Posts Tagged ‘freezing’

Ice cubes and air bubbles

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Ice cubes are used both to cool drinks, but also to significantly impact the flavour of certain drinks. No matter your motivation, you should never use “old” ice cubes which have been sitting in your freezer for a while. Why? Melt some “old” ice cubes and taste the water. You’ll smell why! The reason is that volatile compounds in your freezer slowly find their way into the ice cubes which for some reason mostly are made in trays without a cover. But as I surfed around, researching this post I discovered that oxo and other producers now sell ice cube trays with lids. That’s a small step forward!

Another thing about ice cubes is that they look nice. I admit that air bubbles can sometimes be quite beautiful (and even artistic when pictured with a macro lens as above), but there are times when I whish I could make perfectly clear ice cubes. At room temperature a certain amount of air is dissolved in water. When you cool water, the solubility of air increases (!), but only until the water starts freezing. At this point the water can no longer keep the air dissolved and a bubble is formed. Vice versa – when you boil water the solubility of air decreases and the dissolved gases escape.

When making ice cubes, the bubbles that are formed can easily escape as long as there is no ice blocking their way. This is sort of a catch 22 situation since the air expulsion is directly related to the ice formation. When making ice cubes in a normal freezer, the ice cubes are cooled from the outside, causing the air to get trapped throughout the ice cube.

Many people have thought about smart ways to achieve this (as a quick patent search shows). There are two strategies to obtain clear ice cubes. Let the gas escape while the water freezes or degas and filter the water before freezing. Icicles are a good example that when running water freezes, it normally produces very clear ice. This is utilized in commercial ice cube makers. Here a “cold finger” is exposed to water that moves. This way bubbles are carried away before they can get trapped. These ice cubes typically are ring or cup shaped. The second method is suggested many places on the net. I’ve listed them here together with some thoughts and discussion.

Degas the water (i.e. remove the dissolved air). This is easily done by boiling the water for a couple of minutes and letting it cool again. Some webpages suggest that the process should be repeated for best results.

Slow cooling
If the water is cooled too quickly, the ice will not be able to push the impurities ahead of the freezing interface. But if an ice cube freezes from all sides it doesn’t really help as the bubbles get trapped in the middle. A drawback with slow cooling is that the solubility of gas will increase when the water is cooled and so it will allow more gas to dissolve before the water freezes. So slow cooling should probably be combined with some kind of gas tight cover.

Directional cooling
I’ve been pondering about making trays with insulated sides and cover and a metal base, thereby utilizing the fact that metals are superb heat conductors compared to plastic, wood or glass. The metal would then serve to conduct away heat from the water. Bubbles would form on the ice front, but they would probably escape, rather than become encapsuled into the ice. I’ve tried to illustrate it here:

Turns out that someone has actually patented something similar where metal “fingers” are used to conduct away heat from the center, giving ring shaped ice cubes. Does anyone know if these were ever made for sale? Perhaps an ice cube tray in aluminum would work if one insulates the top so that the cubes freeze from the bottom and up, keeping the water on top free flowing so bubbles can escape.

Layer-by-layer method
There might be a simple (but time consuming) way of achieving directional cooling: By building up the ice cubes layer by layer. Once the first layer is frozen this will help freeze the next layer from the bottom up and so on. I guess layers of 1-5 mm would work, but this needs more testing. My experiments so far have not been very promising. Plenty of bubbles, even with a layer of only 2 mm.

Particles can act as nucleation sites for air bubbles. To avoid this filter the water and make sure that all the equipment is clean. Also, don’t use a towel to try your equipment as this will probably leave small fibers behind.

Remove salts
Both tap water and bottled water contain trace amounts of salts. When water freezes these minerals are not incorporated into the ice structure. As a consequence the soluble salts will concentrate in the water that’s not yet frozen. In the end there is so little water left that the concentration of the salts becomes sufficiently high so that the freezing point of this remaining water is lower than the temperature in the freezer (meaning that this water won’t freeze). Other salts, especially calcium salts such as calcium carbonate will precipitate. And these particles can act as nucleation sites. If after boiling water there are particles present, these should be filtered away before freezing. The easiest way to get rid of salts is to use distilled water.

