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This edition: Season 2, Episode 2: "Burnt," Cooking & Chemistry

Episode Details

Original tape date: December 18, 2015.

First aired: March 25, 2016.

In episode #202 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie talk with Professor Kent Kirshenbaum, Director of Graduate Studies at NYU’s chemistry department, about the chemistry of cooking as it’s depicted in the 2015 Bradley Cooper film, Burnt.

The role of biochemistry in cooking, the creation of flavors, modification of textures, and improving digestibility, begins the conversation. The complexities and advantages of Sous-vide cooking is discussed next, including what it is about cooking food in a sealed plastic bag that makes it possible to bring the meat to precisely the correct temperature. Kirshenbaum then demonstrates how an immersion bath allows you to control the cooking process to within one tenth of a degree Celsius, which means also that it is possible to control which proteins are rendering within the meat, and which are not. He suggests a future where we order our eggs according to which temperature and texture we prefer rather than by asking for hard or soft boiled.

The increased use of scientific equipment by chefs in the kitchen serves as the basis for the next part of the discussion. In particular, an instrument called the Rotary Evaporator is described, including its ability to remove solvent from chemical reactions in order to concentrate flavors while avoiding the loss to the character of the flavor that is normally associated with making a reduction. Kirshenbaum explains the major innovation this instrument provides – of being able to dispel water without the application of heat, allowing for the preservation of temperature-sensitive micro-nutrients found in many vegetables.

Kirshenbaum explains the complex transformation a piece of meat undergoes when it is cooked, including the denaturation of proteins and the development of flavor molecules through countless Maillard reactions, also known as “browning” reactions. Ceviche, as a food that can be prepared simply through the application of lime juice, is considered as a prime example of food that can be cooked without heat.

Another advent for the kitchen that Kirshenbaum anticipates is the use of ultrasound instruments, commonly used in laboratories to dissolve materials, to cook food through sound. An ultrasonic wand placed, say, in a pot of soup, can pulsate the soup, creating bursts of energy that break down the tissue of the soups’ ingredients, releasing the flavors within those cellular structures.

The barbequing process is then considered from a chemistry point of view, and in particular the effects of cooking meat for long periods of time at low temperatures, enabling the breakdown of tough protein molecules. The way in which science enters into our homes, and how we live with and amongst it, is considered as a contrast to the notion of science as strictly the providence of people in labs with white coats. How to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen comes next, another example of scientific creativity in the house.

While much of what has transferred from the lab to the kitchen so far has been positive, Kirshenbaum warns of the dangers of creating foods to which our bodies aren’t yet accustomed. Kirshenbaum explains his goal of creating synthetic molecules that function in the body as proteins do, as in meat substitutes made from plant proteins, which would ultimately make for a more sustainable food system. Finishing the conversation is a comparison of his work to that of the scientists in the cult film, Fantastic Voyage (1966), who are able to shrink themselves and enter a human body.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum Director of Graduate Studies, Chemistry Department, New York University

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