Posts Tagged ‘kitchen science’

TGIF: Food related “Periodic videos”

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I believe most chemists are familiar with the “periodic videos” from the University of Nottingham, covering all the known chemical elements. The series features professor Martyn Poliakoff who’s grey hair is really worthy of a professor! They have now covered the complete periodic table of elements, and have even started to update some of their previously posted videos. There are also thematic videos as well as videos covering specific molecules appearing now. As a chemist I think the videos are great fun to watch since they show a number of exotic experiments I’ve never seen before combined with plenty of nice-to-know facts. I certainly recommend all these videos (for an overview, check out their website), but the reason I chose to blog about this is that I was delighted to find a number of more or less food related videos! These are definitely not going to make you a better cook. But some of them are quite amusing to watch, and you may even learn some chemistry as you go. But most of the food related videos are really just for fun :)

Cheeseburger in hydrochloric acid


Modernist Cuisine available for pre-order

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

When I wrote about Nathan Myhrvold’s book project in November he estimated the book to reach 1500 pages. But what originally started out as a 300-page book on sous vide has now, with the help of a 20-person team, grown to a total of 2200 pages spanning five volumes! Need I say more? Finally the long wait is over: The Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is now available for pre-order at Amazon, and the expected release date is December 1st. One could almost be afraid that there will not be anything more to blog about here at Khymos as everything will be covered in Modernist Cuisine :) (but I know better – every previous talk about “end of science” has turned out to be more a starting point than a final destination)

Ferran Adrià says that “This book will change the way we understand the kitchen”, and according to Heston Blumenthal it’s “A fascinating overview of the techniques of modern gastronomy”. And if that’s not enough – take a look at this 26 minute video which guides you through the almost endless amount of high-tech equipment Nathan Myhrvold and his team have available. Oh boy, oh boy!

Other links:
The lecture “Cooking in Silico: Understanding heat transfer in the modern kitchen” by Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young is available for streaming/download from University of Washington.

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 9

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

9. Keep a written record of what you do!

Wouldn’t it be a pity if you couldn’t recreate that perfect concoction you made last week, simply because you forgot how you did it? Last year I made a vegetable soup to which I added garam masala and pepper. I was cooking ad lib, adding a little of this and that without taking notes… Which is annoying, because it turned out very nice! It had a remarkable aftertaste which gave me a somewhat dry feeling on the back of the tongue and it reminded me of mangoes. Even immediately after the meal I wasn’t able to recall all the ingredients.

As an undergraduate student I took an organic chemistry lab course, and I remember we were told not to use post it notes or small pieces of paper for taking notes. Everything should be recorded in a proper journal or – if necessary – small note books. Having finished my Ph.D. a couple of years later, I can only testify to this. Everything you do – be it in the lab or in the kitchen – should be recorded immediately in a journal. It’s amazing how something that was obvious one day, slips your mind a week or month later.

There is a wonderful Donald Duck story by Volker Reiche entitled “The soul of science” (the original appeared in 1981 in the Dutch Donald Duck magazine). At a point “Professor Duck”, who actually works as a janitor in a lab, utters the words “Careful notes are the soul of science” as he is caught experimenting. This is true also for the kitchen and experimental cooking. A German translation of the story was reprinted in the article “Das Leiden des cand. chem. Donald Duck” (open access) in case you want to read the whole story.

Careful notes are also the soul of kitchen science!

When taking notes it’s essential that you are able to re-cook the dish yourself. But if no one else is, the notes are of limited value. The biggest source of uncertainty in the kitchen is the widespread use of volume for measuring powders. This can best be illustrated by the question: How much does a cup of flour weigh?

I bumped into this when I began baking no-knead bread (recipe). I converted the recipe to metric units using an online calculator, but the no-knead bread wasn’t a huge success. The problem was that there is no simple answer to the question “How much does a cup of flour weigh?”. Cooking conversion online states that a cup of all-purpose flour weighs 99 g. King Arthur Mills claim that all their flours weigh 113 g/cup. USDA states 125 g/cup and Gold Medal 130 g/cup. Some cookbooks have settled at 140 g/cup (apparently because this is about half way between a loosely and densly packed cup) and if the flour is hard packed you can reach 160 g/cup. In other words – when following a recipe you would need to know how the volume of flour was measured in order to use exactly the same amount of flour. Some recipes call for “spoon and level” or “scoop and level”, but many do not include any information about this.

