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May 05, 2004

Cooking In The 21st Century

You know, for all of our technical advancements we're still often acting like primitives in the kitchen. I once got interested in making a more even heating frying pan, and thought "Why not go all the way?" I wanted a pan so thermally conductive that I could put a corner of it over the burner and still have it heat up all the way across. Sounds crazy, no? So I ordered a 1/4" thick slab of copper plate and was going to hammer it into a pan. For thermal conductivity a thick slab of silver would be better, but the copper already cost over a $100, and after all, it is just a frying pan. It would still have to get clad with a thin layer of stainless steel, though, and I had another idea while I was at it.

Have you noticed that when it comes to judging pan temperature we're still acting like a bunch of dancing witch doctors? I mean, we'll put it on the stove and stare at it, all bug-eyed and bewildered. We'll wet our fingers and fling water at the pan, then jump back like we were flinging magic powder in the campfire. We stare at the dancing balls of steaming droplets and try to read them like tea leaves. Or we toss in a small bit to of meat and from the mysterious pitches of the sizzle try to gage whether the pan is too hot or too cool. Our methods aren't any better than those we used thousands of years ago, and this just won't do. I want a pan with a magic bottom. I want a pan with a non-stick surface that lasts forever, such as the titanium-ceramic surface used by Scanpan. But I want more than that. I want a digital display somewhere that tells me the damn surface temperature! Come on people. Let's move out of the early Bronze Age. How the heck can we pretend to know what we're doing when we're just guessing like cave men?

So I suggest we either start putting thermistors in our pans with a display on the handle, put a spring mounted thermistor on the stove that always presses against the bottom of the pan, displaying the temperature next to the range's adjustment knobs, or mount remote infrared thermometers above or below each burner, focused on the top or bottom of the pan. The next step would add feedback so we don't put the pan on 4 or 6 or "medium-hi" but instead have the option of dialing it to a surface temperature of 370F. Our ovens have thermostats, why not our pans? Surely there's a market out there. We just need to have some chef on the food network babble on about how important it is to pour his souffle into a pan at 185F. Suddenly the entire audience will wonder how they ever managed to fry a slice of bacon without this critical information.

Anyway, I was recently discussing ribs and poultry with those masters of smoking meat, Steve H from Little Tiny Lies and Russ Emerson from TacJammer. They were discussing treating the meat with brine, citric acid, beer, and other substances to get the tenderest meat, along with the many long hours of slow cooking. Well, come on, this is the 21st century and we need to move past brine, fruit juice, and burning wood chips. I mean we can blast missiles out of the sky with lasers, transmit pictures over our cell phones, but we're still soaking pork in ancient concoctions and shoving them in a pile of smoldering sticks? We need better methods, and the microwave just isn't turning out ribs worth eating. We've got refrigerated micro-wave ovens so you can start a meal with your mobile phone on the way home from work, but when it comes to a rack of ribs we're just stuck using the same methods and inordinately long time as always.

Years ago I was discussing an issue regarding fried chicken, which is faced by food scientists and the fast food industry. It takes too long to cook a chicken, and one of the reasons that KFC was able to turn chicken into a fast food franchise was their reliance on pressure cooking, which can cook chicken much faster than conventional frying. However, they still have to have the chicken pre-cooked for you, but it doesn't have to sit as long without the risk of the restaurant running low. What the researchers want is a method to cook the chicken much more quickly, so it could be cooked as your order it. They're always looking for a faster method, and it's hard to get the oil to quickly heat the inner reaches near the bone. You've eaten poorly cooked chicken before, so you know what I'm talking about. Nut that I am, I suggested that they fire the chicken at high speed through a pipe of pressurized hot oil, using some sort of chicken cannon. I think I worked hard vacuum in there somewhere too. When you're going for bizarre methods you really don't want to leave any stone unturned.

Another big issue in the meat industry is tenderness, as discussed here and just about everywhere else in the field of food science and meat production. Tough meat is a continued problem, even in this day and age. Many are approaching the problem chemically, looking for ways to break up the collegen, as discussed here. Here's a good PDF detailing the science of meat tenderness.

