An exciting new issue of Cell: the Biology of Food

Hey there! The last year or so has been a busy time for us, with a lot of degree-earning and job-switching. We’ll tell you more about that later, because right now we want to break the ice with a post about Cell, the scientific journal which just released a special issue on the Biology of Food.

Cell cover Biology of Food

So, what so cool about this issue, besides the alien-esque picture of an apple on the cover? This article is filled with great articles, reflections and experiments by some of the world’s leading food scientists, and comes right on the heels of the journal’s recent collaboration with Top Chef (anything sound familiar there?). Find more about the contents of the issue, or even listen to a podcast from Michael Brenner. If you hurry, you can download a few of the articles from Cell for free. We thought we’d share some of the tidbits that caught our fancy and may inspire some upcoming experiments.

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Food, The Brain and Us

Sonic Pringles

Sonic Pringles (Courtesy of @wahidaamin)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A philosopher, a psychologist and a historian walk into a building. They’re followed shortly after by two chefs and a perfumer.

No, this isn’t the start of some sort of convoluted joke which references the clichéd stereotypes surrounding each profession. Rather, it’s the sort of eclectic mix which produces questions questions like:

“Is it the chef that makes flavours or is it the brain?”

The best macaroni and cheese: traditional vs. Modernist

Mac & cheese

I’ve recently become completely enchanted with the Modernist Cuisine approach to macaroni and cheese: 4 ingredients, 20 minutes, foolproof and delicious. Three of these ingredients you probably already have at home: macaroni, cheese, and milk. The fourth ingredient, sodium citrate, is a bit more exotic. Luckily, I work in a molecular biology lab, and we use it to make RNA-preservation solution. When I first tried the recipe, I liberated 11 grams of the stuff for some very extracurricular experimentation*.

The resulting mac & cheese was ridiculously creamy and cheesy and I was instantly hooked. I ordered my own supply of food-grade sodium citrate (see footnote re: eating things you find in the lab and the wisdom thereof). And I’ve made it many times since then. The procedure is simple: heat up the milk, dissolve the sodium citrate in it, and then use an immersion blender to whiz the grated cheese into the milk. Add cooked macaroni. Devour.

*The Science Fare Team does not in any way endorse eating things you find in the lab. This is usually a bad idea. Don’t do this.

Modernist mac & cheese. Photo by Judith Levine.

Modernist mac & cheese. Photo by Judith Levine.

I was instantly smitten with the Modernist take, both for its ease and for its smooth, ultra-cheesy richness. But I was curious how it would stack up against traditional, bechamel-based mac & cheese in a head-to-head showdown. The obvious answer was science by dinner party: two kinds of mac & cheese on the table, with the unsuspecting guests doubling as blind testers.

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Crisp Your Cookie With This One Sugar Secret

Crispy Cookies

If you, like me, consider flat and crispy to be the ideal cookie, then look no further. I can guarantee you flat and crispy every time. Here’s the secret:

Melt the butter and the sugar on the stove before adding them to the dough. Continue Reading →

A Biochemical Storm in a Teacup

Though it is viewed by many to be an out-dated stereotype of an age gone by, tea still has a great importance in a society like the one that exists today in Britain. What really brought home the dependence that the public has on the nectar was the news coverage of the 2005 London tube attacks, as well as the more recent riots in the capital.

In each case, there was a point when the respective news reporter would say that the shopkeepers/volunteers were bringing out blankets and cups of tea for those clearing up the damage and it brought a smile to my face. Not from any warm fuzzy feelings that one gets when viewing altruism take place in a society that prides itself on segregating each person but rather from seeing the vehemently denied trope being played once again.

Really, that’s Britain for you: A nation where the solution for almost any problem can be solved using the appropriate application of tea.

You’re a bit cold? - Breakfast Tea. 

Your boyfriend has just dumped you in a manner so painfully comical not even daytime television would want you? - Ouch. Ceylon black.

You’ve just been told you’ve got prostate cancer and that amputation is the only option? - You’re going to need some sort of Assam blend.

