How science sizzles in the modern kitchen

August 4, 2014

Some of the world's finest chemists don't wear lab coats. Instead, they don aprons and toques, and masterfully meld their passion for cooking with a growing awareness of the science behind the culinary arts. The results are driving an extraordinary expansion of our cuisine and transforming ordinary meals into fabulous feasts. That's according to a group of prominent chefs, authors and culinary educators who will speak on Sunday, August 10, from 9 a.m. until noon, at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society.

The meeting, attended by thousands of scientists, will feature nearly 12,000 reports on new advances in and other topics. It takes place Aug. 10 through 14 in San Francisco at the Moscone Center and area hotels.

"This is a great time to examine the intersection of culinary arts and science," says César Vega, Ph.D., who is at Mars, Inc., and is editor-in-chief and co-author of The Kitchen as a Laboratory. "Science is helping to put a lot of new culinary experiences on our tables. With it, chefs have many new tools at their disposal to manipulate the sensation, the flavor and the color of the foods they're able to put on a plate."

Science is enabling culinary experts to see food differently, says Guy Crosby, Ph.D., the co-author of The Science of Good Cooking, who organized today's symposium, called "Trends in Cooking Science."

"Traditional methods of cooking are making way for new insights into cooking based on science, especially chemistry, the central science in food and cooking," Crosby says. "This melding of science with the culinary arts will continue as chefs become more comfortable and knowledgeable with the applications of science to cooking, and as food scientists see opportunities to apply their science in the kitchen."

But to keep this momentum moving forward, Vega says culinary science needs funding for more basic research. Researchers, he adds, also should be looking for ways to make these advances more widely available to the general public. "We need to think a bit more about the social benefit of culinary scientific research. This type of research isn't just for restaurants' sake," Vega said. "This is to make people at home eat and better."

In addition to Vega, the symposium will feature Harold McGee, Ph.D., author of On Food and Cooking, considered by many to be the seminal book on the scientific approach in the kitchen.

While the science of food and cooking has become popular in the past 15 years, McGee points out that this connection has been around for a long time. A member of the Royal Society of London, for instance, invented the pressure cooker in the 1680s. This development occurred at about the same time as other scientists were determining how gases act under pressure and other conditions.

"Nowadays," McGee says, "food scientists, who have historically neglected small-scale food preparation in favor of industrial manufacturing, are collaborating with professional cooks, who make their work much more visible to the general public."

Other symposium speakers include:

  • Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks, who will describe several everyday scientific reactions, such as the Maillard reaction (involved in searing meats and toasting bread) that every cook should know and understand.
  • Ali Bouzari, Ph.D., a culinary scientist and consultant, who will explain how a better understanding of the functional components in foods is allowing chefs to explore using ingredients in new and unexpected ways.
  • Christopher Loss, Ph.D., director of menu research and development at the Culinary Institute of America, who will describe the Institute's cross-disciplinary curriculum.

Crosby, McGee, Potter and Vega will sign copies of their books after the symposium.

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