My recommendation is to weigh all dry ingredients (and preferably also the wet ingredients). A normal digital kitchen scale typically has a resolution of 1 g with an accuracy of +/- 5 g and they are quite affordable. Weighing liquids is also far more accurate than the average volume measurement in the kitchen. If the scale has a “tara” function it’s also much faster as you can zero the display after each ingredient you add. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m not the only chemist advocating weight measurements in kitchen. And it’s not difficult finding other sites in favor of weight measurements either.

It therefore puzzles me why recipes that call for the following are still so abundant:

1 pack of instant yeast
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1 gelatin sheet (see comment #4-5)
1 sachet powdered pectin
1 tablespoon liquid pectin
1 stick of butter
… and the list goes on

The only exception to the general advice on weighing ingredients is when very small quantities are used. This could be spices, food coloring or hydrocolloids. With normal kitchen scales, you’ll be better of using volume measurements for amounts less than 5 g (equal to a teaspoon if measuring water). Otherweise it’s worthwhile mentioning that scales with a 0.1 g and 0.01 g readout are getting cheaper and cheaper.


There is a summary of the “10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy” posts. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry) and links (people/chefs/blogs, webresources, institutions, articles and audio/video) at might also be of interest.

10 elements of basic kitchen knowledge

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Salt in oil. According to Pierre Gagnaire, this is Hervé This’ main discovery. It allows him to sprinkle salt on dishes without the salt dissolving in water from the dish. Thereby the “crunch” of the salt is retained.

Rob Mifsud, perhaps best know for his Hungry in Hogtown blog has interviewed Hervé This. At the end of the interview Hervé lists 10 elements of basic kitchen knowledge. Some may seem obvious, but they are not, according to Hervé. Here’s the list so you can judge by yourselves:

  1. Salt dissolves in water.
  2. Salt does not dissolve in oil.
  3. Oil does not dissolve in water.
  4. Water boils at 100 °C (212 °F).
  5. Generally foods contain mostly water (or another fluid).
  6. Foods without water or fluid are tough.
  7. Some proteins (in eggs, meat, fish) coagulate.
  8. Collagen dissolves in water at temperatures higher than 55 °C (131 °F).
  9. Dishes are dispersed systems (combinations of gas, liquid or solid ingredients transformed by cooking).
  10. Some chemical processes – such as the Maillard Reaction (browning or caramelizing) – generate new flavours.

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 8

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Read about the physics behind the balancing fork trick.

8. Experiment!

Dare to experiment and try new ingredients and procedures. Do control experiments so you can compare results. When evaluating the outcome, be aware that your own opinions will be biased. Have a friend help you perform a blind comparison, or even better a triangle test to evaluate the outcome of your experiments.

In a scientific context, an experiment is a set of actions and observations performed in the context of solving a particular problem, in order to support or falsify a research hypothesis. In a kitchen context, the problem to solve would typically be related to taste, aroma, texture or color. And the required actions and observations would be cooking and eating.

An essential part of the scientific method is that new knowledge is gained when, based previous knowledge, an assumption is made and tested. In the kitchen, this is exactly what you do when you taste your concoctions repeatedly as you cook. And it is also what makes you an experienced cook, because you remember and learn from your previous successes and mistakes. It might sound very complicated, but here’s how it goes:

1) Observation: soup lacks flavor
2) Hypothesis: adding something with flavor might help
3) Experiment: add more spices
4) New observation: soup tastes more (or less)
5) Hypothesis is either supported (or rejected)

Of these steps, I think observation is the easiest. Coming up with a hypothesis however can sometimes be difficult. If you have lumps in your custard or a sauce that’s separating, it isn’t always easy to think of what to do. This is where books on popular food science and molecular gastronomy might help you.


Think outside the cook book! I mentioned in previous post that you should always question authorities and cook books. And even when you have a recipe that works, remember that it’s nothing more than a suggestion. For instance, it can be useful to know when to be sloppy and when to be accurate with measurements. The smaller amount you measure, the greater the precision should be. Let’s consider a hypothetical recipe that calls for 1000 g flour and 1 g of saffron. Whether you use 999 or 1001 g of flour makes no difference, but using 1 or 2 g of saffron will be quite noticable. A good rule of thumb is that you should measure to within +/- 10% of the given amount. But again, don’t follow this blindly. Experience will show when you can be even more sloppy.

