The science of pizza, beer and fries

It’s all very well scientists spending their time on cures for cancer, faster computers and a general Theory of Everything, but every once in a while, I firmly believe, they need to get their heads out of the clouds and concentrate on things that are really important to the average Joe: things like pizza, beer and French fries.

And so, I am pleased to be able to report, they have.

At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, researchers have recently engaged in a valiant and long-overdue project to make low-fat and fat-free mozzarella cheese melt and cook more like regular mozzarella.

The research was long and arduous. First, the researchers tossed some cheese onto a pizza plate and baked it. The regular cheese melted, the low-fat cheese scorched and the fat-free cheese had to be scraped off. Next, they made pizzas with the various types of cheese. The result, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, was a model of the dynamics of cheese melting and browning.

When regular cheese melts, the researchers found, it all changes to a liquid state, thus forming a puddle of cheese on top of the sauce. When you shred low-fat mozzarella, however, a skin forms around each tiny piece. As a result, instead of melting and running together, the pieces retain some of their individual shape, resulting in an unpleasant grainy texture.

The solution? The researchers sprayed the shreds with Pam cooking spray. The oil coating made the low-fat cheese act like its high fat cousin, melting, browning and bubbling without burning or getting chunky.

Science has good news on the French fry front, too. Scientists at the National Technical University of Athens recently spent a year studying what happens when French fries are cooked. Like the pizza-makers in Ithaca, their goal was to reduce the fat content.

Months of study yielded six lengthy equations (three deal with moisture loss and three with fat absorption) that describe the physical and chemical processes that occur when you plunk raw potatoes into a commercial deep fat fryer.

They learned that fatter French fries take longer to cook, and that if you make the oil hotter to speed up the cooking, the potatoes soak up more fat.

The scientists recommend cooking French fries in the microwave for a minute before placing them in the deep-fat fryer. In the fryer itself, they recommend using refined oil, and keeping the temperature in the medium range. As for thickness–that’s up to you.

Mention pizza or French fries to certain individuals (you know who you are) and their minds immediately leap to beer. (Of course, some individuals’ minds leap to beer when you mention anything at all.)

Beer looks flat and stale if it doesn’t have a decent head on it. But foam is fragile. Eat something greasy–like pizza or French fries–and that grease can destroy the head on your beer the minute you take a drink. Even lipstick can destroy it.

The Germans (who else?) decided to see what they could do about this problem. They’ve come up with a way to make a more dependable head, through genetic engineering.

The gene in barley that is responsible for the foaming in beer is called LTP1. It makes a protein that dissolves in fat, and hates water. When sprouted barley is ground up to make beer, LTP1 is forced into the water. It can’t wait to escape, and it gets its chance when the beer is poured or opened, and the carbon dioxide in the beer forms bubbles. The protein wraps itself around those bubbles, forming thin films that accumulate at the top of the glass. The more LTP1 protein in the beer, the more stable the head–but grease dissolves it, which is why lipstick, or even a dirty glass, can destroy it. In a dry summer, barley makes more LTP1 than in a wet summer, making the head on beer highly variable.

To get around this problem, Ulf Stahl of the Technical University of Berlin decided to circumvent the barley by putting the LTP1 gene directly into brewer’s yeast. The yeast makes so much LTP1 that the beer makes the same amount of foam no matter how much of the head-producing protein was in the barley. Stahl plans to brew the first batch of beer using the genetically modified yeast this autumn.

Better pizza, better french fries, better beer. At last, science is accomplishing something really worthwhile.

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