SXSW Preview: Food Hacking 101

Reprinted (Reblogged?) from by permission of Bonnie Hart, Texas State.

Do you want to retrofit your oven to bake pizza’s at 900 degrees? Would you trick out your Brita filter for better vodka? Do the words methylcellulose, maltodextrin, or meat glue make you giddy? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have a new hobby called food hacking. Jeff Potter is a food hack. He’s the creator of Cooking for Geeks, a blog dedicated to the idea of epicurean experiments.

What is food hacking? As Potter explains, it’s “using unusual tools or techniques or ingredients to make something yummy.” He can’t remember a time when he didn’t cook. “I’ve cooked all my life, and my approach to cooking is really based on intuition and experience that I was fortunate to learn from my parents, who loved to cook,” says Potter.

Potter feels he’s never really had a bad experiment. “There are certainly things I’ve made that tasted bad, but from an experimental perspective were great successes, because I learned something,” says Potter. “You know the saying ‘in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is?’” Potter asks. “I think I get the most satisfaction out of experiments where theory and reality line up–where I expected to see something happen from a theoretical perspective, and went to test it, and sure enough, spot on,” says Potter.

One of the theory-meets-reality experiments in Potter’s forthcoming food hacking book, is about collagen in stewing beef. As Potter describes, “collagen is one of the longest molecules in the body, and it takes a long time to unwind, break down, and hydrolyze. You can see this by cooking stew beef and checking it after it’s been simmering for 15 minutes and then comparing that to stew beef that’s been simmering for 6 hours–they’re both at the same temperature, but the 15 minute stew beef will be tough and dry (due to denatured actin proteins) whereas the 6-hour version will be tender and flakey as the collagen converts to gelatin and masks the dryness of the denatured actin.” Potter continues with a tip, “oh, and by the way, you want lots of collagen in beef stew–trying to make beef stew with more expensive cuts of meats that are lower in collagen actually makes for worse stew.”

Potter explains that rethinking heating methods allows for new ways to cook some of our favorite foods. Salmon poached in a dishwasher or cookies baked in a waffle iron sounds unusual, but actually is just unconventional according Potter. “Once you understand the mechanisms for these sorts of things, suddenly you’re free to wander away from a recipe and be confident that what you’re doing will work,” says Potter.

“It’s a great place to share what I’ve been working on, and a great place to learn what other people are working on!” says Potter when asked about his upcoming panel at the South by Southwest interactive conference in March. His first book “Cooking For Geeks,” due out in 2010 (hopefully in time for SXSWi) by O’Reilly Media. Potter says, “the book really isn’t a list of food hacks in as much as it is the frameworks that would allow someone to go play and try new things.” So, get your blow torches, dry ice, and goggles, and get ready to try something new in your culinary laboratory!