Back to School — And You Can Too! It’s free. Book before October 1.

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Chemistry and me.

Chemistry and me.

Back before the days of the Internets (and before the love of radio and journalism overtook my love of the lab), I was a chemistry major. [In fact, I studied under the late Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland, who shared the Nobel Prize for co-discovering chlorofluorocarbons as the primary cause of the hole in the polar ozone layer. But I digress.]

The intersection of chemistry and cooking/baking/making food has always fascinated me (as proof, also see He Blinded Me — And Darn Near Crushed Me, Too — With Science). And years ago, my high school chem teacher, the aptly-named Dr. Wiseman, made the direct connection between lab and kitchen for me when he said, “If you’re good in the lab, you’ll do well in the kitchen, because they both involve similar skills: being able to follow a set of instructions in order to bring about reproducible results.” In fact, the process for making a chemical compound is often informally known as a recipe, so I probably should have figured it out sooner, but I was at a lab table toward the back of the class, cracking wise with my lab partner Rick Jacobs, who is now the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. [I have an almost uncanny knack for brushing up against the talented and celebrated while remaining relatively obscure and undistinguished in my own right. Just call me Zelig.]

Over the years, I’ve collected not only Nathan Myhrvold and co.’s Modernist Cuisine, but also works on food and science by Hervé This, Francois Chartier, Robert L. Wolke, and the dean of American food science writers, Harold McGee.

So I was more than delighted to be notified, via UCLA’s Science and Food blog, that a course was being offered — for free, should you just audit it — From Canada’s McGill University via edX. For those of you unfamiliar with edX, it’s a loosely-knit consortium of institutions of higher education that provides courses to the public for free (or a minimal charge, should you wish a certificate of completion from those courses that offer one). And we’re not talking just any old random universities and colleges, either. Among their number are MIT, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, UC Berkeley, Berklee College of Music, The University of Queensland, Harvard, Peking University, Dartmouth, Technische Universität München, The University of Chicago, The University of Hong Kong, Notre Dame, Karolinska Institutet, and Wellesley, just to name a few.

(image courtesy edX)

(image courtesy edX)

For 11 weeks starting October 1, McGill is offering Chem 181x, a “course that offers a scientific framework for understanding food and its impact on health and society from past to present,” through edX. Count me in. The course description claims to require approximately 5 hours per week of effort, and offers students both non-certificated (free) and certificated (pay, but as little as $100 US) versions (which not all edX courses do).

For more info on the course, check out their informative YouTube video, the course overview, and edx. Registering for an edX account is simple and free. They deliver lifelong learning opportunities on subjects ranging from Explaining European Paintings, 1400 to 1800 to Principles of Economics with Calculus to Autonomous Mobile Robots and beyond, so it’s worth investigating even if this particular course is not to your, ahem, taste. [They also maintain an extensive video library of past courses, so if you miss this one, chances are you will be able to view its content, even if you can’t be certificated or participate in any online discussions or experiments.]

There’s never a bad time to make yourself a little smarter. In a future post, I’ll report back on how it was (or is, if I discover something that deserves a more-or-less immediate share).

He Blinded Me — And Darn Near Crushed Me, Too — With Science

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A 50 Pound Box of Books

A 50 Pound Box of Books

You say “po-tay-to,” I say “po-tah-to.” You say “hard-boiled egg,” I say “denatured proteins encased in an ovoid container composed largely of calcium carbonate.” Let’s call the whole thing off. Or rather, let’s not, just for the moment.

Many years ago, when I foolishly (and incorrectly, as it turned out) believed I could balance a Chem major with a second one in Political Science, managing the campus radio station, editing the Editorial page of the campus newspaper, and engineering an entirely unsatisfactory love life, I had a moment of epiphany. Most of the lab experiments we undertook were colloquially referred to as “recipes,” and it occurred to me that “recipes” — the ones I had gathered from family and friends for use in the kitchen — were little science experiments. I know, friggin’ duh. Next I’ll be telling you about water being wet.

When people say “a lot of love went into that recipe,” it usually means, “the cook spent a whole mess of time getting it right, and she can reproduce through sheer muscle memory processes that I (a newbie trying to imitate the outcome) am unable to replicate.” In our mashed-potato-bud-flakes culture, any skill that cannot be mastered in the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn is just too darn hard, so we might as well ascribe some mystical attribute to the perfectly cloudlike soufflé rather than admit that your grandma, or Wolfgang Puck, or Eddie down the block, is just better at following directions than you are.

