Food physicist. Nathan Myhrvold plays with his food.

The Cooking Lab, LLC

How to Freak Out a Foodie

BOSTON—Next time you want to impress a wine expert, offer to decant their special bottle in a blender. That was what inventor and food extraordinaire Nathan Myhrvold did when he met a Spanish duke and winemaker. Though the duke looked as if he wanted to run a rapier through Myhrvold, he actually preferred the taste of the hyperdecanted wine.

"Why hyperdecant?" Myhrvold asked the audience in a plenary lecture here on Saturday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes ScienceNOW). "To improve the flavor of a young red wine, it's faster than letting wine breathe unaided," because the mechanical agitating provides more surface area to aerate the wine more rapidly. "But the real reason is the look on the faces of the wine experts in the room."

Myhrvold’s irreverent advice was just one of the cutting-edge food science and cooking tips that he shared during his talk, all the while dazzling the audience with film clips of wine glasses shattering, orange zest vaporizing, and a kernel of popcorn exploding in slow motion (as illustration of the kernel’s "structural failure" to illustrate how water in food can become a "steam rocket" as the latent heat of the water builds up). A physicist, mathematical economist, inventor, and founder of Microsoft Research, Myhrvold is also the creator of The Cooking Lab and co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a 2438-page, six-volume set whose goal is to "remove the ignorance of science from the kitchen," Myhrvold said.

If you can’t afford the tools that he has in his cutting-edge kitchen lab (centrifuges, freeze dryers, dehydrators, etc.), never mind—there are some things you can do with aluminum foil, a match, and ouzo. "The first tip you can try at home, if you want to cook evenly in a barbeque, is to line it with aluminum foil," said Myhrvold. He explained that most food in its raw state doesn’t absorb infrared radiation—that 90% of it is reflected. But as the food starts getting a bit brown, that brown part gets darker and darker and begins to absorb more and more heat. It’s an exponential effect. Therefore, if your barbeque is a "crufty black body" it will absorb too much heat, deflecting it from the meat. Better to line the grill with mirrorlike foil.

Another tip for grillers is how to avoid "The Stall." When serious barbeques smoke a piece of meat, such as brisket for hours, they often find that the temperature of the food will rise, then it will stall for an hour or more, then rise again. What’s going on? The leading theory was that meat is made up of a nested series of collagen fibers, which are tough to break down into the nice gelatinous texture that is preferable to eat—why cooks often braise tougher meat in liquid for hours to denature the protein so it is edible. The idea was that The Stall was the result of this process.

Myhrvold’s team cut a brisket in half when it hit The Stall, covering one in foil and leaving one dry. The uncovered half’s temperature began to rise faster. The reason? Meat is 59% water, and until the water evaporates, the heat cannot rise. Once the uncovered meat lost its water, the temperature could rise inside the meat and it could cook more rapidly. But the foil—and liquid barbeque sauces slathered on meat—slow the cooking process. The cooking "probably could go forever because the [cooks] are continuing to slather more sauce on," Myhrvold said.

In addition to tips on cooking steak pink from top to bottom (with no brown zones), Myhrvold enthused about emulsions. Mayonnaise is not just a sandwich spread, but a wonder of surface tension between droplets of oil. Or take the Greek alcohol ouzo—it turns cloudy white when you add water, because it’s an emulsion of tiny droplets of oil (the alcohol) destabilized by the water molecules. This is a process known as Mie scattering—the scattering of electromagnetic radiation, or light in this case by a sphere.

And just for fun, freeze raspberries in liquid nitrogen in individual pieces, and check out the "droplets." Freeze olive oil and smash it with a hammer. Zest an orange and as the zest falls off the orange, have a friend light it with a match. Who would have known that the oils in the zest were so flammable? "It’s amazing that with a zester and a match, you can make something that looks like George Lucas [made it]," Myhrvold said.

It was this blend of science and playfulness that appealed to other researchers in the audience. “It's amazing how little we know about what cooking does and how to prepare food better," says Harvard University biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who studies the evolution of cooking. "What Nathan Myhrvold is doing is both fun and important.”