Lab equipment and chemistry has made its way into the kitchen - with water baths, centrifuges, freeze dryers, 3D printers and more now involved in gastronomic creations. During the December Science Makers session, over 25 members of Biomakespace, the SynBio SRI, Cambridge Makespace and interested members of the public heard about some of the techniques of 'molecular gastronomy' and tried them out!
Dr Sebastian Ahnert (Sainsbury Lab and Department of Physics) presented his work on network analysis of chemical flavour compounds - do compatible flavours share chemical profiles? Dr Ahnert argued that the rapidly growing body of publicly available data on food chemistry and food usage can be analysed using data mining and network analysis methods which could yield new insights into culinary practices and perhaps result in fields such as ‘computational gastronomy’ (Ahnert, 2013). He investigated cultural diversity in flavour by constructing a flavor network that captures the flavor compounds shared by culinary ingredients in large online recipe databases. The analysis indicated that Western cuisines show a tendency to use ingredient pairs that share many flavor compounds, while East Asian cuisines tend to avoid compound sharing ingredients (Ahn et al., 2011).
More recently, Dr Ahnert is interested in new frontiers involving increasingly detailed data analysis. For example, studing umami taste through a combination of chemical analysis and quantitative sensory evaluation, analysis of culinary habits recorded by individuals on social media and the properties of flavor compounds. There is evidence that large-scale data analysis is already transforming our understanding of food perception and consumption, and that it is likely to fundamentally influence our food choices and habits in the future.
Robert Curtis (Dovetailed) then spoke about 3D-printing food with nufood. Dovetailed is an interaction design company run by Vaiva Kalnikaite whose team includes industrial designers, engineers and food scientists.The beautifully designed 'kitchen robot' 3D printer can create spheres in a variety of flavours (theoretically any liquidised food) and build them up into complex shapes programmed via a smartphone app. So far, the team have run several pop-up restaurant sessions and exhibited in various locations following a successful Kickstarter. They are currently exploring making the device available to consumers and Robert gave some fantastic examples of Kir Royale cubes, printed pasta ravioli and even honey.
After a pizza lunch, the participants tried out a range of molecular gastronomy techniques including:
- Nutella powder leveraging the fat absorbing properties of maltodextrin.
- Balsamic pearls made with agar agar and solidified by dropping hot agar in cold oil
- Very melty aged cheese using sodium citrate which produces a silk smoot emulsion
- Basic spherification by dropping calcium-rich yoghurt into a soduium alginate bath or reverse spherification dropping sodium alginate enriched mango puree into a bath of calcium lactate
There was great interest in running another session in 2018 - and at least one attendee has since sent photographic evidence of trying the techniques at home!
- O. G. Mouritsen, R. Edwards-Stuart, Y.-Y. Ahn, S. E. Ahnert. Data-driven Methods for the Study of Food Perception, Preparation, Consumption, and Culture. Frontiers in ICT 4, 15 (2017)
- S. E. Ahnert. Network analysis and data mining in food science: the emergence of computational gastronomy. Flavour 2:4 (2013)
- Y. Y. Ahn, S. E. Ahnert, J. P. Bagrow, A.-L. Barabasi. Flavor network and the principles of food pairing. Scientific Reports 1:196 (2011)
Science Makers is a monthly event to discuss and build low-cost, DIY and open hardware for science and education. Find out more on the Science Makers web pages or via the Cambridge Synthetic Biology Meetup. All are welcome for the talks, making or both! It is primarily designed for adults, accompanied children are allowed to attend but please alert the organisers on firstname.lastname@example.org