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Surprising Science

The Perfect Burger? Try Liquid Nitrogen.

The Master Chef, part-time Paleontologist, and former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, offers a scientifically-informed approach to the ancient human art of cooking.  

What’s The Big Idea? 

The movement in cooking known unappetizingly as “molecular gastronomy” constitutes a new, scientifically-informed approach to an ancient human art. Chefs like Ferran Adria of the world-renowned El Bulli in Spain and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alineause lab equipment and inventive chemical processes to create a Seussian world of surreal victuals like “melon caviar” and “olive oil powder.”

While developing what is indisputably the bible of this movement – Modernist Cuisine – Nathan Myhrvold and fellow mad scientists experimented in the Cooking Lab to understand grilling better than anybody else has, ever.  

Tip #1: Myhrvold’s First Law of Grilling: Line Your Grill With Aluminum Foil

Infrared radiation – the red light from the coals, along with some invisible rays – is what cooks grilled food. Your grill, unfortunately, is black. So most of the rays are absorbed by the grill, not your food. The result: Grungy, black chicken, hot dogs, and ribs. Lining the grill with aluminum foil, shiny side up, will reflect the rays upward onto the food, cooking it evenly.

Tip #2: Drippings = Flavor

The drip and sizzle of fat on the coals is responsible for much of the flavor we love in grilled food. So if you’re grilling vegetables, don’t be stingy; anoint them with a liberal dose of butter or oil. 

Tip #3: The Ultimate Burger – Don’t Try This at Home

The ultimate burger is not easily replicated in your backyard. According to Myhrvold, it involves immersing the raw patty in a bath of liquid nitrogen, cooking it sous-videthen deep-frying it, which yields a crispy crust and an evenly-cooked interior.

Tip #4: The Penultimate Burger – Cook Gently, then Sear the Hell Out of It

An outrageously good burger must be juicy and evenly medium-rare inside, with a crispy, crusty exterior. The best way to achieve this at home, says Myhrvold, is to cook the patty to medium-rare in the oven on a low temperature (this author’s intuition, not science, suggests 300 F), then “sear the hell out of it” on a very hot grill, over an open flame, or in a cast-iron skillet.

What’s the Significance?

Molecular gastronomy (a widespread term that many of its fans and creators reject) is perhaps the most significant development in cooking since the discovery of fire. It is groundbreaking in that it overtly fuses art and science, using replicable experimental methods to open up new territory for aesthetic exploration.

The movement is significant also in that it is a counterpoint to today’s grassroots food movements that focus primarily on sustainability and the ethics of eating. Edible pictures of sushi printed with salmon-egg and seaweed ink help to sustain a creative dialogue about the role of surprise and delight in our lives, and how best to reconcile the joy of invention with our more pragmatic concerns.


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