Alternative Food Technologies Used in Modern Cooking

By Wesley Fenlon

Did you know that chefs use transglutaminase to attach meats to other meats? We love you, science.

Sometimes we use weird technologies to make food. Sometimes we use weird technologies that are food to make food. Example: meat glue, which sounds horrifying...and yet somehow appetizing. Because, well, it's made of meat, and can be used to attach meat to more meat in prime Epic Meal Time fashion. After attending the San Francisco Exploratorium's Modernist Cuisine event and learning about meat glue and pot vaporizers being used in food preparation, I wanted to dig deeper into the weird world of alternative food technologies.

Warning: pink slime, aka lean finely textured beef, is involved. It's nightmare fuel. We'll start with something lighter.

Volcano Vaporizer

The Volcano vaporizer "exceeds the toughest demands." It's "the ultimate vaporizer system." Lofty claims from the official website. What's the point of vaporization, really? The most basic vaporizers (aka humidifiers) simply add moisture into dry air, but a vaporizer that costs $550 like the Volcano Digit better do a whole lot more than that. The Volcano passes heated air through a filling chamber (packed with some kind of organic compound) and fills an attached balloon, or bag, with vapor.

Naturally, people use the Volcano to get totally blazed. Vaporizers can be used to release the flavors of all kinds of herbs aside from marijuana. Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago restaurant Alinea took the novel approach of incorporating a Volcano vaporizer into the presentation of his dishes. Meals are accompanied by wafts of air smelling of lavender or burning oak leaves, which evoke strong reactions in diners.

"To me, this is art," said Paul Stepahin, an Exploratorium exhibitor who gave a talk on molecular gastronomy and demonstrated spherification during the event. "[Achatz] described how the smell of burning oak leaves--we know that smell has a strong memory trigger--he says people will break down crying at the table because the smell of oak leaves brings them back to when they were kids burning leaves and raking. ... If your diners are crying because they're overcome with these Prustian memories of lost time, you are making fine art."

One method for this "ambient aroma" presentation is the aroma pillow. The Vaporizer fills a bag with scented air, and that bag is sealed and then punctured with small holes when the meal is presented. It slowly expels the trapped air, releasing an aroma gradually throughout the meal.

Food Printers

In late 2009 MIT showed off Cornucopia, a range of 3D printer concepts designed in the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group. Unlike the MakerBot, these 3D printers are designed to print food. And we're not taking icing: we're talking squeezing foods out of print heads to quite literally create dishes. One of the concept printers would use a deposition process to lay down layers of ingredients, and then it would cook them to finish the dish.

Unfortunately, these are just concept proposals, not real printers. But since MIT presented their ideas, others have taken up the challenge. A British University scientist is preparing to put a 3D chocolate printer on the market by the end of April. It's called the Choc Edge. It prints with chocolate.

The Choc Edge is set to cost about $4500--more than twice the price of MakerBot's new dual extruder Replicator, but everything it prints is guaranteed to be at least twice as delicious.

Update: The Choc Edge is now on sale.

Meat Glue

"If you're a great artist you can cook octopus at low temperatures for a very long time, glue it together into the shape of a flower, dip it in an orange saffron emulsion and serve it on carbonated stalks of dill," said Stepahin, extolling the virtues of transglutaminase, aka meat glue. "You can also go to the low end. This is a guy who glued a pork belly to a prime rib. How you feel about this says a lot about how food interacts with our culture."

Our mouth watering reaction to the mental image of pork belly and prime rib glued together probably says we really, really like meat. There are some health concerns with meat glue, which forms bonds between proteins and has the same biochemical activity as blood coagulation. It's banned in the EU, though commonly used in other parts of the world, including the United States. Food blog Cooking Issues lays out why the material is safe, but using meat glue does potentially expose a cobbled together piece of meat to more air and thus more bacterial growth. Careful cooking will make that a non-issue.

The biggest problem with meat glue, and the reason it's banned in the EU, is that it can be misleading. It can be used to modify the texture of meat, creating the illusion that a crappy cut of steak is actually more expensive. Transglutaminase can be used to cut corners and keep costs down, and you'll never know if a dish is using it.

That's a legitimate concern, but meat glue can also be used by creative chefs to build some wild dishes. We'd be perfectly happy with an unnatural amalgamation of delicious meats, but meat glue experts are designing much fancier dishes, like shrimp noodles or cod melded with nori, peas and coconut. If you find the concept fascinating, check out this Harvard talk from chef Wylie Dufresne discussing his restaurant's use of meat glue.

Pink Slime

Meat glue is banned in the European Union because it's potentially misleading for diners. Pink slime is the nightmare version of meat glue. Some call it "finely textured beef," but pink slime seems to be the more accurate description for meat trimmings washed in ammonium hydroxide. Who would ever eat that stuff? Surprise! You would, if you've ever eaten at a fast food restaurant or munched on a public school hamburger. Up until 2011, pink slime was commonly used as a meat material in burger patties.

When the material hit the media spotlight in 2011, public outcry pushed companies like McDonalds and Burger King to ditch pink slime, and the producers of the material have taken a big financial hit. Ironically, the stuff's been around for years, and it's not necessarily unhealthy--ammonium hydroxide was cleared for food use in 1974 and is still used in other foods. For example, a small amount of ammonium hydroxide reduces the acidity of a dairy culture.

The problem with pink slime is that it just looks really super duper gross. Fallout from the material's reveal continues to harm the meat industry, and some beef companies are proposing labels that will make consumers aware of the presence of finely textured beef. They hope that transparency will set consumer minds at ease.

The irony: pink slime is actually safe, because of how it's treated, and it makes use of parts of slaughtered animals that would otherwise be thrown away. Modern technology can do gross things with food, but that's the reality of a highly industrialized society. All the meat comes from a cow--some of it just looks like soft serve ice cream.