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June 14th, 2010

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05:50 pm - Food Futures
Another food-related entry.

Well, this one isn't totally surprising. Some of my friends have already heard me pontificate. I'd had A Vision. The last time this happened, I was predicting that 'electronic books' were the wave of the future. This was 1995, and 'ebook' hadn't yet appeared in the dictionary. This time, I've realized that the home kitchen, after 100 years of stasis, is about to undergo a massive change.

Seriously, the last time anything really major happened to home cooking was the introduction of electricity around 1920, and even then, it wasn't really that much different from when gas really became commercially successful in 1890. Anybody who was cooking around that time could cook in a 2010 kitchen with just a little time to acclimate. Our icebox doesn't need to be fed with ice, but the stove and the oven are the main cooking tools, and they really haven't changed.

The microwave? Yes, that's a total mystery to our time-travelling chef. However, I said "cooking." It *is* possible to cook in a microwave, but I doubt more than 2% of the population does. Everybody else uses it to reheat food that's already cooked. What's the difference? When I say "cooking," I mean "applying heat to food to cause a chemical reaction." The food has to change.

My mom cooks bacon in the microwave. She has a special tray she bought somewhere. It's slanted with grooves, and the fat runs off and collects in a reservoir at one end.

Me, I cook hamburgers in the microwave. I was taught that you wouldn't want to do this because microwaves don't get hot enough. The burger will be 'done', but it won't brown, so it'll actually be medium-well but look disgustingly rare.

OK, so the best burgers are going to have char marks, a sign of the Maillard reaction which adds extra flavor. I don't get that when I microwave them, but they do get brown. Meat won't get very brown at 100° C, and if you just slap it on a plate, that's all you'll get. The water in the burger gets that hot, turns to steam, and departs.

Unless you cover it.

I have a gizmo I ordered from an infomercial called the MicroBuddy. It's a microwave-safe plastic dish with a plastic grid that fits inside and a lid with a couple of little holes. The grid keeps your food up out of the water or fat that collects in the bottom, and the holes let steam escape if the pressure starts to build. Most of the steam stays under the lid, and keeps getting hotter. Microwaves can still act on the water vapor, resulting in superheated steam. That leads to temperatures high enough to brown the meat.

It also means that instead of a stove top covered in grease splatters, I have all that mess trapped inside the cooker, which gets run through the dishwasher afterwards. Man, I love that.

But I digress. Most people don't use superheated steam when they microwave, they just warm things up. But that's about to change. Anybody who's watched more than 10 minutes of the Food Network knows that there's a lot of crazy new stuff going on: liquid nitrogen. Immersion circulators for sous vide cooking. Agar. Edible paper. Centrifuges.

Cooking is chemistry, and there's a vast array of tools used in chemistry labs that belong in the kitchen. An 'immersion circulator' is just an electric griddle with two small changes. One, a little water pump to keep the water moving and avoid any 'hot spots,' and two, a thermostat that isn't a cheap piece of junk. You see, even super-good thermostats are now cheap. The electronics necessary to hold a pot of water to within one degree of the desired temperature cost, oh, maybe a dollar or two? The 'expensive' part is providing some buttons and a digital display to let the cook choose which temperature they want to have. You can get a scale that's accurate to within a couple milligrams for $20 on eBay. These prices are before economies of scale get applied, too.

Well, despite seeing the future back in '95, I didn't manage to get rich. Could I do better this time around? Maybe, but the big problem with is one is that I'm not a cook. Oh, yea, I know, I keep talking about food, especially here, but my personality and mental predilections do not make it easy or fun to accurately follow a process that requires a couple hours, a fair amount of precision, and more than five or six steps. I have to sauté the onions, then brown the meat, before roasting the potatoes? Bored now.

One consequence of this is that I really don't have the background to take advantage of what I see coming. For example, it occurred to me one day while thinking about reductions, that one of the problems with them is you have to boil the water off, and boiling water requires temperatures high enough to cause all kinds of other changes in food. If you drop the atmospheric pressure, you lower the boiling point of water. I'm pretty sure I can get a vacuum pump on eBay for less than $100 that could boil water at room temperature. You could make a thick tomato sauce that tasted like fresh tomatoes.

(By the way, I thought of that about a year ago. I'm told by some friends that about six months ago, there was an episode of Iron Chef America where the visiting chefs made a low-pressure reduction with a vacuum pump. That was the first time I'd heard of anybody actually trying this technique.)

But, what would I do with a thick fresh tomato sauce? I'm not sure, but I strongly suspect with professional training, or even just a lot more time logged cooking in the kitchen, could come up with lots more wonderful recipes than I ever could.

What I needed was a partner. Somebody with a strong cooking background and a desire to experiment with new food ideas. I could think about what laboratory processes might be useful in the kitchen, and build/concoct/bodge together the devices needed to replicate those processes on the countertop, then my cooking associate could figure out how to get from gizmo to gourmet, and put something on a plate that was different from what anybody had every cooked before.

Anyway, this scheme had been kicking around in my head for, oh, I guess at least 18 months at this point. When Time magazine had a short article on the recent introduction of some immersion circulators for the home kitchen, I knew that the future of cooking was coming even faster than I'd thought. So today I spent some time looking at Seattle food blogs, and discovered that it may actually already be too late.

This coming December will see the publication of a 2200 page, four volume cookbook written by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft CTO.

With ebooks, I was too early; I ran out of money before ebooks had enough market penetration to keep a business running. With modernist cuisine, I may be too late. Oh, well.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:June 15th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
Amusingly, I've cooked white rice in the microwave (from dry rice to serving on the table) for years now but I've just recently started actual "cooking" beyond that in the microwave - because I've only recently found recipes addressing that (not that I've been looking ;>). I cook various veggies, some rice dishes and occasionally noodles all from scratch in the microwave.

As for being too late - you don't have to be first - just better or more interesting - after all, there's LOTS of silicon valley millionaires who came after IBM or XEROX :>.

Edited at 2010-06-15 02:03 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 15th, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)


Steaming vegetables with superheated microwave steam vs. steaming or boiling on the stove is another "why would I do it any other way?" use of the microwave for me.

"better or more interesting." Yes, and I'm having trouble imagining that I could be better than Dr. Myhrvold at writing about cooking. I think I'll probably just try to focus on something else. After all, a couple weeks ago Time had an article on collaborative filtering.
[User Picture]
Date:June 15th, 2010 07:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Veggies

As much as you look at the world from a different angle from most, I still think you'd have something to contribute - no matter *how* wonderful Dr. Myhrvold is at talking about cooking. You're one of the masters at creating weird gadgets that actually work better than most others ;>.
[User Picture]
Date:October 15th, 2010 03:20 pm (UTC)
I use a microwave pressure cooker regularly: I don't believe the model I have is available anymore but there are a (very) few others out there. Beats the living hell out of any other way to cook rice or corn I've ever used, but haven't tried it for other dishes since I'm not the most confident in the kitchen.

Have you ever looked at Dave Langford's site? I know he's used Lord Rutherford's method of cooking with the autoclave (Prime Rib? Been a long time since those classes on science history...), and uses a centrifuge to extract the juice from overripe peaches when making, I believe, Peach Brandy--not sure which of his personal fanzines he's written about it but I do remember him mentioning both briefly.

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