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Kitchen Physics

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Going beyond the recipe.AFP
Going beyond the recipe.AFP

The yeast cakes sitting on the desk of physicist Thomas Vilgis have turned into a sort of ongoing experiment.

“We baked them once during a television recording and I subsequently forgot that they were in the oven,” explains Vilgis, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in the western German city of Mainz.

Why is a physicist so interested in cooking?

In his research, the amateur chef primarily looks at the physical and chemical properties of food. Vilgis has already written several books about molecular cuisine, where cooks experiment with these properties and prepare particularly unusual dishes.

The questions Vilgis is looking to answer with his research include how plants build cells and what it means for cooking, how different forms of sugars affect a meal, and which gelling agents are the best for releasing certain aromas.

Such issues are not just important in the daily preparation of food or in molecular gastronomy, but are also extremely relevant in the area of industrial food production.

Science of pasta

One company, for example, has decided to fund the Max Planck Institute’s research into pasta and bread because much is still not known about the relationship between starch and water in dough, says Vilgis.

It is important to stop kneading bread dough at a certain point otherwise the dough loses elasticity and will not hold together.

“It is a bit like a net bag for holding oranges. The fruit will fall out if the strings are cut,” he explains.

Even when cooking at home Vilgis thinks about the polymer structures of meat, fish and vegetables.

Vilgis recommends cooking carrots by steaming them in orange oil or making a sweet puree.

“You can then freeze them into cubes, dip them in melted chocolate and, once they have set, serve them as filled chocolates. Delicious!”DPA


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