An Oxford professor explores the wonders of high-tech cuisine

``IT'S ridiculous,'' says Prof. Nicholas Kurti. ``We measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, yet normally we do not bother to find out how hot it is inside an ordinary souffl'e.'' A man with a generous share of honors in the science of cryogenics, Hungarian-born Nicholas Kurti, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, has made some interesting scientific breakthroughs in the field of cookery.

Among the Sabatier knives and wooden mixing spoons in his kitchen cabinets, there is sure to be a calculator and perhaps even a gastronomic gadget called a thermocouple that can guarantee an absolutely perfect souffl'e.

The modus operandi is simplicity itself -- at least to an Oxford professor of physics. Two wires trail from the oven to a milli-voltmeter on the kitchen counter. They are connected to a thin steel needle with a thermocouple at its tip.

As the temperature inside the souffl'e rises, so does the pointer on the meter.

It then comes to a halt and remains practically stationary. When it moves again, the souffl'e is ready and cooked to perfection.

Professor Kurti's enthusiasm for cooking has led him to explores dozens of other scientific-culinary possibilities.

``The vacuum pump,'' he says, ``has the possibility of making meringues faster and lighter than ever before -- and imagine what wonders the hypodermic syringe could do for marinating. It can cut the time from overnight or days to minutes.

``The traditional way of marinating is wasteful for the amount of liquid needed is usually not much less than the volume of the meat. It is inefficient since the rate of penetration is slow.

``In my experiments on lamb I found it takes about 2 days for the marinade to penetrate 10mm or 3/8 of an inch. The process can be speeded up by making incisions in the joint, but the hypodermic syringe is a lot more effective,'' he says.

For nearly 30 years Professor Kurti has been extolling the advantages of the hypodermic syringe in many ways. He likes to inject pineapple juice into pork, half an hour before cooking, since pineapple juice is a natural meat tenderizer. It must be fresh pineapple juice, he stresses.

One of his original dishes is Inverted Baked Alaska, a logical dish for him to explore since his most impressive scientific contributions have been in very low-temperature physics. He makes the dish in a microwave oven, which, he says, is unable to heat certain substances.

``Put a glass of water on a china plate in a microwave oven,'' he explains. ``In a few seconds the water is boiling but the plate stays cool. This is because the microwaves make the water molecules move about very fast while the molecules in the plate are unaffected.

``Ice, as far as a microwave oven is concerned, is more like the plate than the water. Ice stays frozen in a microwave oven, and this is the secret of the Inverted Baked Alaska. The outside will stay cold. The center with its sponge cake and jam will be piping hot.''

Baked Alaska, in case you've forgotten, is usually made of sponge cake first covered with very firm ice cream, then with meringue, and topped with raspberry or strawberry sauce. The professor inverts his recipe with jam and cake in the middle and ice cream on the outside.

Professor Kurti, an energetic man of medium build, with a fringe of white hair, came to Oxford in 1933, by way of Paris and Berlin, West Germany.

``Some people may be surprised at the idea that the techniques of a physics laboratory should be brought into the kitchen,'' he says.

``We are filling our kitchens with more and more elaborate gadgets -- mechanical to reduce labor, electronic to make operations automatic -- yet when novel techniques are suggested people seem to be reluctant to try them.

``Perhaps one day some enterprising kitchen manufacturer will introduce an all-purpose vacuum set and pave the way for enjoyable innovations in cookery.''

Professor Kurti feels an affinity with the early 19th-century politician and gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who stated that a single new dish contributes more to the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star. To Nicholas Kurti, anything that affects everyday life is worthy of some helpful and constructive comment.

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