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Can science help cooks evolve? Gastronomy gets molecular at Harvard

That great scientific debate – how to cook a turkey – came to Harvard last week in honor of Thanksgiving.

Using math, not a cookbook, Harvard physicist David Weitz introduced the week’s “Cooking and Science” lecture by explaining how to calculate the cooking time for a bird. But, guest speaker Nathan Myhrvold – also trained as a physicist – noted that dark meat and white meat need to be cooked to different temperatures. The author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking argued that it scientifically impossible to cook the whole bird and not undercook the legs or overcook the breast.

Myhrvold was the latest in a series of cooks to take charge of the lecture hall as part of Harvard’s hugely popular program. Now in its second year, the classes and public lectures features some of the stars of what is alternately is known as molecular gastronomy, culinary physics or, simply, avant garde cuisine. They use chemistry, physics and microbiology to improve on traditional cooking techniques and create new ones.

Or as Myhrvold put it: “If you’re going to do something difficult, it really helps is you know what it going on, as opposed to going by a set of instructions.”

Something difficult like the “instant soufflé,” a squirt and bake mix stored in a whipped-cream can. That, he said, took 150 tries to perfect.

Mynrold, was the first chief technology officer at Microsoft. When he left in 1999, he took his PhD. in theoretical physics and became a scientific foodie. His latest project is a self-published, six-volume, 2,428-page, 42-pound cookbook. The $625 package is designed to offer the best from books on food science — which Mynrold says are short on technique —and books about how to cook, which are short on science and dated.

“You’ll find no technique that is younger than about 30 years old and most of them are older than that,” he told the full house of grad student-age hipsters who lined up before the doors opened.

So, Mynrold, figured out how to “optimize” the hamburger. First he cooks it "sous-vide’ – encased in plastic and immersed in warm water. That heats it all the way through. Then he dunks it in liquid nitrogen for a minute to freeze the outside. Then he deep fries it, leaving the outside crisp and the inside medium rare. He also “constructs” ice cream – his signature dessert made without milk or eggs but with pistachios and emulsifiers. His kitchen gets even more lab-like when he uses a centrifuge to make turn peas into “pea butter.” (The Modernist Cuisine website recommends the Thermo Scientific Sorvall RC-4 General-Purpose Floor Model – which goes for $22,000 on Amazon.)

A week before he spoke at Harvard, Mynrold was on a panel on “Traditionalist Versus Modern Cuisine.” The New York Times said the group was supposed to talk about the controversy over the new molecular gastronomy. While some see it as bringing food to a higher level, others find the focus on high tech kitchen wizardry to be pretentious and gimmicky.

But that panel "hardly mentioned the tools of the nouveau science-fiction kitchen: foams, gels, nitrogen for flash-freezing, alginates for specification, immersion circulators and antigriddle cooktops for low-temperature cooking.

Even the potential dangers of cutting-edge cookery were lowballed, as when Dr. Myrhvold pronounced that liquid nitrogen, frigid though it may be, is less dangerous than spattering fry oil. Or as Wylie Dufresne, the chef and owner of WD-50, put it, liquid nitrogen is “unlikely to freeze your customers to death, and hot soup in the dining room is more of a danger.” He added, “As with scissors, proper training is important.”

Dufresne has already been to Harvard. A video of his Oct. 14 talk on “Transglutaminase Tactics” is online, with all of the lectures so far. On Monday 11/28, White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses returns with a talk on “Lip Smackin’ Science: Crystals, Emulsions, Foams, and Pink Vanilla Cupcakes.” All of the lectures are free. Next week’s requires a ticket: The return of legendary Spanish chef and modernist Ferran Adrià of elBulli, who will talk about “The New Culinary Think Tank – el bulli 2.0.” Tickets for that talk will be available on Tuesday.

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