Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/8/10, Wylie Dufresne

Last week when Professor Mike Brenner said that the students would be making shrimp noodles, I thought he meant noodles with shrimp. I was apparently very wrong.

Last night’s SEAS cooking lecture was with Wylie Dufresne (wd-50) and the topic was “Complex Chemistry: Transglutaminase.” What is that? Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.

 I was all by myself last night, and got to the Science Center pretty early to insure myself a seat. Even though I was without my friend R*, I chatted with the nice MIT alum/mother of a 1 year old son standing behind me nearly the whole time we were waiting. I will admit that I’m normally your stereotypical reserved Bostonian. I don’t normally chat with strangers. One of the nice things I’ve observed about these lectures is that it’s very easy to start talking to your neighbors while waiting. Right off the bat, you know you have something in common: being a food nerd. And it helps to pass the time while waiting in that long line. So, to the very nice lady I was chatting with, “Hi, if you ever end up reading this.”

We were back to a full house last night. It probably did not help that about 1/6th of the lecture hall were reserved seats. Mike started off with pictures from the student labs. We saw some spherification experiments, and we saw salted caramel and the shrimp noodles. The shrimp noodles were actually shrimp paste formed into noodles – no flour or anything like that – with help from meat glue aka transglutaminase. Transglutaminase is an enzyme which binds proteins together, so you can effectually glue pieces of meat together. For all my food nerdiness, this was the first time I had heard of meat glue.

Mike also introduced us to a French book from the 1800s, Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, which I am now very curious to read for fun. (Google it! Free e-books should be available.) The point of this aside was that flavor was a gradual rate of growth.

Mike introduced Wylie and the evening began.

First impressions of Wylie? He’s very laid back, not in a hippie way but in a way that reminded me of the metal-head kids I was friends with in high school. He’s witty and funny, and I like how he tended to use the word “cook” instead of “chef”.

The first recipe we saw was the first recipe Wylie ever used with meat glue: rabbit sausage with avocado and grainy mustard. It wasn’t anything super fancy. Rabbit meat was bonded to itself and shaped into a sausage. Once set, the cling film was removed and the sausage could be cut cleanly. It was served with an avocado sauce and a mustard cracker (I’m guess the mustard cracker was made with a dehydrator).

There are different kinds of meat glue, and which one you use is dependent on what meat it is that you are gluing. I am having a tough time finding this information quickly on the internet, but here’s the info from Ajinomotto, the currently supplier for meat glue (… and yes MSG too):

“TG-FP is designed for use in restructuring meat and poultry. It uses an enzyme/protein combination for production of value-added, portion-controlled meat products. TG-FP can be added during mixing as a dry powder, or in a slurry with water.

“TG-RM restructures muscle foods such as red meat, poultry and seafood. This preparation also has uses in foods having lower protein content. TG-RM can be applied by dry sprinkle, or added as a dry powder during mixing. It can also be applied as a slurry in water.

“TG-TI was designed to improve the general texture in many different foods containing enough protein naturally.

“Transglutaminase is a protein that is made by a fermentation process. Fermentations are widely known throughout the food industry and many well known foods and beverages are produced by fermentation. Various forms of transglutaminase are found in animals, plants and microbes. Transglutaminase from fermented sources tend to be easy to use in many different food systems.” (Ajinomoto website)

The second recipe was shrimp spaghetti with tomato, garlic, and basil. Yes, the shrimp spaghetti is the same recipe that the students made in lab. Raw shrimp is made into a paste with a blender, and then blended some more with salt and cayenne pepper. To this, the shrimp RM is added. The paste at this point is made more finely by pressing it through a mesh, and to that shrimp oil is mixed it (for some reason the final texture of the noodles is affected if the shrimp oil is added earlier). The final paste is put into a pastry bag, and then piped into a noodle press. The paste is pushed into a water bath of about 50-55C (I think) to form the shrimp noodles. At that point, the noodles are done and should have the texture/flexibility of the noodles that we are already familiar with.

The third recipe was Wagyu flap steak with barley malt and turnips. Using a different meat glue from the shrimp RM (I think Wylie said this was GS?), a slurry is made. The slurry is placed into a vacuum machine and all extra air is pulled out of the slurry a few times. This slurry can last a whole day. Flap steak, which is a thinner cut of meat, is brushed all over with the slurry and two of the steaks are stacked together. This is wrapped tightly and left to sit overnight. The next day, the steaks have completely bonded to each other. This stacking of steaks lets the cook manipulate the size of the meat into something easier to cook with.

