Why Physics of Cooking?

One of the great pleasures in life is eating and,to some, creating amazing looking and tasting dishes. Few realise though that cooking is a fairly complex process where science, such as chemistry, biology and physics play a major role in understanding why and how changes in the raw ingredients happen. When one understands the basic underlying principles, recreating dishes becomes quite revealing in terms of one’s ability to understand why that pinch of sugar is included in the recipe or why there is a particular order in mixing of ingredients for a batter.

Most home cooks handle temperature guides in recipes as rough guides – little do they realise that in practice sometimes even one degree Celsius has a profound effect. For example, chicken breast can fundamentally change its texture if it is cooked at 59C instead of 58C. The same applies to cooking an egg: accurate temperature control, which is normally done by timing the cooking of the egg at home, can result in beautifully soft and silky yolk, as opposed to the grainy and smelly yolk of an overcooked egg.

The scientific study of cooking dates a lot longer back than some would like to admit: food chemistry has long and rich history as evidenced by the variety of processed food available from the supermarket shelves. Nevertheless, “scientific” cooking recently became fashionable with some chefs claiming to be partly scientists and some actually employing full time food chemists in their kitchen. This has resulted in the recent development of “deconstructed” dishes appearing in restaurants resulting in the award of numerous accolades mostly in the form of Michelin stars.

Our objective with the Physics of Cooking project is slightly different: we wish to understand why the accurate control of the cooking environment leads to better quality dishes and simultaneously how this control can be achieved in a consistent and reliable manner. There are several aspects that need to be investigated in order to gain full control over cooking. See the projects pages for more.

Our plans for the future contain thorough scientific evaluation of cooking methods, such as oven, steam oven, pan-frying and confit cooking. We also plan to look at the physics of ice formation and the effect of various novel methods of mitigating the destructive effect of these. We would like to extend our studies to the temperature dependent effects of sauce and custard making.

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