Friday, February 24, 2006


In Madison last evening Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen), gave a talk to a packed house on the UW-Madison campus. The topic was three centuries of kitchen science. He began with a survey: Justus Liebig on searing meat to seal in the juices (wrong), 18th century French cooks insisting on copper bowls for whipping egg whites (right), twentieth century home economics (silly). As for more recent applications, McGee discussed using a computer model to simulate the cooking of a hamburger. He and his colleagues wanted to know how the frequency of flipping would affect the cooking time and the degree of doneness throughout the meat. They found that flipping every fifteen seconds cooked the burger almost 50% faster than flipping only once. And the frequently flipped patty was more evenly cooked (less of the exterior was overcooked) than the one flipped only once. No mention, unfortunately, about the flavor of a burger prepared with such frequent flipping. My hypothesis is that leaving the meat alone for at least two minutes per side would still be worthwhile to get the exterior nicely browned and to prevent it from sticking to the pan, even if this entails a small sacrifice in the evenness and duration of cooking. Of course, one wouldn't trust a computer to determine whether this is so.

McGee's final points were devoted to the recent trend in experimental high-end cooking, with an obligatory sous-vide explainer and many vividly illustrated examples of dishes from the kitchens of Adrià , Blumenthal, Dufresne, and others like them. There was meringue frozen in liquid nitrogen, ravioli noodles made of consommé, vinegar served in powdered form, an olive oil bonbon sealed in maltodextrin (hope I remember that right), melon balls that are mostly liquid, paella rice krispies, that sort of thing. The audience ate this up like a big kiss of foam from El Bulli. McGee's point was that these chefs are using science to innovate new ideas in cooking. (This may or may not be the same thing as molecular gastronomy, a term whose full meaning I won't pretend to understand.) I found rather annoying the suggestion that the avant-garde has more science than the rest of us but at the same time I share the general WOW reaction that we all have to seeing some of these kitcheneers's outré inventions. And it was admirable of McGee to promote other people's ideas instead of just rehashing his own, which seemed to be well known to many in the audience already (few in attendance seemed still to believe that searing meat seals in the juices and I was waiting for McGee to debunk this myth much like Bon Jovi fans anticipating that ecstatic modulation up to the chorus in "Living on a Prayer").

My favorite part of the presentation was seeing food photos which I assume McGee himself must have taken of things like a seared steak with its juices having run out onto a plate. It's little things like that, things you don't get from reading a book, that make seeing someone in person worthwhile.


What I had for dinner: after the talk some friends and I had roast pork sandwiches at Natt Spil, a bar that is much hipper than I am. The place bakes pizzas in a wood-burning oven that they must also use for roasting the pork in the sandwich (served on crusty French bread with cilantro, jalapeños, and some mayonnaisey condiment about which I don't remember more). The pork, shoulder I'm guessing, is smokey but not like barbecue. I would like to go back there a few dozen times to properly reverse-engineer. It's only about 75 miles from where I live, so that shouldn't be too much trouble.


Blogger Jocelyn:McAuliflower said...

Oooo I so would have enjoyed being at this talk! What was the event that drew him out? Does Madison have a Food Science dept?

11:23 AM  
Blogger Admin said...

must have been great... i have never attended a food related event

12:43 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Here is the website listing the event. It was sponsored by the university's Center for the Humanities. There is a program in food science at Madison. It produces some very good ice cream, among other things.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool. Wish I'd been there. Haven't been near Madison in years, sadly.

A long time ago graduate of UW Madison, I remember that ice cream well. It was awfully good. A friend of mine took an ice cream making class in the Ag school, then, in which the final involved inventing a flavor.

Recently, in State College, PA for a work thing, I tried some of their Ag School ice cream, and it was also excellent. The dairy store was located on top of a giant hill, which made you feel you'd earned your butterfat.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Skip said...

I forgot about those paella rice krispies. I'm thinking of making a trek to Moto in Chicago after having seen McGee.

6:59 AM  

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