🎧 A computer learns about ingredients and recipes

A computer learns about ingredients and recipes by Jeremy Cherfas (Eat This Podcast)


Perhaps you've heard about IBM's giant Watson computer, which dispenses ingredient advice and novel recipes. Jaan Altosaar, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, is working on a recipe recommendation engine that anyone can use.


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Back in February I had retweeted something interesting from physicist and information theorist Michael Nielsen:

I found the article in it so interesting, there was some brief conversation around it and I thought to recommend it to my then new friend Jeremy Cherfas, whose Eat This Podcast I had just recently started to enjoy. Mostly I thought he would find it as interesting as I, though I hardly expected he’d turn it into a podcast episode. Though I’ve been plowing through back episodes in his catalog, fortunately this morning I ran out of downloaded episodes in the car so I started streaming the most recent one to find a lovely surprise: a podcast produced on a tip I made.

While he surely must have been producing the episode for some time before I started supporting the podcast on Patreon last week, I must say that having an episode made from one of my tips is the best backer thank you I’ve ever received from a crowd funded project.

Needless to say, I obviously found the subject fascinating. In part it did remind me of a section of Herve This’ book The Science of the Oven (eventually I’ll get around to posting a review with more thoughts) and some of his prior research which I was apparently reading on Christmas Day this past year. On page 118 of the text This discusses the classic French sauces of Escoffier’s students Louis Saulnier and Theodore Gringoire [1] and that a physical chemical analysis of them shows there to be only twenty-three kinds. He continues on:

A system that I introduced during the European Conference on Colloids and Interfaces in 2002 [2] offers a new classification, based on the physical chemical structure of the sauce. In it, G indicates a gas, E an aqueous solution, H a fat in the liquid state, and S a solid. These “phases” can be dispersed (symbol /), mixed (symbol +), superimposed (symbol θ), included (symbol @). Thus, veal stock is a solution, which is designated E. Bound veal stock, composed of starch granules swelled by the water they have absorbed, dispersed in an aqueous solution, is thus described by the formula (E/S)/E.

This goes on to describe in a bit more detail how the scientist-cook could then create a vector space of all combinations of foods from a physical state perspective. A classification system like this could be expanded and bolted on top of the database created by Jaan Altosaar and improved to provide even more actual realistic recipes of the type discussed in the podcast. The combinatorics of the problem are incredibly large, but my guess is that the constraints on the space of possible solutions is brought down incredibly in actual practice. It’s somewhat like the huge numbers of combinations the A, C, T, and Gs in our DNA that could be imagined, yet only an incredibly much smaller subset of that larger set could be found in a living human being.

Small World

The additional byproduct of catching this episode was that it finally reminded me why I had thought the name Jaan Altosaar was so familiar to me when I read his article. It turns out I know Jaan and some of his previous work. Sometime back in 2014 I had corresponded with him regarding his fantastic science news site Useful Science which was just then starting. While I was digging up the connection I realized that my old friend Sol Golomb had also referenced Jaan to me via Mark Wilde for some papers he suggested I read.

References

[1]
T. Gringoire and L. Saulnier, Le répertoire de la cuisine. Dupont et Malgat, 1914.
[2]
H. This, “La gastronomie moléculaire,” Sci Aliments, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 187–198, 2003 [Online]. Available: http://sda.revuesonline.com/article.jsp?articleId=2577 [Source]
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The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt (amazon.com)
The New York Times bestselling winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for General Cooking and the IACP Cookbook of the Year Award. A grand tour of the science of cooking explored through popular American dishes, illustrated in full color. Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that's perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac 'n' cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!)―and use a foolproof method that works every time? As Serious Eats's culinary nerd-in-residence, J. Kenji López-Alt has pondered all these questions and more. In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food. Kenji shows that often, conventional methods don’t work that well, and home cooks can achieve far better results using new―but simple―techniques. In hundreds of easy-to-make recipes with over 1,000 full-color images, you will find out how to make foolproof Hollandaise sauce in just two minutes, how to transform one simple tomato sauce into a half dozen dishes, how to make the crispiest, creamiest potato casserole ever conceived, and much more.

Advanced Apple Pie Making Techniques

Making an apple pie should not only make your home smell fantastic, but it should come out looking like a stunning work of art that holds together and tastes good. Here's what the pros know that you don't.

It’s Thanksgiving and you promised to bring something. Something interesting, something intended to impress. Well, it’s the high end of apple season and some of the best fruit of the season is still available right? You’ve decided to make an awesome apple pie! (You can’t slink as low as to buy one of those half-stale, mass manufactured pies that taste like it.)

Among your cook books and the dozens of online sites there are a bevvy of apple pie recipes that are all pretty much the same with the exception of whether or not they’ve got nutmeg. (Hint: double down on the nutmeg and microplane it from a real, actual nut–they don’t really go bad and keep forever. Heck, why not keep one in your pocket for the entire holiday season?!) But somehow the pie never comes out quite right. The crust is a sloppy mess and doesn’t come out flaky the way your great grandmother’s most assuredly did. And when you cut into it, the insides come pouring out and make a huge mess. Served on the plate it looks like a heaping pile of slop.

What’s missing you ask yourself?

Most cookbooks either completely leave out the finer points of pastry making from their recipes or hide them in introductory sections that no one ever reads, because–let’s be honest–who even knew these sections existed?  No one besides me really reads a cookbook do they?