I’ve done a couple of experiments and it seems there is no quick fix. The water in the ice cubes pictured above was boiled for several minutes before freezing, but plenty of bubbles formed as you can see. I also tried the layer-by-layer method, but even in a thin layer of only 2-3 mm I could detect many bubbles. So clearly I need to do more experiments.

What are your experiences with making clear ice cubes?

Practical molecular gastronomy, part 3

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Get a basic understanding of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance.

Since a lot of cooking involves temperature manipulations, it’s a good idea to get a basic understandning of how heat is transferred and how well it is stored in different materials. “Heat” in this context does not imply high temperature since it also applies to the understanding of freezing/thawing.

Closeup of ceramic stove top

Heat transfer

Conduction: flow of heat through an object or between two objects in contact. Metals are typically good conducters whereas air is a poor heat conductor.

Convection: heat transfer occurs because particles are moved from a warm region to a colder one. One can say that convection is a combination of conduction and mixing. For example, convection occurs when heating water since its density varies with temperature – warm water is lighter than cold water and will float. This video illustrates convection currents in water as a crystal of potassium permanganate dissolves (this salt is not edible).

Radiation: in the kitchen we encounter two types of heat transfer by radiation corresponding to two different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The heat we feel from hot burning charcoal, a stove top or the sun are all a result of infrared radiation. The other type is microwave radiation. Heat transfer by radiation does not require a material for the heat to pass through (as a consequence, a blowing wind will not have any significant effect when grilling). Microwaves easily penetrate plastic, glass and wood, but not metal. Infrared radiation is blocked by opaque materials.

Heat capacity and heat conductance

Heat capacity: the heat requried to raise the temperature of the material. Water has a very high heat capacity, metals (shown in red) generally a low heat capacity.

Heat conductance: how well heat flows through the material. Some metals (shown in red in the graph) are excellent heat conductors (silver, copper, aluminum), others less so (iron and stainless steel). All other materials (shown in blue) are generellay poor heat conductors.

The heat capacity (or to be precise, the specific heat capacity – which means heat capacity per weight unit) and the heat conductance of materials encountered in the kitchen are plotted in the the graph below:

(for the technically interested, the plot units are Wm-1K-1 for the heat conductance and Jg-1K-1 for the specific heat capacity)

For a more extensive treatment of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance (+ more on cooking methods and materials) in a gastronomical setting, I recommend the Gourmet Engineering Lecture Notes for a very interesting course given at Tufts University in Medford, MA, USA. Cooking for Engineers also has a nice post on heat transfer and browning of foods and one on common materials of cookware (with comprehensive comparisons of different materials used).

