Heston Blumenthal is the scientist-foodie's dream come true. While his cooking (or rather, culinary lab) TV programs are not easily found in the US, the UK is spoiled by his recreations of Middle Age spreads, his deft use of dry ice at the dinner table, and his curious scientific (yet edible) concoctions.
Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck (www.fatduck.co.uk; located outside of London, England), is considered one of the top two restaurants in the world. A meal here takes 4-5 hours (there is only one sitting per night), and reservations fill up within10 minutes after they become available two months in advance. I was lucky enough to snag a reservation recently, and felt my 130GBP (roughly $200 depending on current conversion rates) was money incredibly well spent. Each of the 20 or so courses was brimming with clever science - and I love when science and some aspect of society (in this case, food and cooking) intersect.
The Fat Duck does have a cookbook, with detailed instructions on how to create his famous dishes (like edible sand and scrambled egg ice cream cracked right out of a chicken egg) using (in most cases) specialty ingredients and laboratory equipment. But science in the kitchen need not be so unattainable.
Take for instance, the San Francisco Exploratorium (S.F.'s wonderful science museum) website dedicated to food science: http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/ (This is also a great example of how to get children interested in science, by engaging them in the garden, the kitchen and at the dinner table - but that is the topic of another blog!). Penn State also has a great Kitchen Chemistry online resource at: http://foodscience.psu.edu/public/kitchen-chemistry. And this culinary science website is a real gem - packed full of answers for those culinary curiosities like why food browns and how we taste: http://www.scienceofcooking.com/
Speaking of taste (or as its now called, molecular gastronomy), Blumenthal himself has received a grant to sponsor a doctoral candidate in the UK whose thesis involves molecular gastronomy, with research conducted jointly with Nottingham University and his own kitchen-laboratory.
Recent talks at the Society for Neuroscience and other scientific conferences have revealved research currently ongoing which provide compelling evidence that the traditional four flavors ( sweet, salty, sour, bitter) do not stand alone. Taste pathways have been identified specifically for fats, glutamate (found in MSG, tomatoes, and some cheese) and for carbon dioxide (finally explaining that distinct taste sensation we get from carbonated vs. non-carbonated water).
The Taste Science laboratory at Cornell has a great website at: http://www.tastescience.com/, explaining among other things: how supertasters differ from regular tasters in terms of papillae on their tongues, and potential genetic explanations for how only some people can taste certain chemicals. One example not mentioned on this site is the preservative Sodium Benzoate, which may taste salty, sweet, bitter or tasteless - depending on your genetics...perhaps one reason why some of us like the taste of diet sodas and others don't? But that's just speculation, I'm not aware of any specific data on diet soda flavors.
Could culinary science and molecular gastronomy be a way to engage our children in healthy cooking and eating habits? Could this be a way go get them excited about science at the same time? A topic for another post...this is the first in what will be a series of posts about Food and Science.