Science and Cooking at Harvard SEAS, 2015!

It’s been a long while, so I decided it was high time to hang out in lecture hall C of Harvard’s Science Center for the opening lecture featuring Harold McGee and Dave Arnold last night.  Overall reaction?  I still have a nerd crush on Dave Arnold.  He’s like a puppy when it comes to food science and related interests.  How can anyone not like him?

Before the lecture started, the audience was handed plastic packets filled with sugar-related items.

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What the?

I don’t eat a lot of sugar anymore!

Confusion ensued.

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Continue reading


Science and Cooking 2013, Harvard University

Here’s the schedule for this year’s Science and Cooking lectures at the School for Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Monday, September 9, 2013

“Science and Cooking”

Dave Arnold, Cooking Issues
Harold McGee, Curious Cook

Monday, September 16, 2013

“Sous vide: savory and pastry applications”

Jordi Roca, El Celler de Can Roca

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“Elasticity: Dessert = Flavor + Texture”

Bill Yosses, White House Pastry Chef

Monday, September 30, 2013

Diffusion & Spherification”

José Andrés, ThinkFood Group, minibar, Jaleo

Monday, October 7, 2013

“Playing with Taste through Browning”

Carme Ruscadella, Sant Pau, Sant Pau de Tòquio

Monday, October 14, 2013

“Viscosity & Polymers”

Carles Tejedor, Via Veneto

Monday, October 21, 2013


Enric Rovira, Master Chocolatier
Ruben Alvarez, Master Chocolatier

Monday, October 28, 2013

“Emulsions: Concepts of Stabilizing Oil & Water”

Nandu Jubany, Can Jubany

Monday, November 4, 2013

“The Science of Sweets”

Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery

Monday, November 11, 2013

“Catalytic Conversion: Enzymes in the Kithcen”

Wylie Dufresne, wd~50
Ted Russin, The Culinary Institute of America

November 18, 2013

“Fermentation: When Rotten Goes Right”

David Chang, momofuku

Monday, November 25, 2013

Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO; co-founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures; and author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Monday, December 2, 2013

“Evolution culinary theory”

Ferran Adrià, elBulli Foundation

**Tickets will be available on Tuesday, November 26th at the Harvard Box Office, located in the Holyoke Center**

Monday, December 9, 2013

“The Accidental Chemist”

America’s Test Kitchen

Jack Bishop, Editorial Director at Cook’s Illustrated and an Editor on The Science of Good Cooking
Dan Souza, Senior Editor of Cook’s Illustrated

The bad news?  I’m not sure if I’ll make it to many, if any, of the lectures.  I’m taking a continuing education class that meets on the same night.  We’ll see.

Havard SEAS lecture, 9/19/11, Ramon Morato

I’ve been hearing that SEAS has been posting the new lectures on iTunes if you’ve missed an evening. I haven’t personally looked it up yet. I can tell you that their youtube site does not have any of the Fall 2011 lectures up yet.

I didn’t post last week because I did not attend Joan Roca’s lecture. I was stressing over my fall schedule to be honest. And I realize now that the video link I posted for Harold McGee/Dave Arnold was the live lecture link. Oops. Well, at least I gave you a tiny summary, right?

Anyway, onto a discussion of chocolate!

Roman Morato was this year’s chocolatier. (Last year was Enric Rovira.) So, here’s a summary of things I’ve learned. Continue reading

Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/15/10, Dan Barber, part 2

[Whoo-hoo! Part 2!]

After biochar and lobster charcoal, Dan talked about the Stone Farms greenhouses. The Northeast is on the same latitude as Spain and southern Italy. Yes, it is colder here but we get the same amount of sunshine. During the colder seasons, their greenhouses are filled with sun-determinate plants instead of temperature-determinate plants (like tomatoes or mango). It’s something I’ve thought about but never *really* thought about. It makes me think that I should search for some plant ideas for my little container garden at home. Also required of their winter salad greens? What they grow must be able to go from seed to maturity in 6 to 8 weeks. The water in the greenhouses are kept warm by the heat given off from their composting. They also seep compost soil in water to create a “compost tea” which is used to water plants. The “compost tea” discourages bacterial growth on the plants. (Stone Farms cooks their compost to appropriate temperatures to kill off anything bad in the soil. They have a large machine for it, and the machine can also turn the compost over to provide even heating. This is not a cheap endeavor!)

The natural heat from composting? Blue Hill has been experimenting with cooking food, like potatoes, in a compost (don’t worry, the potatoes for eating are sealed in a bag).

So, big deal, right? Compost and biochar and selective gardening, it’s all going to taste the same right? Well, *no*. Stone Farms, again with the crazy data compiling, measures the Brix levels in their produce. what is Brix? In the food industry, it’s a way to measure the approximate amount of sugars in fruits, vegetables, juices, wine, soft drinks. The higher the Brix level, the higher the sugar/sweetness concentration. The farm has been breaking common Brix levels every year. Let’s take carrots as an example. The Northeast naturally produces some of the sweetest carrots. Why? Freezing temperatures for carrot plants to convert their starches into sugar for survival. Stone Farms has been able to measure 13.8 on the Brix scale. Out of curiosity, they measured the Brix level of good quality organic carrots not from their farm. The measurement? 0.0 on the Brix scale. Not sweet carrots at all.