Examples related to food preparation and handling

  • Convection ovens utilize fans to circulate hot air allowing reduced cooking times and temperatures. Because of efficient convection, two or more trays can be baked simultaneously.
  • In a steam oven water is introduced to increase the humidity (this can also be done by spraying water into the hot oven). Heat transfer is more efficient due to 1) the higher heat capacity of humid air and 2) the energy released when steam condenses onto the surface (it’s the energy it took to boil the water in the first place). For bread, the condesed water prevents the surface from drying out which facilitates the exapansion of the loaf. Furthermore, the hot surface causes starch to gelatinize and subsequently dry into a delicate crust.
  • Water will cool faster than the same volume of a thickened soup because of less resistance to the convection currents in water. The amount of convection decreases in the following order: water > chicken soup > creamy soup > thick onion soup > porridge. In the latter heat is transferred by conduction only from the interior to the exterior (where heat transfer proceeds mainly by radiation and conduction). This will also affect cooling times, which is of importance with regard to microbial safety (food should be cooled rapidly past the window from 30-60 °C where microorganism thrive).
  • For rapid defrosting, place the frozen food in cold water or on a metal object – this will allow an efficient transport of heat to the frozen food. Defrosting in a microwave is not easy because most of the water molecules are locked in rigid structure and even microwaves cannot make them move (they only melt by conduction of heat from melted neighbouring areas).
  • To freeze icecream or a parfait, use a metal container as this will allow a faster dissipation of the heat in the freezer.
  • When whipping cream, it’s essential to keep the temperature low (otherwise the fat will melt). Use a thick glas bowl and cool it in the freezer before whipping.
  • When cooking meat in a pan or on a grill, notice how the surface browns relatively fast compared to the time it takes for the interioir of the meat to heat up. Heat transfer to the surface by radiation or conduction is very efficient compared to conduction of heat through meat itself. Therefore it’s advisable to fry/grill the meat at high temperature first to get a nice browning, then let the meat rest for 5-10 min to allow for heat conduction to the interioir (cover with aluminum foil to reduce radiative heat loss), followed by a second frying/grilling at lower temperature until desired doneness.
  • In an oven, the heating caused by radiation can be increased by moving food closer to the walls or reduced by wrapping the food with reflective aluminum foil. For example, to caramellize sugar on a creme brulee if you don’t have gas burner, place them as high as possible in the oven, preferably using a grill element. Turkey legs stick out and easily get overdone – wrapping them with aluminum foil reduces heat radiation from the oven walls.
  • For a bain marie, always use a metal bowl as this gives you better temperature control. When making egg based sauces such as hollandaise or bernaise, use a thin metal bowl this allows rapid heating and cooling (if temperature gets to high, the metal bowl allows quick cooling which might save the sauce).
  • A pizza baking stone has a higher heat capacity than a metal plate/sheet – this ensures proper rising and gives a crispy crust.
  • Ever burnt your tongue on a pizza? Tomatoes (mostly water) retain heat far better than the crust (many air bubles, low heat capacity) and cheese topping (cools fast due to radiation from surface).
  • The vacuum in a thermos does not conduct heat by conduction or convection, only by radiation. The latter is minimized (in thermoses of glas) by a silver or aluminmum coating, creating a reflective mirror.
  • From the graph it doesn’t seem like cork is a particularly good insulator. This is because the heat conductance is plotted per weight unit. For a porous material such as cork, the effective heat conductance is much lower than for the same volume of other materials.
  • Lastly, just to illustrate how complex heat transfer and convection sometimes can be, take a look at the Mpemba effect: Believe it or not, under certain conditions, hot water freezes faster than cold water!
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    Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the tips for practical molecular gastronomy. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at might also be of interest.

    Ten tips for practial molecular gastronomy, part 1

    Saturday, February 10th, 2007


    1. Use good and fresh raw materials of the best quality available.

    No amount of cooking and preparation – be it traditional, modern or molecular – can fully disguise ingredients of poor quality. No one will probably disagree with this and it’s elementary knowledge for every cook, yet I include it because after all molecular gastronomy is also about the raw materials you use. Do not always reach for the cheapest products. Eat better, but less – it won’t cost you more, because you’ll just get less calories for the same price!

    I will also encourage you to support local producers. This will probably make me sound like a slow food practitioner which is fine, because molecular gastronomy is not in any opposition to slow food or traditional cooking, it’s more about understanding the chemical and physical principles underlying all handling and preparation of food. Part of my motivation when writing about molecular gastronomy is actually to bring it a little more down to earth.

    When talking about freshness it’s important to consider how food deteriorates. Assuming that safety and toxicological issues are taken care of, from a molecular gastronomy viewpoint it is interesting to discuss flavor. The most important pathways to flavor deterioration include exposure to air (particularly oxygen), light, moisture, high temperature, bacteria and fungi.

    The flavor of foods stems largely from the presence of volatile organic compounds. Because of the low boiling point, these compounds easily escape from the food. And at higher temperatures evaporation of aroma compounds is even faster. Also, many of the compounds can react with oxygen in air. A typical example is the oxidation of fats which gives a rancid flavor. Generally, fats and oils should be stored in the refridgerator to slow down this oxidation, but it turns out there’s an exception for olive oil.

    To retain as much of the volatile compounds as possible it is advisable to store spices in tight containers kept in a dark and cool place. If you for some reason need to store spices for a long time, put them in the freezer. Since the loss of aroma comounds is proportional to the surface area of the spice, it’s also a good idea to buy whole spices and grind them yourself immediatly prior to use. I would also recommend the use of spice pastes (such as curry pastes for instance) since the oil helps extract aroma compounds. Such pastes should preferably be stored in the fridge.


