For your gastronomic pleasure I will now explain how to make the perfect burger… according to scientific principles that is!
Let’s start with how to bake the perfect bun for the burger. Did you know that bread can be classed as a foam? Well, now you do. Bread is a foam consisting of air bubbles encapsulated in a dough that sets when baked in the oven. In order to bake bread with a fluffy lightness worthy of our scientific burger we need to examine what actually the dough is made of, and to do this we need to understand the behaviour of wheat flour.
Flour has two main ingredients; starch granules and proteins. It is the proteins we need to poke and prod a little more to understand why our bread foam forms, and in particular the properties of gluten need to be scrutinised. “Gluten is a viscoelastic network of proteins that becomes elongated by pulling and then partially reverts to its initial form when the tension is relaxed,” says the molecular gastronomy guru, Herve This.
Thanks Herve! But what is it about the gluten that allows it to form networks? Well, without the insoluble proteins, prolamins, which are found in the glutenous network, bread will not rise. These proteins have strong bonds existing between them (covalent bonds between their amino acids if you really wanted to know!) allowing them to form a protein network. When the bread is kneaded, extra bonds are made. This means that when the bread is baked, the bubbles of air which form and force their way upwards through the dough cause the bread dough to expand and rise instead of passing freely between the proteins.
OK so bread’s in the oven, with the prolamin covalent bonds allowing a beautiful set foam to form… sounds tasty doesn’t it?! Next key ingredient… the beef burger itself.
First take the beef burger and put it in a ziplock bag, then place it in a water bath (hmmm this is sounding a little strange, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt…) and cook until perfectly medium rare. Next place the burger in liquid nitrogen, before getting putting a blow torch to it. Ummm… what!?
Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures (a fascinating company devoted to inventing) and part of their experimental kitchen team, is convinced that this is the best way to get your burger cooked to perfection; freezing of the burger prevents it cooking beyond the desired medium rare as you finish off the outside!
So voila! You have the perfect scientific burger!
Molecular gastronomy, a phrase which didn’t even exist before 1992, is now part of popular culture. Some chefs are increasingly taking interest in what is chemically happening to food as it cooks, and manipulating ingredients to get ‘the most’ out of them. In fact, in his early days Heston Blumenthal phoned up an slightly eccentric physics professor at Bristol University with a strong passion for molecular gastronomy (and penguins!), Peter Barham, to ask about the best way to cook green beans to perfection!
Nathan Myhrvold’s kitchen takes molecular gastronomy to another level altogether. Colleagues working near the kitchen are fed interesting foods. “I have no idea what I’m eating, it’s always some bizarre thing where they took an entire moose and distilled it into a coffee bean and infused it with whipped cream,” one said. Nathan is publishing a 2400 page, 1600 recipe containing cookbook based on his work called Modernist Cuisine if you want to give it a go yourself. Although be warned that you might have to start ordering some strange chemical ingredients online for some of the recipes…!