After all, when we prepare food, we generally do one or more of three things: We heat it. We cool it. We mix things with other things. And in performing some combination of those processes, we change the chemical composition of the ingredients at the molecular level. Voilà! Science.

Enter Nathan Myhrvold.

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If that picture isn’t the archetypal image of a Scientist Doing Serious Science, I don’t know what is. Oh, wait — he isn’t wearing a lab coat. Nonetheless, he’s something of a polymath, having started college at 14, and breezed through a master’s degree in mathematical economics and a Ph.D in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton and a post-doc fellowship with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge before being named Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft. He has also competed on a team that won first place in multiple categories (as well as being named best team overall) at the 1991 World Championship of Barbecue. And here we have that moment of interfacial polymerization, where the two seemingly disjoint circles in the Venn diagram overlap, and magic happens.

Modernist Cuisine

Modernist Cuisine

After having left Microsoft, Myhrvold had enough time to pursue his passion for cooking. Setting aside for a moment the fact that he haunted kitchens like some Phantom of the Spatula, turning up in local Seattle joints as well as Michelin-starred outfits abroad, Myhrvold brought a special piece to the puzzle: money. Much as when Walt Disney was unsure of the eventual success of Disneyland (saying, apparently apocryphally, that even if he landed on his face, he was at least falling forward), Myhrvold wasn’t sure if an audience beyond a couple dozen existed for his $500+ set, but he (like Walt) had resources at his disposal to see his dream through to fruition. Suffice it to say that both ventures exceed initial projections wildly, though we oughtn’t expect to see a Pirates of the Portabello ride any time soon.

Just as an object, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is breathtaking. Profusely illustrated (3,216 photographs), beautifully bound, it’s clear that no expense was spared in its preparation. In fact, there are over four pounds of ink — four pounds — contained between its myriad covers and spread among its 2,438 pages. But its primary appeal is a simple, step-by-step explanation of how this business of preparing food works. Myhrvold (with co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet) isn’t the first person to tread this ground. The distinguished food writer Harold McGee waded into the deep end of the kitchen science pool nearly three decades ago with his indispensable On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Where Myrhvold et al. go McGee one better is in the use of equipment and techniques not generally common to the home cook… or to the professional chef, for that matter. [I remember one time when I was trying to clarify cactus juice and realized that a centrifuge would be the ideal tool, but who among us has one in the cupboard and would you really want to clarify 20ml at a time? Bring on the cheesecloth.]

Yeah, you could cook eggs with a bullet, but it would be dangerous, probably illegal, and very messy.

Yeah, you could cook eggs with a bullet, but it would be dangerous, probably illegal, and very messy.

As anyone who has read the blog previously — or even the first part of this post — can clearly ascertain, I’m a geek. I’m fascinated with the idea of working with liquid nitrogen in the kitchen, though if The Bride caught me doing so, she’d probably conk me one with the frying pan. Granite counters, after all, are not cheap. Many of the ideas and techniques enumerated in Modernist Cuisine will, alas, never make their way to my kitchen. But many of them will. As a for instance, his explanation of how a wok works has enhanced my stir-fry mojo.

The workings of the wok.

The workings of the wok.

For those who are less geeky, more thrifty, or would merely like to jump in at the shallow end of the kitchen science pool, Myhrvold and company have distilled the Modernist Cuisine monolith into a handy, single-volume set called Modernist Cuisine at Home. I haven’t read it (yet), but I’m given to understand that it contains more than 400 new recipes, and while pricy (it runs about $115, or the approximate cost of 3-4 cookbooks), I’m sure anyone so inclined will find it well worth the purchase price, given its lineage.

Geek-o and The Man, or, more appropriately, The Man and Geek-o.

Geek-o and The Man, or, more appropriately, The Man and Geek-o.

Gotta give props here to two folks who taught me two very valuable lessons. My late grandmother, who taught me that the kitchen isn’t a scary place. And my former chemistry professor, the late Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, who taught me that the lab isn’t a scary place, either. In Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, he’s fused those two concepts in a way that would make my mentors — and no doubt his — proud.

Note: Only the first and last photographs in this blog post are original; all others are ©Modernist Cuisine, LLC.

