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Science and Fries


I’ve been reading Hervé This’ book, Molecular Gastronomy. If you’re not familiar with the term “molecular gastronomy,” it refers to the application of science to cooking and is typified by the creations of Ferran Adrià at elBulli and Grant Achatz at Alinea. These chefs apply cutting edge, often high-tech techniques (many of which they invent themselves) to food.

So you might find yourself consuming wine encapsulated in tiny gel bubbles or smoke trapped in a cube of fish. If you’ve watched Top Chef you might have noticed the use of foams and sous vide cooking cooking by some chefs, both of which arose from this technological approach to cooking.

Click to view larger versionMany of these recipes use techniques or ingredients that the food processing industry has been using for years. Sous vide, for instance, may look just like the plastic sealant surrounding some Oscar Meyer bacon. And This, a French food scientist, is one of the people responsible for the techniques’ move from factory to restaurant. His book has been on my list for some time so I was pleased to get it for Christmas.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a chapter on French fries. I say this because the humble French fry is an outstanding example of the point where science and craft meet. I make French fries about once a year. A well-made frite is almost impossible to beat, but made properly it’s more complicated than simply dumping some potatoes in oil. There’s some fairly sophisticated physics involved in achieving a perfect fry.

You need to begin with high-starch potatoes — russets are the most common choice. The starch granules explode during the initial cooking phase producing a light, fluffy interior. That’s something a low-starch waxy potato can’t accomplish. The fries need to be the correct dimensions (about 1/2 inch square) in order to cook at the right rate and they need to be washed in cold water to remove excess starch from the surface. Then they’re cooked in oil at 325F for about 7 minutes. This step cooks them through and the oil seals the outside of the fry reducing the amount of oil absorbed, but produces a pale limp result. So the fries are drained and cooled, the oil is heated to 375F, and the fries are cooked again until brown and crisp.

Cooking fries just once at one temperature produces limp, raw-tasting fries. A great fry requires getting the science right and it’s the point where Hervè This meets, of all people, Michael Pollan.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan rails against the industrialization of our food supply. And with good cause: We’ve created an unsustainable system of food production. Reportedly, in his latest book In Defense of Food, he carries the rant on to nutritionists and food scientists and our short-term focus on the latest findings about anti-oxidants, saturated fats, and diets. Which would lead you to think he’s opposed to some of the techniques and approaches to cooking embraced by This.

But food isn’t simple, nor is the cultural environment that we buy, cook, and eat food in.

Now, I suspect Pollan would have no qualms about my yearly French fry splurge, particularly if I used locally grown potatoes. But the attitude that could become implicit by those who aren’t careful – that science has no place in food preparation – is one to guard against.

The science of food really matters. A lot. For instance, I know that most bacteriological contaminants (microbes) are killed at temperatures between 135F and 155F so I know that if meat is heated to at least that temperature it’s safe to eat. I also know that beef and pork almost never harbor bacteria in the meat itself, just on the surface. This tells me that if I sear the exterior of a rib roast to 375F I’ve killed everything on the surface and it’s then safe to cook it at a temperature as low as 135F to produce a perfect, medium-rare roast.

I’ll give you a run-down on Pollan’s In Defense of Food as soon as I get my copy, but in the meantime, although people like Pollan and This appear to represent opposing camps in a battle for our bellies – one all science, the other “all food” – a perfect French fry requires both camps.

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