Dan again emphasized that the farm and the restaurant were seeking out the best tasting ingredients that were raised right. So you might think that Dan is very pro-heirloom tomatoes. It’s all the rage these days in farmer markets, heirloom plants. Dan sounded kind of “meh” on them. He showed slides entitled “Magic Mountain Tomato” and showed us the unnamed hybrid tomatoes that the farm and restaurant were getting from Cornell University.

Probably one of the slightly weird food experiments at Stone Farms is “hazelnut celtuce.” The experiment started with carrots, actually. They tried seeing if they could infuse the aroma of hazelnuts into carrots by using residue hazelnuts in the soil. It failed because the cell walls of carrots are too thick. They tried again with celtuce (which is a type of lettuce) which has thinner cell walls. The answer was yes, the aroma can be absorbed.

Dan ended the lecture with a blurb on the Angiogenesis Foundation. The foundation is a non-profit organization that strives to reduce diseases by restoring balance to blood vessel growth. Somewhere in there is the idea that foods can battle cancer. Dan believes that food through the Stone Farms’ sustainable methods are more nutritious than their supermarket counterparts, and therefore more likely to have greater value to fighting against sickness.

It was a very fascinating lecture from a scientific and nutritional standpoint, and it appealed more to me than I originally thought it would. In my own personal food quest, I have realized that while I eat pretty decently (I don’t eat too much junk), I’m eating things that should or could have more nutritional value. It’s hard to think that “yes, there is such a thing as good fat with a nutritional purpose.” It’s a departure from what I’ve heard growing up. I’m starting small – I’m moving from store bought milk to grass-fed raw farm milk. This is hard to do in the state of Massachusetts when you don’t have regular access to a car, and the state forbids the selling of raw milk in stores or via buying clubs. However, I’ve discovered that raw milk freezes/defrosts pretty well and I have a full-size freezer, so I’m hopeful about my efforts. Plus, I can’t hate the idea of helping my local economy when I can.

Anyway, only one lecture left this semester! I’m looking forward to it!


Part 1 here:

And related links for your curiosity:

Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/15/10, Dan Barber, part 1

[This particular write-up is taking me time, so I’m going to split it up.  Here’s part 1. ~Mikan]

Last night’s lecture with Dan Barber of Blue Hill/Stone Farm was very different from the previous lectures.  Whereas the lectures so far have been about manipulation of ingredients and cooking technique, Dan was there to talk to us about everything that happens before the ingredients even get into the restaurant kitchen.

To start off, Mike introduced the theme of the lecture as “Microbes in Food and Cooking.”  There was no recipe of the week – it was listed as “final presentation.”  But the lecture wasn’t really about microbes.  It was about sustainability.  There was a mini-presentation by Roberto Kolter, the co-director of Microbial Sciences Initiative (MSI) at Harvard, where he explained that there was a finite amount of room on our earth to support life and the human population grows exponentially so we should take better care of the environment.  (Kind of cool and random, MSI helped equip the lab students of this class so that they could do DNA sequencing of pork.)

Mike made the audience think about bacterial population homework problem (ie. how long will it take for the mass of Salmonella to equal the mass of steak?), and then Dan got up to speak.

Dan described himself as the “purity guy” as opposed to the Ferran Adrias of the world.  He was interested in the “manipulation” of food before harvest, and the pursuit of flavor in the ingredients themselves.

Regarding Blue Hill at Stone Barns, here’s the blurb on their official website:

“In spring of 2004, Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened within the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. The Barbers helped create the philosophical and practical framework for Stone Barns Center, a working four-season farm and educational center just 30 miles north of New York City, and continue to help guide it in its mission to create a consciousness about the effect of everyday food choices.

Sourcing from the surrounding fields and pasture, as well as other local farms, Blue Hill at Stone Barns highlights the abundant resources of the Hudson Valley. There are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Instead, guests are presented with a list of over a hundred ingredients, updated daily, which contains the best offerings from the field and market.”

The amount of research and development at Stone Barns, by Dan’s presentation, is insane.  And all of it, in the pursuit of great food.

