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Ladner + Brenner Have Fun with the Science of Cooking

Del Posto’s Mark Ladner at Brown University
JWU alum Mark Ladner '90 dropping science (and Peeps) at Brown University. | Photo: Peggy Lo

M&M throwing. Egg whisking. Peep flinging. Harvard’s Michael Brenner + Del Posto’s executive chef (and JWU alum) Mark Ladner '90 explored the fun side of the science of cooking in their recent Brown University lecture.

At Tuesday night’s “Mathematics of Cooking” lecture, held at Brown’s Salomon Center, Harvard professor of applied mathematics Michael Brenner and James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Ladner '90 took an unconventional — and fun — approach to demonstrating the science behind cooking phenomena.

Brenner opened with a quote from French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.”

“All of Cooking, Captured in 10 Equations
Brenner and Ladner explored 4 topics that underlie a wide range of cooking phenomena — packing, phase transitions, elasticity and diffusion.

Their demo tapped into the natural curiosity we all have to better understand how food miracles work: Why can we whip egg whites? How do we emulsify a sauce? How can we “cook” fish with lime juice when we make a ceviche?

To illustrate packing, which relates to the natural density of foods, three volunteers were each asked to whisk a single ingredient: water, egg yolks and egg whites.

While the water stayed the same and the yolks frothed but didn’t grow in volume, the egg whites formed peaks of foam some 6-8 times the liquid’s original volume. “They’re made of bubbles!” explained Brenner, flashing a microscope enlargement of the foam’s structure.

How Eggs Are Like ... Snow?
Eggs were also used to demonstrate the second concept, phase transition, or shifts between solid, liquid and gas states via the application of heat or cold.

“Being New Englanders, we all understand phase transition,” Brenner said, flashing a photo of melting snow to laughter from the audience.

As Brenner cracked an egg into a hot pan to demonstrate the transformation, Ladner groaned “No, no, no,” and winced for comic effect. He then proceeded to whip up a perfect scrambled egg. (The finished egg was passed to a lucky audience member to eat.)

The two engaged in a slapstick tug of war with 4 very different doughs to show elasticity. Vital wheat gluten and high-protein bread flour proved to be ridiculously stretchy, while the gluten-free dough snapped in half immediately.

Action shots from Michael Brenner + Mark Ladner’s ICERM lecture.

Action shots from Michael Brenner + Mark Ladner’s ICERM lecture. | Photo: Peggy Lo

Cooking Without Heat
Ladner grilled a thick steak with a hand-held blowtorch to demonstrate diffusion — specifically heat diffusion, or how hot particles warm up cooler particles in close proximity. When sliced against the grain and held up for the audience, it was evident that the torch seared the outside of the steak and left the interior beautifully rare.

At the same time, Brenner held up a piece of salmon that had been “cooking” in acid (lime juice) for an hour. It, too, looked as though it had been seared, but displayed a rare pink center.

To sum up, he flashed a slide of essential formulae: “There you have it — all of cooking, captured in 10 equations.”

The duo closed with a special St. Patrick’s Day experiment: “We’re throwing some green Peeps into liquid nitrogen!” Ladner flung the frozen Peeps into the audience, to much laughter.

The peep-flinging was followed by a brief question-and-answer session.

“Does it drive you crazy that US cookbooks don’t use the metric system?” “Yes!”

Asked to recommend essential books on food science and cooking, the two were momentarily stumped — simply because of the sheer amount of choice available. One volume they agreed would benefit every kitchen: Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking.”

About the “Science & Cooking” Lectures
Brenner and Ladner honed their comedic chemistry last fall, when Ladner gave a “Science & Cooking” lecture on elasticity at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The Harvard “Science & Cooking” lectures are an offshoot of Brenner’s popular undergraduate class, “Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.”

When Brown’s Institute for Computational & Experimental Research in Mathematics (ICERM) decided to ask Brenner to give a “Science and Cooking” lecture on campus, JWU’s Dean of Culinary Education Peter Lehmuller recommended pairing him with Ladner, who is a JWU alumnus.

“The Mathematics of Cooking” was co-hosted by ICERM and Johnson & Wales University.

Michael Brenner, Mark Ladner + the team of JWU culinary students who volunteered at the event. | Photo: Peggy Lo

Michael Brenner, Mark Ladner + the team of JWU culinary students who volunteered at the event.