Dr. Harold McGee is using his Ph.D. in literature to find a better way to cook meat. And he packed the house at Bowdoin to talk about how he's doing it.
McGee, a food scientist, spoke about his experiments in a lecture before Fall Break. In one study, he modeled the cooking of meat on a computer program, and found that the stove time can actually be shortened according to how often the meat is flipped?for example, if the meat is flipped every 15 seconds as opposed to every six minutes, it will take five fewer minutes to cook.
According to McGee, "cooking is just chemistry and physics."
McGee was named "Food Writer of the Year" in 2005 by Bon Appetit magazine, and he has been writing about food and science since 1978. His book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," first published in 1984, was named the best food reference book by two different associations, and has been hailed as a bible for professional chefs and home cooks alike.
McGee graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in literature and earned his doctorate from Yale University, with a dissertation entitled "Keats and the Progress of Taste," (the metaphysical type). Several years after graduating from Yale, he decided to enter the world of science and cooking, and started work on the first edition of "On Food and Cooking."
During his lecture, McGee gave his audience what he called a "three- course meal" of information, speaking about the history of the relationship between science and cooking, McGee's own scientific discoveries, and how renowned chefs are now using science in their own creations.
"Science and cooking really do go way back," McGee said. "This kind of thing isn't new, yet when I started writing about it, it felt new, and people weren't used to it."
When McGee started doing some of his own experiments, he initially thought he would be debunking kitchen myths and getting down to purely facts. Instead, he said, he found that he was actually confirming what cooks had thought all along.
One popular theory from the 18th century and espoused by Julia Child held that whipping egg whites in a copper bowl, as opposed to a regular bowl, would make a better soufflé, because the copper would solidify the egg whites. McGee, not believing that there was any science involved in the theory, decided to test it himself, and made one soufflé in a glass bowl, and one in a copper bowl.
The results surprised him. According to McGee, the mixture made in the copper bowl looked as it should. However, while the top of the mixture made in the glass bowl was fluffy, the egg whites had floated to the bottom. After examining the whipped egg whites with a spectrometer, McGee found that they do in fact absorb copper from the surface of the bowl, and that this copper stabilizes the egg foams.
"Julia Child and French chefs were right," he joked.
McGee went on to present the audience with slides of delectable creations from renowned chefs who are using science in their kitchens as well.
McGee cited the Spanish chef Joan Roca's creation, "Oyster and Earth," as an example. According to McGee, the dish consists of an oyster combined with gelatin that has been infused with the flavor of dirt, using a distillation apparatus and handfuls of dirt. McGee accompanied this description and others with dazzling pictures of the delicate creations of each chef, all of whom seek to find "new ways of giving people pleasure through food and drink."
At the conclusion of his talk, McGee emphasized that science can be used not just in the professional kitchens of chefs, but also to make traditional cooking better in the kitchen of anyone.
"Making a better boiled egg, roasted chicken, and cup of tea? the simplest thing can be improved by what's going on [with the science]," he said.