The barley for the flap steak is also subjected to some meat glue. Barley is cooked in a malt-beef stock. Afterward, a mixture of meat glue, water, and gelatin are mixed it. The barley is pour into a mold and left 4-6 hours at least to obtain its shape. When it’s ready, it’s warmed back up for about 5-7 minutes and broken into pieces. The pieces are torched to give it a greater depth of flavors (with thanks to the Maillard Reaction) and served.

At this point of the lecture, it had become obvious that Wylie loves his staff and is not above poking fun at them. During the shrimp noodle video, Wylie was commenting on the chef’s height. Then he made silly remarks about the chef in the barley video who has a tendency to write notes on his hands.

During the fourth recipe, Wylie commented that the chef in the video, Roxanne, “has her notes tattooed to her. They don’t come off.” Roxanne demonstrated cod fish in the video. Several fillets of cod where brushed with a meat glue slurry. The cod is stacked and formed into a large cylinder with cling film. And when I say it is tightly wrapped, I mean it is TIGHTLY WRAPPED. It looked like feet of cling film was used on what was essential a large cod sausage. Holes are poked all around to let air escape, and the whole thing sits for at least 4-6 hours (overnight is always better). When it’s set, the cod can be sliced cleanly and neatly into rounds about 1 to 1.5 inches thick. Having such a piece of cod uniformly sized and sized on the thicker side makes it easier for the chef to sear and cook it to his/her preference. The cod is served with nori and a carrot dashi. In the words of Wylie, “It sounds like a very Japanese dish but it’s nothing a self-respecting Japanese would ever do.”

Some things are still in the works. wd-50 has been working on a fois gras terrine that can be seared with the help of meat glue. Wylie said that it only works about 30% of the time. They have also been playing with chicken stock in the form of hot jello, and vegetable jellies (“you can glue Asian pear and apple together and then caramelize them”). Wylie also showed us peanut butter that has been formed into noodles with meat glue (it’s a play on pad thai). The peanut butter + meat glue is spread thinly between two sheets of cling film. When set, it’s cut into wide noodles. It’s very flexible and pliable. Wylie said that you can’t get the same texture if you subject peanut butter to hydrocolloids like agar agar.

Meat glue has very little taste according to Wylie, but if you use too much, you can affect the texture of the food. You could bind different animal meats but different animal meats cook at different rates so in the end there’s little point to it.

Meat glue might enhance gluten allergies but there are conflicting reports. The belief is that meat glue makes gluten more allergenic. So something labeled gluten-free could cause a gluten allergy if it’s been subjected to meat glue. There is no rock solid evidence, but it’s something to be aware of if you are GF.

And there you have it – the story of Wylie and his new friend, meat glue aka transglutaminase. (Wylie is right though… “meat glue” does sound cooler.)


(Images were taken from the wd-50 site but they are not hotlinked. I have better internet manners than that.)


5 thoughts on “Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/8/10, Wylie Dufresne

  1. I am enthralled by these concepts, but then I went to the site and saw what they serve as Eggs Benedict. Two croutons and art? It frustrates me! This all sounds so interesting – I’d be curious to see how it affects the texture. If I imagine red meat to have a certain type of texture, it would really mess with my head to have it possess a different texture. Same with shrimp. There’s something about the texture of shrimp that I can’t imagine being in a noodle! Then again, those shrimp chips that stick to your tongue and disintegrate in a pop-rock type fashion are lovely. 🙂

    • If I understood correctly, the texture really isn’t affected unless you have too much. For example, Wylie said that they tried binding sardines together. However, sardines are so small that the meat glue ended up permeating the whole thing and so the texture was compromised. They have stopped playing with sardines.

      The idea of shrimp noodles doesn’t bother me. I’ve eaten shrimp balls and fish paste so I suspect that the overall texture of shrimp noodles isn’t all that different. Maybe just more pliable.

      oh but geez I love shrimp chips! My mom used to fry some up for Chinese New Year’s. And my siblings and I used to always fight over them when we had roasted chicken at Chinese restaurants. Mmmm, shrimp chips… :9

  2. Pingback: Harvard SEAS lecture, 10/24/11, Wylie Dufresne « Awesomesauce Eats

    • slurry is one of my favorite words – it’s very handy!

      … I’m showing my old chem student colors right now, aren’t I? lol!

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