to medium. After several minutes, the water begins to boil, and I proceed to dump the brittle, twisted spiral shaped noodles into the warm, bubbly bath. I then leave the noodles immersed in the hot water for a few minutes more until they swell in size and develop a softer texture.

Never throughout this seemingly simple process do I stop to consider the way in which heat moves into and through the pasta, nor how exposure to both heat and water changes the physical properties of each noodle. In the lecture Physics and Your Supper, Professor Tim McKay explained that cooking is primarily about applying heat, as high temperatures help render food more digestible. Moreover, he listed three ways that heat can move from one substance to another: conduction, convection, or radiation. I learned that cooking pasta was done by transferring heat by the actual movement of the warmed matter, a process known as convection. Heat causes the water particles at the bottom of the pot to move faster and spread apart, making them less dense than the cooler water at the surface. A circular pattern emerges: hot material is carried up and cold material is brought down. McKay’s example of convection was stirring a pot of soup, as it redistributes heat from the bottom of a pot throughout the entire soup. Another method of heat transfer also occurs when it comes to cooking pasta. The transfer of heat from the stove burner to the pot and then from the pot to the water causes the water to become warmer, which is an example of conduction.
As in many things, there’s an art to cooking: knowing which textures, flavors, ingredients, and temperatures work well together when combined. Perfecting this craft, however, requires much experimentation and investigation, and also largely depends on a number of variables including time, temperature, and pressure. Culinary physics focuses on the physical processes of food preparation, and underlines how types of heat transfer agents and cooking methods impact the way a product is cooked and how it tastes. Specifically, McKay referenced the article “The Virtual Cook: Modeling Heat Transfer in the Kitchen”, which uses physics to help maximize the odds of cooking a piece of meat in the best way possible. The three contributors Harold McGee, Jack McInerney, and Alain Harms concluded that thinly cut, pre-warmed meat flipped frequently in a short amount of time was the best way to achieve this goal. Other findings included boiling meat as the simplest cooking method, while sautéing and flipping was regarded as more complex.
Instead of relying on traditional family recipes or the Food Network, perhaps we should apply scientific principles and techniques to cooking to create the best tasting food possible.

Harms, Alain, Harold McGee, and Jack McInerney. “The Virtual Cook: Modeling Heat Transfer in the Kitchen”. Physics Today. Nov 1999. Web. 26 Sept 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Although I do agree with your comment that there is a fine art to cooking and that it often requires scientific examination and perfection, I believe that one of the most enjoyable parts of cooking is the unknown- the elements that are not calculated or perfected. Although I hold no claims to being a cook, my younger sister has a passion for constructing desserts based on nothing but intuition. Sometimes her concoctions (which are not by any means always successful) are created without measurements, but just instinct. I disagree with your final claim that we should start applying scientific principles in order to develop our cooking skills. At one point or another, all food recipes and ingredient combinations were unheard of and unused. However it would be an extreme stretch to say that they were all meticulously calculated and even created on purpose. Sometimes it's more about enjoying the end result, no matter how you got there. And sometimes, it's the mistakes that lead us to our greatest cooking successes.