Nitrogen-Dipped Burgers and Ultrasonic French Fries Stun the Senses

PHOTO: A back cover photo of the new cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking".
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New Age music hypnotizes as the caller waits to talk to Intellectual Ventures CEO and founder Nathan Myhrvold, whose Norwegian name doesn't roll off the tongue, but has foodies talking.

A former technology chief for Microsoft, Myhrvold has spent the last three years in a culinary lab with dozens of other researchers perfecting the science of cooking.

Now, he is ready to launch his 2,400-page, $625 self-published book, "Modernist Cuisine: The Art & Science of Cooking," which is being praised as one of the most important cookbooks in the last two decades.

"It's definitely an important book," said Harold McGee, author of "Keys to Good Cooking."

As hundreds of first copies wend their way by boat to American readers from a publishing house in China, some critics raise a question: Can science actually make food more appetizing?

After all, his equipment includes vacuum sealers, colloid mills and rotary evaporators, and some of his ingredients are agar and methylcellulose.

He treats French fries with starch and places them in an ultrasonic bath.

The secret to his hamburger recipe, which takes more than a day to make, is its grand finale -- dipping the meat in liquid nitrogen to crunch up the exterior and keep the center a tender medium rare.

"Why not use nitrogen -- it's 78 percent of the air around us?" said Myhrvold, who holds two master's degrees and a doctorate in mathematical physics from Princeton. "It's not unsafe in any way."

And at 321 degrees below zero, liquid nitrogen -- which can be bought in a thermos-like tank -- is a practical and inexpensive way to cool food.

"It's cheap, about the same amount as Evian water," he said.

Myhrvold is not your ordinary chef. He is a theoretical physicist who once studied cosmology with Stephen Hawking, hunts dinosaur fossils and once found the remains of a tyrannosaurus rex in Montana.

After spending 14 years at Microsoft, he founded Intellectual Ventures, a small company that now supports inventions, like cures for malaria and nuclear power.

The same outfit supports his culinary lab, where 1,500 recipes for the cookbook were tested. Myhrvold doesn't see the incongruity.

"It seems to make sense, only to me," said Myhrvold, 51. "I have always been in to food. When I was 9 years old I announced to my mother I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner and I went to the library and got a cookbook. I thought I could do a lot better job. Food has interested me my whole life."

Flavor acceptance and food preparation is mostly cultural, but much of it is biological, according to Gary Beauchamp, a behavioral biologist and director of the Philadelphia-based Monell Center, where scientists from many disciplines work together to focus on understanding the mechanisms and functions of taste and smell.

"I am willing to try anything," he said. "But the proof is in the pudding -- to see how it tastes. One can imagine people being sort of put off by putting something in dry ice or cooking for 30 hours, just because it's a novel thing."

And there is an evolutionary reason why humans are afraid of weird things. "It could be a dangerous thing," said Beauchamp. "And dangerous can kill you."

Of course, Beauchamp, who has hosted well-known chefs and cookbook authors at Monell, doesn't suggest that Myhrvold's cookbook is lethal, but humans are wired to be picky.

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