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The Science of Sushi

The Science of Sushi
Featuring Dr. Ole Mouritsen and Morihiro Onodera
April 23, 2014

To kick off our 2014 public lecture series, Dr. Ole Mouritsen joined Chef Morihiro Onodera to satisfy our craving for sushi-related science. The duo explained everything from sushi’s early history to the starchy science of sushi rice. Watch the entire lecture or check out some of the shorter highlights below.

Ole Mouritsen on the history of sushi

“The history of sushi is really the history of preservation of food. . . . Throughout Asia, in particular in China and later in Japan, people discovered that you can ferment fish – that is, you can preserve fish – by taking fresh fish and putting it in layers of cooked rice. . . . After some time the fish changes texture, it changes taste, it changes odor, but it’s still edible and it’s nutritious. And maybe after half a year you could then pull out the fish and eat the fish. That is the original sushi.”

Ole Mouritsen on the science of rice

“If you look inside the rice, you have little [starch] granules that are only three to eight microns, or three t0 eight thousandths of a millimeter, big. . . . When you cook the rice, you add some water and the water is absorbed by the rice and [the granules] swell. And the real secret behind the sushi rice is that when they swell, these little grains are not supposed to break.”

Morihiro Onodera on examining the quality of sushi rice

“First what I do is I soak uncooked rice in water. . . . Sometime after 20 minutes it will start to break. . . . I take a sample to check to see if there are any cracks. . . . With good rice, which has less cracks or breaks, you’re able to feel the texture of each of the grains in your mouth, whereas with the lower quality rice you’re just going to get the stickiness [from the starch].”

Cooking Wines & Cultured Meats

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One ambitious cook aims to settle if wine quality affects wine dishes, while an equally ambitious researcher attempts to create a lab-grown hamburger.
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Food Science Careers & Bad Apples

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Kirsten Schimoler at Ben & Jerry’s talks about food science as a career and scientists figure out how to keep produce healthier.
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Lena Kwak

A graduate of Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute, Cup4Cup President and Co-Founder Lena Kwak began her culinary career as a private chef and caterer. While serving as Research & Development Chef for The French Laundry, Kwak was tasked with testing edible innovations. She excelled quickly and was assigned to devise a gluten-free version of Chef Thomas Keller’s famed Salmon Cornet. The result, which garnered a tearful response from a dinner guest with gluten intolerance, was the genesis of “Cup4Cup.” Since Cup4Cup’s release in 2011, Lena has been honored as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in 2011 and garnered a Zagat “30 Under 30” award in 2012.

See Lena Kwak June 1, 2014 at “Harnessing Creativity (and the Science of Pie)”

Lena-Kwak_C4C

What hooked you on cooking?
It was my mother, who is the quintessential Asian tiger mom. When it came to food, this is how she expressed her love for her family through her cooking. Around meals, I would see how her tough as nails exterior would melt as she watched her family eat the dishes she poured her love into. I would say that is how I learned what I loved about cooking even to this day—it is a way to express care and love and a way to strengthen human connections.
The coolest example of science in your food?
As a chef, I believe the coolest part about cooking is to recognize the series of chemical reactions that occur when you execute a certain recipe. When you begin to understand the technicality behind certain reactions, you are able to hone in on how to make improvements, or for that matter, also innovate a dish based on the science.
The food you find most fascinating?
Funny enough, it’s wheat flour as it’s something I’ve researched heavily over the years. I’ve grown an appreciation for how complex the ingredient is for being made up of a single composition. It provides structure, flavor, coloring, and a wide range of different textures. I’d say it’s the admiration for the ingredient that pushes me to continue the product development of gluten free products, as it would be truly a shame to not be able to experience those wonderful qualities for someone who couldn’t have gluten.
What scientific concept—food related or otherwisedo you find most fascinating?
That’s a tough question as I have always been fascinated with innovation in medical science, but as it related to my profession, I am also thoroughly interested in human science. For consumer product goods companies, such as Cup4Cup, there is a heavy consideration of human eating behaviors. The success of any product is not just based on a perception of a single individual, but the perception of millions of people. so, it is important to understand the average consumer perception within different target categories. What people choose to buy provides us with key insight into what influences human perception.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Chocolate has come a long way from the first records of consumption by the Aztecs and Mayans. Over centuries, it has only been improved by the further understanding of the cacao bean itself. Through science, we’ve been able to figure out processes to improve texture, taste, and performance of chocolate. For example, the improvements that are made through tempering or conching.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
Finding solutions to keep up with the supply and demand as populations of the world increase every year and life span of individuals grows longer. It will be interesting and necessary to see what solutions there are to be able to sustain the growing public. To that same point, finding ways to improve the yield of food sources while being sustainable and not destructive to the environment.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
A spoon.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Eggs, almond milk, at least one type of hearty greens, hummus, and chocolate covered pretzels (yes, cold).
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
Hands down my favorite ingredient is eggs.
Favorite cookbook?
For favorite cookbook (similar to picking your favorite child) I’d say as of this moment it’d have to be Jerusalem.
Your standard breakfast?
Eggs, sunny side up or a six minute boil, plus starch, vegetable, or grain, plus sautéed greens. (What can I say, I wake up hungry…)