So here's my strange thought for the day. Companies are now producing ovens that cook food with intense light, such as this halogen oven, the GE Advantium™ oven, or this very interesting Panasonic toaster oven which costs just $90.

In an earlier post I discussed some of the new high power diode lasers we now have, and many of these are about 40-50% efficient. So suppose we picked a laser frequency that specifically broke up collagen or other proteins?

We already use lasers surgically to break up, change, or promote the growth of collagen, as briefly mentioned here, here, and here. This link discusses denaturing collagen with an 808nm diode laser, while this one talks about photoablation of tissue with UV lasers, even saying

The photoablative process (figure 1) consists in a photo-dissociation, (the direct breaking of intra-molecular bonds in polymeric chains) caused by absorption of incoming photons. Biopolymers such as collagen{3} may dissociate by absorption of a single photon.

The strongest UV absorption occurs at 193nm.

The chemical structure of collagen is almost identical to that of polymer films used as photo-resists in semi-conductor processing.

So isn't that interesting. Now the question is whether lasers would be useful for specifically targeting the proteins that make meat tough, so that we can move from photo-cooking to photo-tenderization. It would be awfully nice to whip out a rack of fall-off-the-bone tender BBQ ribs in 5 minutes instead of 5 hours. Penetration depth might, however, be an issue. It wouldn't do much good to come up with a method that can merely produce a tender rack of rooster ribs.

Come to think of it, with lasers you could run different frequencies, intensities, repetition rates, and sweep patterns. You could combine it with broad specturm light, infrared, convection, and microwaves, with infrared cameras providing feedback on the progress. It could deliver a mutli-pronged assault on the meat problem, and in the future even use the cooking lasers to scan whatever dish was inserted, using spectral imaging to figure out just what it's supposed to cook, and coming up with the best method. You could probably even stick an entire meal on a tray and have the fish, steak, potatoes and dinner roll all targeted individually. I'd want to automatically vaporize any squash, though. I hate squash. But other than that I just look forward to the day when lasers are efficient and powerful enough to not only BBQ the ribs, but kill the hog as well. Guys grilling out could just walk around with their multipurpose weapon and switch it from "kill" to "cook". We're not real bright when it comes to food, and that would be right up our alley. Anyway, now you know why I'm a danger in the kitchen.

May 5, 2004 in fluff | Permalink


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I thought this was brilliant.

Do you mind if I use this in a setting to add some details for a game setting for a rpg I'm working on?

Posted by: Tadeusz at May 5, 2004 7:52:54 PM

Sure, go ahead! It does make me wonder if it's about being a top chef like Ferrán Adria of El Bulli, possibly the best restaurant in the world, or if it has something to do with setting your phasers on "roast". :)

Posted by: George Turner at May 5, 2004 9:48:22 PM

Have you considered an IR thermometer? A nice consumer model with a laser sight runs about $100.

All I need is one of these, and your copper slab, and a hotplate, and a good rheostat...

Posted by: Mike Earl at May 6, 2004 2:48:01 PM

For even heat distribution try berylium oxide, Brush Wellman owns almost all the mines for this material though... and of course, it is a hazardous material in powder form.

Works great though... during a house-warming we made some gold plated rulers from the stuff... you could feel the heat from your hand holding it at one end to the other.

Posted by: ken anthony at May 7, 2004 7:12:06 PM

Interesting ken,

Checking this table it seems that maybe Silicon Carbide 52.0 Btu-ft/Hr-F) would do pretty well too, though not as good as Berylium Oxide.

Thermal Conductivity (Btu ft/Hr F) - material
247 Silver
231 Copper
136 Aluminum
125 Berylium Oxide
 52 Silicon Carbide
26-37 Mild Steel
 &nbsp8 Stainless Steel

But I found other references that list BeO as having the same thermal conductivity as copper, so it looks lie the curve of thermal conductivity versus temperature of the two materials meet at some point. Hmm....

Posted by: George Turner at May 8, 2004 5:26:04 PM