    Like me, you probably have many different spices in your pantry. Some of them have probably been sitting around there for years which is far from optimal. Therefore, as a reminder to myself, I have started to mark each spice with the date of opening (or purchase) using a water proof pen.


    With fresh fruit and vegetables, finding the right storage conditions can sometimes be difficult, but this pdf from UC Davis provides a quick overview of recommended storage conditions (ie. what should be stored in the fridge and what should be stored on the countertop).

    One last example of the importance of correct storage conditions is the staling of bread. Contrary to popular belief, staling of bread is not caused by evaporation of water from the crumb. This is easily demonstrated when you heat a slice of bread in a toaster or a microwave oven. What happens upon storage is that starch and water crystallize. As a consequence the crumb loses its elasticity and goes stale. The aging process proceeds fastest at 14 °C. Because of this, bread should be stored at room temperature – never in a fridge. When freezing bread, rapid cooling is important because the staling is halted below -5 °C.


    Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the tips for practical molecular gastronomy. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at might also be of interest.

    Happy New Year with the Science of Champagne!

    Sunday, December 31st, 2006

    Have you ever though about how far you can shoot a champagne cork? The swedish physicist Hans-Uno Bengtsson has actually done the necessary calculations in the wonderful Swedish book “Kring flaskor och fysik” (which translates to something like “Among bottles and physics”, it was written together with sommelier Mischa Billing). Assuming a bottle pressure of 6 atmospheres, a cork length of 25 mm (the part in contact with the bottle), a radius of 9 mm and a mass of 7.5 g, this gives an initial cork velocity of approximately 20 meters per second or 70 km/h! This translates into a maximum shot length of around 40 m (if we neglect air resistance). In case you prefer not to shoot the cork, you could of coarse turn to a saber or a heavy kitchen knife instead to open the bottle.

    When opening a bottle of champagne, you might have noticed the cloud forming right above the bottle neck (see picture below). This is due to a significant temperature drop, caused by gas expansion when we open the bottle. Assuming an adiabatic expansion (meaning no heat exchange with the surroundings), Hans-Uno Bengtsson has calculated a temperature drop of 112 °C! No wonder the vapor around the bottle neck immediately freezes forming a small cloud.

    cloud at neck of champagne bottle
    (picture by polarunner at

    If this doesn’t satisfy your craving for champagne science, there’s a whole book on the subject: “Uncorked – The Science of Champagne” by Gérard Liger-Belair. He’s an associate professor of physical sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne and probably knows more about champagne bubbles than anyone else! In addition to many fascinating pictures of bubbles, the book has many interesting facts. Did you know that:

  • 0.1 liters of champagne (the contets of an average flute) contains approximately 0.7 liters of carbon dioxide which must escape to restore equillibrium – assuming an average bubble size of 500 micrometers in diameter this corresponds to 11 million bubbles!
  • Contrary to popular belief, nucleation sites for bubbles are not found on scratches or irregularities on the glass itself, but on impurites stuck on the glass wall. These impurities are typically fibres from paper or fabrics.
  • From the point when a bubble leaves the nucleation site till it reaches the surface, the volume increases by a factor of 1 million. This is due to diffusion of carbon dioxide from the solution and into the bubble.
  • Surfactant molecules in champagne form a protective shield around the rising bubbles. This stiffens the bubbles and significantly increases the drag on the bubble as it rises (which gives us more time to admire the trail of bubbles!).
  • The surfactant coating of the bubbles helps keeping them in line as they rise. In pure water, the bubbles would jostle around.
  • The bursting bubbles play an imporant role in flavor release as they collect and concentrate surface active molecules which are thrown against your nose once the bubble bursts, creating a cloud of droplets.
  • (these facts should be perfect conversation starters!)

    trail of champagne bubbles
    (photo by Gérard Liger-Belair)

    An interesting article by Gérard Liger-Belair, “Effervescence in a glass of champagne: A bubble story” is available from Europhysics news.

    Happy New Year!