WikiPearls & Dunking Science

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Harvard professor David Edwards creates a new edible food packaging, and Chef Heston Blumenthal investigates why dunking cookies in milk (or tea) makes them taste so delicious. Read more

Counting Calories & “Healthy” Chocolate

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If you’ve ever wondered what 200 Calories look like on a plate, wiseGEEK has just the photo gallery for you! Meanwhile, scientists create a healthier chocolate by replacing fat with fruit juice. Read more

Jeff Potter

A science and food geek, Jeff Potter is the author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, which the Washington Post called “one of the most useful books on understanding cooking.” He can be seen on TV engineering the world’s largest donut and is currently obsessed with the science of beverages. Check out more of Jeff’s food geekery at www.jeffpotter.org.

photo by John Zich, courtesy of www.zrimages.comwww.jeffpotter.org

photo by John Zich, courtesy of www.zrimages.com | www.jeffpotter.org

What hooked you on cooking? On science?
I find it intensely gratifying to understand how things are made, and science really is about understanding how systems work and behave. Everyone eats, and almost everyone cooks, and the science behind both fascinates me. Plus, every time one steps foot into a kitchen, it’s inherently a science experiment, even if you don’t think about it that way. The amount of science that goes into the morning cup of coffee alone would shock most people. Plus knowing some science behind what you’re doing in the kitchen is one of the best instructors.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
Eggs, yogurt, kale, hot sauce, beans.
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
A good sauté pan. Even a non-stick one. Really, you can get by without much at all, but one decent pan changes everything.
Favorite cookbook?
I was given a dessert cookbook years ago that was an anthology of sorts: one recipe from each of the top pastry chefs in the country. No pictures, not glossy, just a few lines on the chef and then the recipe. Every single recipe I made from that book came out amazing, and every single recipe managed to teach a new concept or idea. I don’t know if it’d stand up very well against all the food porn books that have now come out, but that book (given to me by a chef friend) was amazing for me.
The scientific concept—food related or otherwise—you find most fascinating?
That only a few basic building blocks—hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and ok, fine, sulfur—are responsible for everything from bars of chocolate to a toucan flying around a rainforest in South America. The difference in complexity just one level up (molecules) from what seems so simple (atoms) is staggering; and then to consider that there are multiple layers up above that until we get to your brain understanding these words… mind-blowing.
The coolest example of science in your food?
You can tell where a tomato was grown—well, at least the latitude—by the ratio of various isotopes in it. It sounds crazy, but rainwater is not “pure” H2O; or more precisely, there are different isotopes of the “O” in “H2O” and the lighter one, 16O, is more likely to evaporate then the heavier one (takes less energy for it to take off). As you go toward the equator, evaporation rates in rainfall go up (it’s warmer, after all), so tomatoes grown toward the equator have higher concentrations of the heavier isotope 18O. The neat thing is that that ratio sticks with the food all the way down to the jar of fancy imported Italian pasta sauce, so you can semi-reliably tell where in Italy the tomatoes were grown if you look at enough of the various isotopes and minerals in it.
Your all-time favorite food ingredient?
I don’t really have a favorite food ingredient, but nothing beats fresh fruit at the peak of its season.
The food you find most fascinating?
Can I go with “beverages” as a general category? Everything from green tea to beer is amazingly complicated. Most food ingredients—apples to flour—are relatively unchanged from their “as-grown” state, but drinks are an entirely different category, as they’re entirely constructed.
Are there any analogies you like to use to explain difficult or counter-intuitive food science concepts?
Breaking of secondary and tertiary bonds in protein denaturation can be a bit confusing, as the “simple” model people have for molecules is that they’re made up of such-and-such atoms, without regard to the shape that the molecule takes impacts how it functions. I’ll sometimes describe the molecule as like an old-fashioned telephone cord (did I just date myself?), where the cord can twist up, kink, and tangle on itself.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
The egg. The amount of agricultural science and gains in productivity that have gone into chicken eggs in the past 100 years is just amazing. If the same “gains” had been made in humans, Olympic sprinters would be running at 65 miles per hour…
Your standard breakfast?
Depends on the time of year and where I am. Right now, in New England’s winter, yogurt with muesli, and then sautéed red onion, kale, garlic, two eggs, and a squeeze of lemon juice on top. If I feel like spending more than the two minutes it takes to make it, maybe some grated cheese on top.
How does your scientific knowledge or training impact the way you cook? Do you conduct science experiments in the kitchen?
I only cook on an amateur level, for myself and my friends; so for me cooking is a very ad-hoc thing, without too much fuss or worry about taking good, exact notes—but this is only because, generally speaking, I don’t need reproducibility of an entire dish! But I do perform little mini-experiments each time I cook. Take tonight (it’s after dinner as I write this)—I’ve been wondering why the tofu I’ve been cooking keeps sticking to the pan. It’s a stainless steel pan, and I put some oil in it—but it always seems to stick after it gets up above a certain temperature. I’m guessing it’s steam from the tofu pushing the oil away from the surface of the pan; and then the proteins in the tofu stick to the pan (and do not seem to release even when browned). I’ll probably kick myself later for writing this, as I’m guessing the “why” is simple here, but I was wondering if low heat versus high heat makes a difference… so I tried changing just that. Nope; still sticks. That’s the type of “mini” experimentation I love to encourage in the kitchen, because it doesn’t take any extra work to do it, beyond thinking about it.