Je suis sous vide

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Sous Vide Supreme

Sous Vide Supreme

First off, I should explain the headline, because those of you who go to Google Translate to figure it out will discover that the phrase — at least in machine-translate speak — roughly equates to “I am vacuum.” And you might infer (possibly even correctly) from that translation that I had, in a cross-cultural display of bilingual ineptitude, intended to say, “I suck.” Not true. It’s up to you, dear reader, to determine if I suck, but it’s up to me to determine if that’s what I intended. The more appropriate translation of “sous vide” is “under pressure,” and on this Bastille Day, that’s precisely what I am.

Just to the right of the keyboard where this post is being composed sits a machine that The Bride gave to me as a Christmas present. In 2011. Here it is, nearly half way through July 2013, and it still sits there unused, mocking me. Not because I’m not keenly interested in giving it a spin, but because it terrifies me. Let me back up for a moment.

Sous vide began as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: When you cook fois gras, it shrinks. And at $50+ per pound, even a little shrinkage hits the wallet in a pretty dramatic way. Just about 40 years ago, Georges Pralus invented the technique of sealing food in plastic and cooking it at low temperature for Restaurant Troisgros (of Pierre and Michel Troisgros fame) in Roanne, France. The technique has been adopted by restaurants across the world, not only to save on foie gras shrinkage (something that we in California don’t have to deal with because it’s been outlawed — wink wink), but to help tenderize meats gently, and without using additives. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; typically, when you’re cooking meat, your intent is to bring the center of the meat to a given temperature, and the way we’d always done it was to apply a heat that was way too high to the outside, letting the energy radiate from the surface into the center until the desired temp had been attained. Done skillfully, this results in a perfect steak/chop/rib/whatever. Done poorly, the outside of the meat morphs into leather, encasing a Goldilocks band that’s “just right,” and an interior that’s a meager step above raw. What sous vide allows a cook to do is to set the temperature in the circulating water bath just slightly higher than the desired core temperature of the item to be cooked, place the bag in the water, and walk away for a few hours.

Yep, you read that right. A few hours. Sometimes as many as 72 hours. Anybody who’s used a slow cooker is reasonably familiar with the anti-microwave nature of this method. It relies on thinking things through well in advance of the meal; no spur-of-the-moment “Gee, I’d like some carnitas!”-type decisions here. And I’m good with that, at least most of the time. I usually know how many people will be dining here a couple of days in advance and am capable of following a calendar to schedule my meal-building appropriately.

So I started reading recipes and digging into the underlying science — it’s just part of my process. I read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. I read Sous Vide for the Home Cook by Douglas Baldwin, Michael Eades, and Mary Dan Eades. I read the relevant passages in the massive six-volume set Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. I plowed through innumerable articles on the Interwebs. And in addition to the joys and benefits of this exciting new technique, I uncovered a staggering amount of information about food safety and how to avoid serving things one doesn’t care to eat, such as colonies of Escherichia coli O157:H7. And Salmonella. And Clostridium perfringens. And Bacillus cereus.

Let me say at this juncture that I keep surfaces in my kitchen pretty clean, but I wouldn’t want a USDA inspector poking his nose around with a black light and swabs for petri dishes. And I certainly don’t want to serve a lovely, tender roast that sends my dinner guests off to hospital. So I read more. And more. And more. For a period of time, I became convinced that I’d have to prepare my food in a hazmat suit, install negative air flow isolation chambers at both entrances to the kitchen, and finish my chemistry degree or run the risk of becoming known as the South Bay Poisoner. Clearly, along that route lay madness — or, in my case, paralysis.

Recently, as the Sous Vide Supreme was sticking out its figurative metal tongue at me from its perch below the printer, I had an epiphany: my kitchen isn’t so very different than many restaurant kitchens that employ this technology successfully. And unless one happens to be dining with Harold McGee or Nathan Myhrvold, the likelihood of the chef holding an advanced degree in food science or chemistry is fairly small. In short, I can do this.

And I’m going to. I’ve made myself a promise — now repeated in public — to enjoy the benefits of sous vide cooking while summer is still in full swing… if only to relieve the pressure.

Should you see any news stories about the South Bay Poisoner cropping up, all I can say is that it wasn’t me. I was miles away at the time, and I can prove it.