So in a quick synopsis, here are a few pro tips to help your pie come out the way you knew it should.

DO NOT overwork your dough!

This is the cardinal rule of pastry making.

The less you can touch your dough, the better off you’ll be. Kneading bread dough for 10 minutes or more is fine because you want to form a doughy and stretchy network of gluten chains that will make your bread nice and chewy once it’s baked. For pie or pastry dough however, you want the exact opposite. After you’ve used a pastry cutter to cut your flour and your fat together into pea sized bits, stir your dough as little as possible when you add your liquid. If you can get it all together with just five short stirs, then for god’s sake do not use six! If it takes ten or more when you first start practicing, that’s alright, but don’t touch it an eleventh. Whatever you do, don’t knead it together for 10 minutes like you’re making bread or that’s what you’ll end up with.

When working with your dough, keep everything cold.

Old wives tales about baking often insist “You will only make a good pastry chef if you have cold hands.” While I feel this is patently false, the root of the thinking to keep things cold while working your pastry is very sound advice. At all costs you want to keep the fat in your dough nice and cold. Allowing it to melt and mix further with your flour is only going to make things less flaky and will also tend to make a huge, sticky mess. Toward that end, keep everything that touches your dough cold–even your hands if you can help it.

One of the worst offenders is your counter top temperature when rolling out your dough. You take some nice cold dough and put it on a room temperature (or higher because you’ve probably got a stove nearby that’s already preheating) counter top and start working it over. The thinner you roll it out, the greater its surface area and thus the larger amount of heat it begins absorbing from the counter. The fix for this is easy! Just fill a 9×13″ (or larger if you’ve got it) cake/cookie pan with an ice and water slurry and set it on the part of the counter top where you’re going to roll out your crust. Do this for a few minutes at a time to cover the area where you’ll be working. The colder things are the better off you’ll be. Those thick and massive granite counter tops you spent thousands on can now be your best friend with their spectacular specific heat capacity.

A slurry of ice and water in a 9x13" cake pan can help cool down your counter top.
A slurry of ice and water in a 9×13″ cake pan can help cool down your counter top.

Apple Pie Architecture

Wonderful pies you see in shops and stores hold together incredibly well, in great part because they’re in cold display cases. When cut cold they tend to hold their shapes incredibly well. But as everyone knows warm deserts taste better and sweeter. (Don’t believe me? Try microwaving a bowl of ice cream and tell me it isn’t the sweetest thing you’ve eaten.)

But how can you keep the delicious, gooey goodness of your apple pie together when it’s been cut open just minutes out of the oven? Most cooks just heap their pie filling into their delicate crusts, but why? Laziness?

Instead, let’s use the structure of the apples and the sugary filling to our advantage. Layer your apple slices into the crust in alternating circular and radial patterns. This criss-cross pattern will allow them to hold not only all the additional sweetness you can thrown into them, but the structure will hold the thing together.

Layering your apple pie filling: circular apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: circular apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: radial apple slices.
Layering your apple pie filling: radial apple slices.

Creating this lattice structure will usually hold so well, that a pie right out of the oven can be cut almost immediately and it won’t ooze an ounce.

Just out of the oven and two minutes post-cut.
Just out of the oven and two minutes post-cut.

Take your new-found knowledge, go forth, and bake!

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Identifying Food Fraud | University of East Anglia

Concerned with where your food is coming from? The University of East Anglia in association with the Institute of Food Research is offering a free course on Identifying Food Fraud.

Two of my favorite topics: Food and Science!

The University of East Anglia in the UK in association with the Institute of Food Research is offering a free four week course Identifying Food Fraud.  It’s an introduction to modern analytical science techniques and how they can be used to uncover food fraud.

Identifying Food Fraud

I know many people who could identify a fake Louis Vuitton (LVMH) purse, a knock off Christian Louboutin, or a sham Rolex, but who simultaneously are overly religious about their food brands and topics like organic food and couldn’t similarly identify the fakes they’re eating because of fraud in food labeling and misdirection and legerdemain within the food supply chain.  Finally there’s a course to help everyone become smarter consumers.

The food industry is one of the most important commercial sectors in the world. Everyone uses it, but how many people abuse it? As we witness the increasing globalisation of the supply chain, a growing challenge is verifying the questionable identity of raw materials in the food we eat.

In this course we will look at topical issues concerning ‘food fraud’ and explore ways in which analytical chemistry can help in its identification and prevention. We’ll share fascinating examples, such as the history of white bread and a surprising ingredient once found in bitter beer.

The University of East Anglia has joined forces with the world-renowned Institute of Food Research (IFR) to bring you this unique course. You’ll be led by Kate Kemsley, a specialist in the use of advanced instrumentation for measuring the chemical composition of food materials. Course content is linked with UEA’s MChem postgraduate programme, which supports final-year students’ practical research projects in this area of science.

Source: Identifying Food Fraud – UEA (University of East Anglia)

For those interested the course starts on October 26, 2015.

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Brief Notes on “Consider the Fork”

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson was one of my favorite Christmas presents this year. It covered my loves of history, gadgets, food, technology, entomology, popular culture and even evolution and anthropology. The major broad themes were very interesting and enlightening while being very well researched.

There were a few short sections on individual technologies which did feel a bit throw in almost as afterthoughts or which were related to the bigger topics, but just didn’t stand up on their own. Fortunately these didn’t detract from the overall work, though I did feel a bit more on these could have been written.

This is one of the most interesting books on food which I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

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