Nitrogen-Dipped Burgers and Ultrasonic French Fries Stun the Senses

Scientific cookbook could reinvent culinary arts -- or scare people.

BySusan Donaldson James
February 16, 2011, 4:36 PM

Feb. 17, 2011— -- 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.

Modernist Cuisine Could Be Healthier

And, Beauchamp admits, the nitrogen-cooked hamburger might, in fact, be more nutritious and perhaps more appealing to "our sensory apparatus."

"The most fundamental thing about biology is that things are good or bad -- and it's much more important to avoid the dangerous than going after the good," he said. "It's good to be wary of something new."

Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef who blogs for Chef Reinvented, was skeptical after tasting pea soup prepared in a centrifuge at a tasting hosted by Myhrvold.

"I'm wary of intense manipulation of foods when it involves chemicals, expensive tools and gadgets that only .002 percent of the population has access to," she told the New York Times.

Still, after trying the pea soup, "my mind cracked open," she confessed to "It was one of the best pea soups I'd ever had."

Myhrvold's first foray into the professional food business was in 1991, when he was on the "team of the year" at the Memphis World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Later, he trained in haute cuisine in France.

His book, written with co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, is being inducted into the Gourmand Hall of Fame of Cookbooks during the Paris Cookbook Fair on March 3.

"We believe you can do a much better job of cooking when you understand science," said Myhrvold. "In some cases in the book, the science is there to satisfy curiosity. The main goal is to give insights useful in cooking."

Not only does the book explain how heat and energy work in the kitchen and the wattage of a burner or a toaster, one chapter includes a mini biography of James Watt.

"Did we need to do that? Maybe not," said Myhrvold, with the enthusiasm of a 5-year-old. "But it's kind of cool."

The six-volume, 47-pound cookbook could easily pass for a science book, dispelling many of the myths that pervade the kitchen.

Add oil to make healthier fry foods -- too little oil and the meat touches the pan and absorbs more grease. When food heats, water escapes and creates a layer of steam that lifts the food off the pan. Scrimp on the oil and the food will not make contact with the oil -- and, instead of frying, it steams and retains more oil.

He also notes that deep-fried food tastes better in when the oil is older.

Myhrvold chafes at high-end pots and pans, calling them a waste of money. The same goes for organic food.

With 3,500 photos and diagrams, the cookbook also explains why plunging food in ice water doesn't stop the cooking process; why raising the grill doesn't lower the heat; and when boiling cooks faster than steaming. And why coffee with cream stays hotter longer than when it's served black.

Modernist Cuisine Dispels Cooking Myths

An entire chapter uncovers the superstitions around food safety and government regulations.

"It is often claimed, for example, that you must cook beef, veal, or lamb to an internal cooking temperature of 63 deg C / 145 deg F to prevent food-borne illness," writes Myhrvold on his blog. "This statement is totally false. The FDA requires NO specific internal temperature for steak. Put simply, even the FDA balks at the idea of telling millions of meat-eating Americans that they cannot have their steaks pink and juicy."

Unless the meat has been punctured, the interior is sterile, according to Myhrvold. Cooks need only worry about the surface of the meat which can be contaminated with bacteria and sicken eaters.

With its hefty price tag, the book may not be for every amateur cook, but Myhrvold insists there is something for everyone.

"Chefs will certainly be interested," he said. "The book contains a lot of techniques that it would be really difficult to learn any other way. You would have to work at a dozen different restaurants around the world."

Researchers consulted 72 chefs, revealing techniques and knowledge that was already known, but had not been compiled in one book.

Myhrvold learned from an Italian science journal that truffles could be stored longer in carbon dioxide than in air.

"So we show a simple way to use a spritzer bottle that you can squirt into the Tupperware," he said. "For chefs that one tip is worth buying the whole book."

It's also appealing to those with an "intellectual curiosity," according to Myhrvold. "People who love books say this is really an extraordinary object."

In fact, his researchers joke that the cookbook is not only a coffee table book, "but the table as well," he said.

Still, with all the hype surrounding the cookbook, Myhrvold said, "It's very hard to tell what the long-term impact will be when it hasn't been read yet."

As for the author's favorite recipe? Nothing too fancy or too scientific -- a cheese omelet made with two egg whites and one yolk and a little butter, steamed in a non-stick pan to 171 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I like to put foamed scrambled eggs inside and serve it with a mushroom marinade," said Myhrvold. "It's simple and it's great."

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