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Nathan Myhrvold, Padma Lakshmi, and the Science Behind the Perfect Tater Tot

Earlier this week, Nathan Myhrvold, author of the recently released tome “Modernist Cuisine: the Art and Science of Cooking,” came to the New York Academy of Sciences to talk about his creation with Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi. For the unfamiliar, his six-volume, 2,438 page set breaks down in great detail, accompanied by breathtaking photographs, the science behind our daily kitchen routine. Read more about the book here and here.

While not all of us can shell out $500 for our own copy of culinary greatness (and the first run of the books is sold out anyway), Myhrvold was kind enough to share a few of the secrets contained within. Without further ado, a few of Myhrvold’s cooking tips:

–On how to get cheese to melt as nicely as Velveeta: Like that creamy Velveeta texture, but loathe “processed cheese food” taste? Add an emulsifying salt like sodium citrate as your cheese is melting to improve the texture. Myhrvold noted that sodium citrate is sold as “sour salt,” for use during Passover. Continue reading →

The Most Beautiful Song in the Lab?

Between the Science Rapper, folks Dancing their PhDs, and various contests, songs about science and lab life have proliferated in recent years. Few have come close to matching the comedic brilliance of Eppendorf’s “It’s called epMotion” advertisement, which many of you will recall featured a parody of a boy band. But the team at UCSF’s Tetrad Program may just have trumped it all (and I’m guessing on a much skimpier budget than Eppendorf) with their parody of the Flight of the Conchords’ song “The Most Beautiful Girl.” Their “Most Beautiful Girl in the Lab” is tight. Maybe I’m just a sucker for purposefully geeky dance moves, or maybe it’s spot-on Conchords impersonation, along with lines like “You’re so beautiful, you could be a sales rep. You’re so beautiful, you could be a student in the School of Pharmacy.” Whatever the reason, its worth checking out.

Shimmer: Brought to You By the Power of Chemistry

Before the epic rise of the Snuggie, in a distant past where ShamWow and OxyClean were not even a glimmer in an at-home entrepreneur’s eye, there was Shimmer. It’s a floor wax! No, it’s a dessert topping! Wait, it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!

Okay, okay, Shimmer was never really existed—it was actually dreamed up for a Saturday Night Live skit in 1976. Until now, that is. This week, NYU chemistry professor Kent Kirshenbaum and pastry chef Will Goldfarb answered the pressing question: can chemistry and food come together to devise a material that is both a floor wax and a dessert topping? A packed audience at the Brooklyn-based Secret Science Club gleefully learned that, yes, Virginia, there is a product that can shine your linoleum and top off your parfait.

Goldfarb (left) and Kirshenbaum (right) break out the liquid nitrogen

Goldfarb (left) and Kirshenbaum (right) break out the liquid nitrogen

Kirshenbaum and Goldfarb’s presentation, though largely tongue-in-cheek, served an important purpose: to educate foodies and science geeks alike in the art of molecular gastronomy. We’ve written about their joint project, the Experimental Cuisine Collective, which brings together chefs and scientists to explore the intersection of science and cooking.

I have to confess, I expected the Secret Science Club talk to be your typical rundown of molecular gastronomy tricks: making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, creating fruit “caviar” using hydrocolloids, poaching the perfect egg. Boy was I wrong. Kirshenbaum and Goldfarb brought Shimmer to life, teaching the rapt audience a little bit about chemistry along the way.

Kirshenbaum explained that molecules with a hydrophilic head group and a hydrophobic tail assemble into spheres that capture oil and dirt inside. The goal was to find a molecule that possessed those hydrophilic/hydrophobic characteristics, but also tasted delicious. That molecule, unsurprisingly, turned out to be the saponin. By adding 4 grams of Chilean soap bark (more formally known as Quillaja saponaria) to 100 grams of water (give or take), and setting a table-top mixer to work, the chemist and chef quickly had a thick foam that, in theory, tasted good too. Audience members were given a dollop atop a brownie, and Kirshenbaum sprayed a bit on a mop to demonstrate its cleaning properties. Impressively, they came up with a third use: Kirshenbaum bravely put the foam to work to work as a hair mousse. I wish I had better before and after pictures to closely examine its capabilities at taming Kirshenbaum’s moppish head.

So there you have it, folks. Though the wonders of chemistry, Shimmer really can exist. Feel free to try this experiment at home.

For your viewing pleasure: SNL’s Shimmer
Shimmer Floor Wax