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Winning molecular student at Harvard comes from Newton

Posted by Sheryl Julian  December 13, 2010 05:33 PM

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harvardscience.pngBoston Globe correspondent Ike DeLorenzo, who is writing about the much talked-about Harvard physics course, "Science and Cooking: Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter," attended the final "science fair" reception.

He sent in this report:

It was a high-tech bake-off of sorts, judged by New York's David Chang (Momofuku), Barcelona's Carles Tejedor, Cambridge's Gabe Bremer (Salts), and other local stars.

Harvard sophomore Bethania Bacigalupe, a Newton native, shared first prize for transforming chicken stock into a hot and very stable gel. (Read: She made hot Jell-O.) At a reception after the event, it was the most talked-about project. "The hot gel consomme, and her reasoning behind it, just amazed me," said Chang. He noted that a majority of the projects, including this one, used transglutaminase, sometimes known as "meat glue." Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD-50, a proponent of the ingredient, came earlier in the semester to teach about it.

Bacigalupe, who is back at Harvard after a two year absence due to a concussion, realized that the appeal of the her winning consomme-gel is in, as she put it, "not just the taste, but in the visceral reaction people have when they feel it. I made them hold it in their hands."

She created the the final version though a lot of experimentation, until it oscillated at an a frequency appealing to the touch (there's lots of scientific equipment around to measure this in the Harvard lab). "Vibrotactile differentiation. It sounds more complicated that it is. This is how a child can tell in a few seconds if Jell-O is done correctly." This kind of physics is a big part of what chefs mean when they talk about the "mouth feel" of a dish. And gels have a lot of physics going on.

A number of molecular chefs, Dufresne included, have tried and failed to make an appealing hot gel of soup stock using transglutaminase that will still melt in your mouth (who wants to chew soup?). Bacigalupe discovered that the secret is to use a blend of gelatin and transglutaminase, and to carefully regulate the cooking (reaction) temperature and the hydration of the transglutaminase. 

The actual amount of gelatin in the liquid turned out -- to the surprise of many -- not to matter much. Home chefs might be less surprised by this part. Jell-O is still pretty much the same consistency when you add a can of pineapple.

A three-person team made up of undergrads Katie Chang, Cody Evans, and Sophie Wharton,  created the co-winning dish, al-dente pasta made of entirely of Parmesean cheese (also bound with transglutaminase). They will join Bacigalupe on a trip to Ferran Adria's food lab in Barcelona, Spain.

Correction: Because of mistaken information given to Ike DeLorenzo, the three names of the co-winners are incorrect. Co-winners Erica Seidel, Michelle Burschtin, and Jennifer Kusma created gluten-free noodles. The trio will join Bacigalupe in Barcelona.

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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