Science, Science and Society

Cooking: where science and art already meet

I come from an extremely foody family.


I’ve always explained it to people as follows: “you know that place in their hearts where fundamentalist religious people keep their god?  That’s where my parents keep food’.

So yes.  And I now find myself living in a particularly foody city (Wellington has, apparently, the highest number of eateries per capita in the world), and with a flatmate who is also, well, you get the point*.  And it’s Wellington on a plate at the moment.  Sigh.

Food’s something of a passion, in other words.  Also, interestingly, it’s a pretty sciencey thing: understanding the complex interactions between the ingredients and flavours can make the difference between a bad and glorious meal, or a comfortable (and creative) and nervous, disastrous cook.  I’ve experienced both of the latter over the years.

So with that in mind, I have decided to share books/papers to do with the science of cooking :)

First up! Cooking for Geeks is proudly brought to us by the guys at Maker Shed.  It will teach those interested how to calibrate their tools, the chemical reactions they need to understand, how to (properly) play with their food, and also share knowledge from those more, um, knowledgeable.  Including the xkcd guy :)


Secondly - ta da!  I’m not sure if it’s the world’s most expensive cookery book,  but it’s certainly not the cheapest.  Coming in at a cool $500 (US) and six volumes totalling 2,400 pages, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is due to be released later this year.  In addition to enlightening us about the underlying principles of cooking, it also, apparently, has very, very pretty pictures.  Which is always a happy thought.  I’m considering seeing if a few friends want to club together with me to buy it.  And then perv over it.

modernist cookingFinally, not so much a book as a paper.  I came across it earlier this year, and thought ‘Ooh!  My mum would love this this, so I should blog it!’.  This was before I realised that it’s 53 pages long, and goes into a great deal of detail on the subject of molecular gastronomy, on which a brief note.

A sublime mixture of the scientific and the tasty, the field looks at the science behind food, its preparation, and our interaction therewith.  I’m certain there have been programmes about it on the food channel - sometimes looking very test-tubey, but hey - and I think I remember strangely coloured smoke in one.  Nonetheless, despite its early treatment as something of a science sideshow, it appears to have been gaining in credibility, and usage, over the last few years.

So much so, in fact, that two of the world’s top restaurants, El Bulli (Spain) and The Fat Duck (UK) adhere to its principles.  And I hear local restaurant Martin Bosley’s also likes to play in that particular sandpit.***

Anyhoo, said paper, entitled Molecular Gastronomy: A New Emerging Scientific Discipline, is available in its entirety, and a big thumbs up to Chemical Reviews for publishing it.


Postscript: I intend to start blogging about actual research again shortly.  But first I need to write about Semi-Permanent, which was absolutely wonderful :)


* Srsly.  We throw huge dinner parties at least weekly, and the food, my god, the food!  And wine.  Ahem.

** A tome if ever I saw one.  And I have.  Running wild through the forests at night…Oh, wait.  Never mind.

*** And has a very fine degustation menu, according to friends who were recently there.  They also sell an awesome spice mix, called ‘vadouvan’.  Buy!  Consume! Roll around in!

  • Gareth Renowden

    The original book on the science of food is On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, published (IIRC) in the 80s. Very influential on molecular gastronomes like Heston (Fat Duck) Blumenthal (though he doesn’t like the “molecular” tag. The inventor of the term was French scientist Hervé This. I had the great pleasure of seeing him demonstrate a few science food tricks (making foaming gels in a microwave) over a conference breakfast a few years ago. If you can imagine Professor Braynestorm from Tin Tin brought to life, you have This to a tee…

    Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook is also well worth a look. Expensive, but great fun to read, and there are things in the recipes that home cooks can try, principles that can be applied, etc. HB’s TV series (on Food TV/Sky) are great fun.

  • Gareth Renowden

    PS: Yes, Bosley does use “molecular” foams and things from time to time. Very nice too. Pescatore in Christchurch is probably more full-on molecular (very nice little “olives” that are actually little balls of liquid black oliveness that melt in your mouth).

    Now, where did I put that food grade sodium alginate?

  • Alison Campbell

    Aimee, you are a woman after my own heart :) Food! Cooking! Hurray! (Last night we had - among other things - parsnip shavings [ie strips peels off parsnips using a tatie peeler until you get down to the woody core, which you discard] cooked reasonably briskly with crushed ginger in a little butter & oil until nicely caramelised. Nom nom!)

    One of the weekend papers had an article on molecular gastronomy, funnily enough - even mentioned the liquid oliveness that Gareth talks about. Also ‘foam’ of vodka cocktails. Sounds interesting but while I like to thing that I am a confident & comfortable cook, I can’t be having all that fiddling around :)

  • Alison Campbell

    PS 6 parsnips, 25g butter, slosh of oil, 1tsp crushed ginger. In case you were wondering.

  • Alison Campbell

    Curses! ‘… like to think!!

  • drmike

    Aimee, your article couldn’t have been more timely. With next year being the International Year of Chemistry I’m thinking a molecular gastronomy event might be a great way to celebrate chemistry. I’ve recently purchased “Molecular Gastronomy” by Herve This, and now you have provided me with another reference and further inspiration.

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Great idea! Something to suggest as a theme for a dinner party at some point as well, methinks :)

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Also: Alison, thanks! I was indeed wondering :)

  • David Winter

    Who knew that cooking was the topic that would set the sciblogs crew off ;)

    It’s kind of a parallel to this discussion, but the favourite cookbook at our house is The New Best Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. It takes a scientific approach to cooking - gather all the best recipes, try them out, do a blind tasting, fiddle with the best ones, try again…

    In then end you get a well tested recipe and scientific evidence that you don’t have to continuously stir a risotto to get a good result!

  • Gareth Renowden

    One “scientific” thing that has transformed the way I cook in recent years is an overnproof digital thermometer. Bought because Neil Perry waxed lyrical about their use (in The Food I Love - fantastic recipe book) for meat cookery, it gives a precise readout of core temperature. This is useful for guaranteeing the “doneness” of your meat in normal roasting, but also opens the door to low-temperature cooking. So yesterday’s beef ribs were roasted at 90C for just under 3 hours until the core temperature was 70C (well done — aged parents preference, not my choice!), then left to stand for an hour in a warm place. Result: superbly tender beef. Perry also gives a recipe for roast chicken using the same technique, for wonderfully moist and tender results. Needs finishing under the grill for crispness. Blumenthal uses a blow torch to brown his beef… ;-)

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Oooh, sounds good!

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Oh yeah. Also, the Time Life series of cookbooks are awesome. Grew up with them as part of reference works for cooking (seriously, we had shelves and shelves of cookbooks. Mum also loved/loves Marcella Hazan as useful referenceness.

  • Gareth Renowden

    Hazan is great. Try the pork loin braised in milk….

  • guyw

    Interesting that both El Bulli and (if memory serves me right) The Fat Duck are now moving away from the molecular gastronomy “fad” and returning to basics.

    To my mind, the best food is always a good plate of well-cooked food that’s not pretending to be something else.

    There’s just no need to disguise food nowadays - so much really good, organic stuff around that tastes the way it should!

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Huh! Who knew the sciblings were foody? Sounds like you guys need to join in the weekly dinner party up here sometime :)

  • Alison Campbell

    I’ll let you know next time I’m in Wellington :)
    Slow-roasted pork belly is absolutely divine (cut it with a fork etc). 3 hours at 140 & another 1 at 130 or so. You just need to sit it on foil that can be folded up around the meat to trap its juices while still exposing the proto-crackle, which needs a few carefully-watched minutes under the grill to get it to the necessary state of crunch.
    mmmm, craaaackling!