Coordinated terrorist attack on the transport network bringing the city to a grinding halt for the best part of a week? – Oh. How unfortunate. Perhaps some vanilla chai?

Youth start smashing up small businesses all over the capital, laying waste to buildings that have stood for longer than they’ve been breathing? - The cheek of it! Fetch some Darjeeling and turn the hoses on those rapscallions.

Of course, if the situation becomes extremely serious, then the appropriate course of action would be to maybe think about bringing out the Earl Grey. Only in dire situations though. It’s reserved for when the the Americans have their alert raised to red and all their nukes pointed at Clapham Common.

I can’t quite imagine what would be cause for anything but tea. Given the damage from the events mentioned and their complementary tea-based responses, one could extrapolate and hypothesise that it might take something on the scale of Armageddon to be cause for a coffee based response.

That or another Adele album.

All joking aside though, tea remains one of those things that divides drinkers. Our MOCA challenge results show that on technique alone, there’s such diversity and subjectivity in preference.

If you were to ask 100 people the question of how they liked their tea prepared, you’d surely get 100 different answers. To prove that I’m not spouting nonsensical rubbish, here are a few from a Twitter survey when the question of tea preference was posed.

So what exactly is tea and what sort of chemical reactions take place to give us such a wide variety of tastes and pleasures? Continue Reading →

Range Gets Your Food Talking Back To You

Courtesy of Supermechanical

I hold conversations with my food.

I don’t mean that in a weird way. It’s not like I imagine that the chicken drumsticks on my plate are the legs of those who have wronged me in the past or that the peas are the heads of my enemies.

That would be insane.

I was about six when it was first noticed by family members, whose justification for this seemingly odd behaviour was it being “a phase that he’ll grow out of.” Being six, I was probably quite cute when I engaged in this activity and not at all an indication of underlying mental health issues.

Grow out of it, I did not. Which is probably a good thing because over the years, my culinary conversations have been converted from the direct anthropomorphisation of the rice grains on my plate to more encompassing speeches about the cooking process.

“Yeast! Undergo respiration faster! Is it seriously that difficult to produce carbon dioxide? A TREE CAN DO IT, WHY CAN’T YOU?”  

“Why won’t you hold properly, meringue? I gave you a pH of 3.8. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”

“Come on tomato paste. You can reduce quicker than that, right? All that water’s just holding you back from being the best pizza topping since batch #42!”

The majority of my kitchen ramblings usually have one common topic: temperature. It doesn’t matter what I’m heating up or cooling down, I can never seem to accurately gauge the optimal time taken for my kitchen experiments to complete. And temperature is really important. As I’m not flush enough to afford the fancy temperature probes that directly save data to computer, I can’t accurately compare the results of different tests in an easy manner.

This is the point where a nifty little Kickstarter-funded project comes in.

Meet Range.

Courtesy of Supermechanical

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Food Science Classes at Rutgers University


Flickr user slgckgc

A quick update about upcoming course offerings from our friends at Rutgers University. Continue Reading →

Contribute to a seriously massive experiment in cooking and science

So I just started taking this pretty neat course called “The Science of Gastronomy” by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology offered for free through Coursera.

And I just realized the so-called “assignments” due at the end of each week are actually massively online experiments that could further our understanding of cooking and eating basics. We’ve been doing our fair share of experimenting here at ScienceFare, but this course has the potential to attract even more experimenters.

So if you haven’t signed up already, the first task is due in TWO DAYS (Jul 16), so run over to Coursera and sign up quick if you want to get in on the action.

Why does salt make (almost) everything taste better?


Photo credit: shardayyy

As our June MOCA demonstrated, a few grains of salt doesn’t just make food salty; it seems to make some sweet fruits sweeter, mask unpleasant bitter tastes, and well, just make everything taste better.

In this post, we look at some of the recent research about salt to discover how this magical mineral accomplishes its flavor feats. Continue Reading →

June MOCA results: not all fruits are salty sweet


The results of the June MOCA are in!  Thanks everyone who participated, we had 5 people submitting answers this month on 8 different fruits, with next to no agreement.  We also got some great descriptions of flavor in this MOCA, so I will quote others as much as possible.
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