Thinking of good experiments to do requires both creativity and experience, and there are many sources of inspiration. The molecular gastronomy movement has come up with a number of books and blogs which point towards new ingredients and procedures. There are several approaches to flavor pairing (i.e. a general one based on experience and a chemical one based on impact odorants). Further more there’s a lot of inspiration to get from regional cooking – also for molecular gastronomists! Lastly, I think considering not only the food but the whole atmosphere and the setting of the meal is important, because our senses are connected!


The best way to judge the outcome of a new procedure or ingredient is to compare it with the original. I’ve previously termed this “parallel cooking”. In scientific contexts it’s very common to do control experiments and I can’t see why this shouldn’t be done in the kitchen routinely. Im convinced that this could have saved us from many kitchen myths!

Once you’ve done your parallel cooking, you have to taste it. If you did the cooking, you’ll probably have an opnion or expectation that the new dish is better or worse than the original. The big problem here is that due to confirmation bias, if you know what you are eating, this will influence your perception of it. Therefore it’s crucial to do a blind tasting (or a double-blind tasting). Have friend help you label each dish with random three digit numbers (to avoid thinking about ranking) and give them to you. If the dishes can easily be recognized due to color, it’s important that the lights are turned down or that you are blindfolded. State which dish you prefer and have your friend reveal the identity of the dishes tasted.

A slightly more sophisticated test is the triangle test which is commonly used in the food industry. The tester is presented with three samples of which two are identical and the task is to pick the odd one out. Using statistics, it’s possible to evaluate the outcome of repeated tests. The number of correct assignments in a number of triangle tests required for you to be 95% sure there is a difference are given in the table below. Read more about simple difference tests here.

Number of tests performed Number of correct assignments required
3 3
4 4
5 4
6 5
7 5
8 6
9 6
10 7

Bionomial distribution for a triangle test (p=1/3) at 0.05 probability level. A more extensive table can be found here.

It seems that this would be the ultimate way to determine whether or not there is a difference between pepsi and coke. It’s more than 50 years since the first experiments were conducted. The theory is simple, but in the real world things aren’t always that simple. Read the entertaining story about Fizzy logic.


There are several examples of experimental cooking out on the net, and I thought I’d share some of them with you as this might illustrate my ideas on the subject.

Many cooks have strong opinions about how garlic should be treated. Should it be minced, crushed or microplaned? And does this really influence the taste and aroma? Or does it only affect the degree of extraction and hence the intensity of the flavor? Dominic of Skillet Doux had a excellent post on this subject in 2006, Deconstructing garlic. The task was formulated as follows:

The subject of this experiment is the effect that various methods of breaking down garlic have on its flavor when used to prepare a dish. The hypothesis is that not only does mincing garlic create a different flavor than crushing it, but also that mincing is the preferred method for pasta sauces. Furthermore, the experiment is intended to determine if microplaning garlic achieves a character different from mincing or crushing.

In his conclusion, Dominic writes ” I was surprised to discover that the difference between the minced and crushed garlic sauces was even more significant than I had previously thought”. Check out his post to find out which kind of garlic treatment he prefers for his pasta sauces. As a side comment it can be mentioned that a group of researchers in 2007 studied the effect of cooking on garlics ability to inhibit aggregation of blood platelets. They found that crushing could reduce the loss of activity upon heating. But unfortunately they didn’t report anything about the flavor.

Other food bloggers have also adopted experimental cooking with emphasis on systematic and thorough testing. Examples include Chad’s experiments with gellan, konjac and iota/kappa carrageenans, Michael Chu’s parallell cooking of bacon and his eggplant test and Papin’s comparison of orange juices – to mention but a few! And I shouldn’t forget Dylan Stiles either whom I mentioned in part 5 of this series:

A challenge with aroma molecules is that they should remain intact during storage and not be released until cooking (or even better, until consumption). A example would be to install a Liebieg condenser over your pot. Dylan Stiles has explored this in his column Bench Monkey by placing a bag of ice on top of the lid. He claims that his roommates preferred the curry which has been cooked under “reflux conditions”. The study was performed in a double blind manner (which I will come back to in part 8 of this series).

An extreme example of the application of the scientific method to cooking appeared in the news last spring when the recipe for the ultimate bacon buttie was revealed by scientists from Leeds University. Commissioned by Danish Bacon, the study evaluated more than 700 variations of a bacon buttie. They even came up with a “formula” for the perfect bacon buttie and quantified the required crispiness and crunchiness. The news story was picked up by many news agencies, so although it wasn’t necessarily ground breaking science, at least it was clever marketing.


Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the 10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy series. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry, presentation/photography) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at might also be of interest.