Emulsions & Food Engineering

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Rutgers Professors Rick Ludescher and Mukund Karwe explain the basic chemical principles of emulsions and introduce food engineering techniques like extrusion and high-pressure processing. If you’ll be on the East Coast this fall, be sure to check out Rutgers’ crash courses in food science and food safety. Read more

Daniel Felder

Daniel Felder is the Head of Research and Development at the Momofuku Culinary Lab. Dan is originally from Roxbury, Connecticut, and began working in restaurants at the age of eighteen while he was studying at Union College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He moved to New York City and joined the Momofuku team in 2008 at Noodle Bar and Ko, and now at the Momofuku Culinary Lab.

Dan Felder credit Gabriele Stabile

Photo courtesy of Gabriele Stabile

What hooked you on cooking?
Both my parents are quite good home cooks, and let me cook with them from a really early age, sitting at the counter watching and then helping as I got older. My great-aunt is an amazing home cook, and still lives in Rome. She had an impact on me and my cousins, as four of us now work in the food industry. Learning from her was a challenge; she wouldn’t give up her secrets unless you earned them, usually by doing some unrelated task for an extended period of time. Once I got my food in the door of professional kitchens, it was a similar scenario. You have to earn knowledge. That’s the slippery slope for me; learning something new in the kitchen repeatedly opens my eyes to how much more there is to learn.
The coolest example of science in your food?
One of the coolest examples is probably the ongoing projects at the Culinary Lab based around microbes and fermentation. The heart of this process for us was really the application of scientific methodology. Applying scientific structure and procedures to how we pursue a question has actually given us a lot of freedom in how we experiment. By breaking down and understanding the mechanics of a process we can’t see with the naked eye, we can start with a grounded hypothesis and begin manipulating variables until we get to where we want to be. Our miso is a good example of this process.
The food you find most fascinating?
I am really fascinated by starches, grains, root vegetables, etc. I realize it is pretty familiar and basic territory, but I think the bio-technological capacity of rice and grains, for example, is really incredible. We have only scratched the surface of what we can do with it. There has been a lot of research with corn and different starches for industrial purposes and alcohol, but as cooks, I think we have so much more to discover.
What scientific concept–food related or otherwise–do you find most fascinating?
• Why starburst candies cause extreme salivation.
(More of a question than a concept—potential student project?)
• Enzymes.
• Metabolic pathways. Specifically, how the body metabolizes sugars and amino acids.
• Hydrolysis of protein.
• Correlation of fermentation to larger biological processes.
Your best example of a food that is better because of science?
Italian salad dressing.
How do you think science will impact your world of food in the next 5 years?
Not to be gross, but the idea of “out of body digestion” is really interesting to me. Can we extrapolate and apply the mechanism of digestive processes in the natural world as catalysts in the kitchen? Fermentation is a familiar example of this idea, but I believe we can take it a bit further by looking at more diverse biological processes, and hopefully reveal new nutritive resources (hopefully delicious ones) as a result.
As a corollary, the things Alex Atala, Noma, and the Nordic Food Lab have found by exploring potential food sources in their respective environments is both very interesting and indicative of what is in the immediate future for science and food. In our lab, we are looking at how we can extend this idea to process as well. ow can we disinter biological processes from the natural world and bring them into the kitchen?
One kitchen tool you could not live without?
Rene and Lars gave the perfect answer: spoon. I can’t compete with that. If I had to pick one for the Momofuku Culinary Lab, I would go with a Dremel.
Five things most likely to be found in your fridge?
• Fruit and veggies
• Good Seasonings Italian salad dressing
(the one in the packets that comes with the cruet)
• An excess of condiments
• Olives and pickles
• Budweiser
Your all-time favorite ingredient?
That’s hard to say. Butter, maybe? Bread?
Favorite cookbook?
Also hard to choose. Right now we have a copy of Ben Shewry’s new book, Origin: The Food of Ben Shewry, in the Culinary Lab. It rules.
Your standard breakfast?
I don’t really eat breakfast, but, if I make it on the weekend, it errs on the English breakfast side of things: poached eggs, tinned beans, potato, tomato, sometimes a breakfast meat. Conversely, I am also a sucker for huevos rancheros.

Umami & The Momofuku Culinary Lab

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Mark Bittman explores the savory umami flavor of miso, and David Chang shows Gizmodo around his (not-so-secret) secret lab. Stay tuned the next few weeks for lots more about the Momofuku Culinary Lab and the delicious science of umami! Read more