Freakonomics: Bringing science into the kitchen

Spanish chef Albert Adria prepares a dish at a demonstration of molecular cuisine in Beijing on October 29, 2009.


Kai Ryssdal: Time once again for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name.

Stephen Dubner: Mmm.

RYSSDAL: Dubner, what are you doing?

DUBNER: Eating a hamburger, it's delicious.

RYSSDAL: OK, but why?

DUBNER: I'm doing research for your program because it's really interesting if you think about what we eat and why we eat it, and especially -- here's what I want to know -- how we might eat in the future.

RYSSDAL: All right, I'm game. So go ahead.

DUBNER: Well there's a trend going on -- fascinating to me, weird -- where kitchens are kind of being overrun by scientists, or at least chefs who love chemistry and physics. So if you look around at some of the world's highest-rated restaurants, they're serving things that you or I might hardly recognize as food. Things like a dehydrated leek ring, or where you might go in and you have your chocolate cake but instead of eating it, you smoke its essence through a pipe.

RYSSDAL: Yes, see that's not what I want. I want the actual cake and a cup of coffee. But go ahead, keep going; I'm intrigued.

DUBNER: Well this movement, as you may know, it's called molecular gastronomy. And it's going to get a big bump in visibility in the next month with the publication of a very unusual book called "Modernist Cuisine." It's unusual for two reasons: the first is, it is huge -- there are six volumes, 2,400 pages, $625 list price.

RYSSDAL: Really? Seriously?

DUBNER: You could get a little discount on Amazon. And here's the second reason it's unusual: its principal author is Nathan Myhrvold, who many people know as a former chief technology officer of Microsoft. He runs an invention company now called Intellectual Ventures. Here's the thing: Myhrvold trained as a physicist, and a chef. Now here's how he likes to think of about making something as simple as a hamburger:

NATHAN MYHRVOLD: Cook it to perfect medium rare, then you dunk it in liquid nitrogen, which freezes the outside. Then we deep fry it, we pop it in a deep fryer. Or you use a torch on it. And either one will give you this incredible crusty outside, but because you put it in liquid nitrogen, that prevents it from overcooking. So you get a perfect medium rare hamburger.

RYSSDAL: Wow. OK, so two things: one is that that's not what I thought Nathan Myhrvold sounded like; I had it slightly deeper but that's neither here nor there. The other one is, I have this grill in my backyard, and I don't need liquid nitrogen and a deep fryer and a blowtorch, man; I throw some patties on the thing and I'm done.

DUBNER: You can keep doing that thing, there are no worries. And to be fair, about two-thirds of the stuff in this cookbook can be made without a laboratory or a blowtorch. But Myhrvold's point is this: it's time to bring the scientific method into the kitchen. Because most of us, if you think about it, we don't really know much about what actually happens when we cook.

MYHRVOLD: For people who want to just, in a rote way, repeat exactly what they were told to do without understanding why it works -- hey, go for it, you don't need me. If all you want to do is repeat the recipes of the past and you have no curiosity as to how or why it works, then you don't need to have this physical understanding.

RYSSDAL: Full disclosure, here Dubner: I am a big fan of Alton Brown on the cooking channel, right -- he's the guy who does chemistry and food. Big fan of his, and so you'd think I would go with this Nathan Myhrvold.

DUBNER: But I smell no. I smell a big no coming.

RYSSDAL: You know why? 'Cause it's no. I don't get it.

DUBNER: I hear you. You could think of this as a bunch of rich, brilliant people just playing with their food, right?

RYSSDAL: Come on, the guy has Microsoft stock coming out of his ears.

DUBNER: And I could defend that position. But let me make a counterargument, OK? Here's what's interesting to me: we are in the midst of a very interesting kind of natural foods, slow food boom, right? And there's obviously an upside to that. But I think we fail to appreciate how far food science has already gotten us. So there are crop scientists like the late Norman Borlaug who boosted crop yields so much, he saved millions, maybe billions, of lives. Napoleon, believe it or not, offered a cash prize to anybody who could help feed his armies better -- that's how we got canning. So I'd like you to listen to Pablos Holman, he is an inventor who works at Myhrvold's company. He's trying to develop a device that could make millions of different foods anywhere without you or I having to go to the supermarket. The device is a food printer.

PABLOS HOLMAN: Just like an inkjet printer you have at home, instead of putting down droplets of ink, I'm putting down droplets of food. But I control every single pixel. I can use a laser to cook a pixel of food and get it exactly as warm as I want, exactly as slow or as fast as I want.

RYSSDAL: I can't even -- I don't even know what that would look like. Help me.

DUBNER: It sounds crazy. It sounds crazy the same way it might have sounded when someone suggested that you would make a meal in something called a microwave oven, perhaps. And the food printer, the idea sounds crazy until you think about if it could work, how it might come in handy if let's say there's a tsunami or a big famine somewhere. You could airlift in these food printers, a few hundred toner cartridges of food could churn out hot meals and medicine for weeks.

RYSSDAL: Yeah and of course the refills on those cartridges just like my HP inkjet at home would be like $900,000. But anyway. Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics Radio. You can see more on his podcast, it's Dubner, Dubner, put the food down.

DUBNER: Mmm. Soon soon.

RYSSDAL: We'll see you in a couple of weeks.



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