Dan’s first “recipe” was lamb.  How do you get the perfect rack of lamb?  Stone Barns starts with Finn-Dorcet sheep, a crossed-breed sheep that is half Finnsheep and half Dorset breed.  Then you give it room to graze.  Now, it’s not free to roam per se.  A farmer fences in a large area of grass for the sheep to graze in (“free range” is a bit of a misnomer – they are free to roam within an alloted area).  Over the course of the day, the fence and the sheep are moved.  There’s a variety of reasons here.  First off, grass-fed livestock is going to be superior over grain-fed livestock.  Sheep and cow are herbivores and herbivores have a part in their digestive system called the rumen which is specifically designed to process grass.  If the herbivore is put on a grain diet, the rumen does not function as it is supposed it.  (Explained to me by a nutritionist once, the digestion system goes from alkaline to acidic, and it’s the acidic digestive system that encourages bacteria growth.)  A grain fed animal will suffer increased likelihood of sickness which in turn increases antibiotics/steroid use for animal health.  A grain fed animal will also see fast growth, increase in wrong fats, and diluted flavor on the palate of the diner.  Dan showed us a slide of two racks of lamb, one grass fed and one grain fed.  The eye of the meat was essentially the same size, but the grass fed rack suffered from twice the amount of fat and thereby looked two times larger than the grass fed rack.  Gross and fascinating, right?  Throwing out all that extra fat is like “throwing out Iowa” and just increased waste.

So what about the grass grazing rotation?  Sheep search for the sweetest grass to eat and the sweet grass is embedded into their memories.  Grass at about 4″-6″ tall and are sweet will have the best nutrient density for the animal.  If given a choice, a lamb will return to the same spot of sweet grass over and over again.  However, this will exhaust the grass, discourage it from growing back, and create empty spots on grazing land.

After the sheep are forced to move, chickens are allow to roam around the spot just vacated.  Chickens will eat bugs around the manure (ewww!) and scratch/distribute the manure around more evenly which will encourage better fertilization (still kind of ewww even if I know it’s nature/necessary).  Even spread of manure will also mean less empty spots of grass on grazing land.

Stone Barns determines their grade of meats via a sonogram on the 12th and 13th rib.  Why bother, you might be asking.  Aren’t you just going to kill the animal for meat?  Well no, not necessarily.  If you know a particular animal has superior meat for cooking, wouldn’t you want to try to breed it and re-create its fine features?  Stone Barns does.  And so they use a sonogram.

Dan also explained a bit on the science of slaughtering.  Government guidelines require that meat be stored/hung at a temperature of 31.5F after slaughter.  This works ok for grain fed animal meat.  The increased amount of fat works like a winter coat and keeps the meat from getting ruined.  Not so for grass fed animal meat.  A grass fed animal could be as healthy and as happy as possible, and you can still ruin your meat if you don’t slaughter it and age the meat correctly.  If grass fed meat, which has less fat, is stored at 31.5F after slaughter, it will produce unwelcoming chewy results.  Meat that is “fed right, slaughtered right, and hung right is like buttah.”

The next “recipe” was cured meats, meaning pork.  Stone barns will be crossbreeding Berkshire pigs (which can live in colder Northeast conditions better than other pigs) with Ossabaw boars (closest thing to a wild boar and has good fat distribution).  It’s almost crazy the amount of data that the farm is compiling.  Controlling the pig diet within the free range category means manipulating the forest floor where the pigs will graze.  Stone Farms has thinned out a forest area on its property and is growing a variety of grass that will be nutritious to their pigs.

But what of all the trees that were cut down for the pigs?  No worries, Stone Farm given purpose to the wood.  Half of the wood is used for grilling (so Dan and the Blue Hill restaurant has been doing a lot of grilling recently as opposed to a couple of years ago) and half of the wood is dedicated to biochar.

What is biochar?  According to the International Biochar Initiative:

“Biochar is the carbon (C) rich product when biomass, such as wood, manure or leaves, is heated with little or no available oxygen. In more technical terms, biochar is produced by thermal decomposition of organic material under limited supply of oxygen (O2), and at relatively low temperatures (<700°C). This process often mirrors the production of charcoal, which is perhaps the most ancient industrial technology developed by humankind. However, it distinguishes itself from charcoal and similar materials by the fact that biochar is produced with the intent to be applied to soil as a means to improve soil health, to filter and retain nutrients from percolating soil water, and to provide carbon storage.”

From what I can tell, it is a charcoal like product that is meant to be mixed into the soil like a super fertilizer or like an extreme vitamin boost to the system.  It sounds like it can do other environmentally awesome things (on cursory glance), but we’ll keep this conversation within the use of Stone Farms.  Stone Farms pulverizes the biochar and mixes it with their soil.  This along with their composting methods means that their dirt has a huge retention of water and nutrients, and a positive impact on their farmland and environment.  Dan showed us a slide of artichokes growing in dirt with biochar and in dirt without.  It’s not a formal science experiment by any means, but the artichokes growing in the dirt with biochar were growning faster and larger.

Char doesn’t stop at wood.  Blue Hill and Stone Farms have started carbonizing leftover items from the kitchen.  Pork bones used in stock?  The leftover corncobs?  Leftover lobster shells?  They’ll carbonize it all, and then use it for grilling.  And the carbonized products DO carry over the original aromas.  Dan passed around a tray of carbonized pork bones, cobs, lobster shells and the smell was smoky with hints of flavor.  So, you can perhaps imagine a chef at Blue Hill grilling lobster over carbonized lobster shells.  Dan called it “lobster times two.” 

Part 2 here:

And some links if you are curious!

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.)