Fans of Food Network's Good Eats know host Alton Brown's penchant for DIY cooking that is equal parts Mr. Wizard and MacGyver—with some of James Bond's Q thrown in. The bespectacled Brown will unabashedly employ a mortar trowel to serve pie, use a lab beaker to measure oil, and turn a flowerpot into a barbecue smoker to roast chicken.
Like Brown, students in Noah Cowan's Robot Sensors and Actuators class this fall channeled their own culinary mad scientist and got deliciously inventive.
For the engineering course's capstone project, students had to design, build, and test a cooking-related device. The catch: Whatever they dreamed up had to use sensors, actuators, and a quantitative display.
For inspiration, the class visited the Waterfront Kitchen in Fell's Point and met with the restaurant's consulting chef, Jerry Pellegrino, the former owner of Corks in Federal Hill. Pellegrino served up a talk focused on molecular gastronomy, a fancy foodie term for the study of the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking.
Pellegrino knows his states of matter. Before he turned chef, he studied biophysics at Johns Hopkins and was a thesis away from earning his PhD when a culinary career beckoned. Pellegrino calls the career move a slight sidestep, emphasizing the kitchen as food laboratory.
"Cooking is all science," he says. "It's reactions, controlling temperatures, and precise measurements."
Cowan had the students break into groups, and many set their sights on sous vide (French for under vacuum), a method of cooking vacuum-sealed food in a temperature-controlled water bath. In a sous vide device, a heating element and circulator pump evenly heat the liquid, and sensors inside the bath measure the cooking process so that a tiny built-in computer system can maintain the desired temperature for hours.
While the thought of dropping a sirloin into a bag and submerging it in water may not sound terribly appetizing, the result can be the perfect medium rare—and bacteria-free—steak, says Cowan, an associate professor in the Whiting School's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "Just toss the steak on a grill right afterward to sear and you're done," Cowan says.
Other students in the course tricked out toaster ovens with interior heat sensors to better control cooking conditions. Some got creative with contraptions to drop the food in the water baths.
"I thought focusing on cooking applications could be a fun way for students to demonstrate proficiency with course material," Cowan says. "I wanted the end result to be something concrete, and I love cooking. I also love eating."
The students got to show off their devices and sample food at an end-of-semester cook-off. On the menu were sweet potato fries, baked apples, boiled-in-a-bag hamburgers, s'mores, and the "perfect" toast.
Learning never tasted so good.