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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 15, 2010

Kitchen Chemistry Gear

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Posted by Derek

I (and other chemists) have been talking for years about the connections between organic chemistry and cooking. The usual saying is that you should never trust the lab work of an organic chemist who's hopeless in the kitchen. I agree with that one - I've known good chemists who don't cook (among them, a colleague in grad school who used his oven as a filing cabinet), but I don't think I've ever known one who can't.

Well, the techno-culinary fashion in recent years is blurring the line even more, from the other direction. Check out this web site from the Kohler people, makers of sinks, faucets, and the like. Vacuum apparatus is available for you to experiment with sous vide techniques at home - and if you scroll down, the crossover is complete. Yep, there's a rota-vap, right out of the lab and ready for the kitchen counter. I've always wondered if those would be good for reducing a sauce, and now, well, we're going to find out. . .

Comments (47) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. In Vivo Veritas on November 15, 2010 9:42 AM writes...

Rota-vaps are gaining popularity with home distillers as well. No need to boil off half the flavors of your botanicals in an alembic still, and the reduced risk of explosion is a big plus!

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2. Lacerta Bio on November 15, 2010 9:48 AM writes...

True story: I had a lab mate who would cook his Ramen pride noodles in a 500 cc beaker over a hot plate. He even washed "his" beaker with Alkanox along with the other glass ware. The irony was that he kept a bowl and silverware in his desk for his noodles. At that point, why bother? A large Petri dish would have sufficed...

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3. Canageek on November 15, 2010 10:09 AM writes...

And my classmates laugh at me for my belief that cooking would be better with stirbars instead of manual stirring.

I know a prof who recently seized an old mortar and pestle as it was the perfect size for grinding herbs. Personally I would only use something bought fresh that had never been in the lab for cooking...

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4. Pallas Renatus on November 15, 2010 10:11 AM writes...

I'm with #1 above. You lose so many volatile goodies to heat in distillations. I'd love to have a home rota-vap to play with!

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5. J-bone on November 15, 2010 10:11 AM writes...

#2, that is FOUL. I have a feeling I know the answer, but did he at least use a separate scrub brush for reaction flasks and "his" flask? I'm guessing he also used lab grade water for his noodles?

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6. Stiv on November 15, 2010 10:15 AM writes...

Many years ago I knew a senior chemist who brought in maple sap and proceeded to prepare "maple syrup" in a rotovap.

It actually wsn't very good - I think that carmelization and all of those Maillard reaction goodies are needed in that particular product. More delicate sauces though, who knows? It might be an interesting way to preserve more fleeting aromas and flavors.

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7. schinderhannes on November 15, 2010 10:17 AM writes...

Hi Dave,

check out (a blog from the FCI New York)

You will love it, this and yours are my two favorite blogs (the only ones I ever post a comment in.)
Dave Arnold is mad, but a genious, he has long post on using a rotavap, LN in the kitchne and the more, very educative and entertaining!

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8. frowning on November 15, 2010 10:22 AM writes...

I agree that these things have some utility in the kitchen, but be realistic guys, if your average kitchen supply store starts selling rotovaps, 99% of them are going to meth labs.

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9. Donough on November 15, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

He uses vacuum for example to create his ice-cream.

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10. schinderhannes on November 15, 2010 10:29 AM writes...

BTW it is very interesting how differnet cooks and chemists view a rotavap:

For us it is all about the leftovers, as also seen from most comments above - thickening sauces, maple sirup etc.

They use them to ´still flavors over with booze.

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11. barry on November 15, 2010 10:34 AM writes...

re: #1:
I have long wondered--rather than resorting to a roto-vap, have people tried fractional freezing (Applejack technology)--to preserve their delicate botanicals?

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12. Flavor on November 15, 2010 10:50 AM writes...

Welcome to my world.

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13. RB Woodweird on November 15, 2010 11:13 AM writes...

If you like to prepare risotto the proper way, you would do well with an overhead mechanical stirrer.

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14. Resveratrol Receptor on November 15, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

Question for everyone:

What piece of lab equipment you currently use would be most desirable in the kitchen, along with the pros and cons?

For me it's the ultra-high power microwave.

Pros: Cooks in miliseconds-seconds.

Cons: Occasional violent destruction/ejection of sample (or, presumably, cornish hen), electricity consumption, expensive component replacement every 120 hours of use.

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15. mikeymedchem on November 15, 2010 11:20 AM writes...

I particularly like the idea of:

"distill(ing) the essence of a scoop of earth, literally adding terroir to a sauce."

Mmmmm....essence of dirt.

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16. imatter on November 15, 2010 11:23 AM writes...

Going the other way around, from kitchen to lab:
I have used digital meat thermometers to gauge temperature of heated mineral oil.
It's nothing original as Fisherscientific sells them.

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17. DLIB on November 15, 2010 11:27 AM writes...

Here in the land of foodies I would bet it's being used/tested in restaurants like COI and the like. They put an oil from some fruit on my wrist and told me to take a sniff before every bite of my appetizer.

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18. Thomas McEntee on November 15, 2010 11:48 AM writes...

The culinary roto-vap is only $9230, clearly a product for the conspicuous over-consumer, someone who drives a Range Rover or BMW M5, or as was suggested above, a meth lab manager.

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19. crazytrainmatt on November 15, 2010 12:02 PM writes...

Not quite from the chem lab, but I've seen an Italian polenta machine: basically a big, slow motor that clamps onto the pan, and rotates a large stirring loop once every 15 seconds. I'm conspiring to acquire something similar in 110V...

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20. dylan on November 15, 2010 12:14 PM writes...

protip: Next time you have a recipe that calls for something to simmer, place a bag of ice on top of the lid of the saucepan. This will turn it into a cold finger of sorts, condensing the vapors much more efficiently than air cooling alone.

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21. Vader on November 15, 2010 12:56 PM writes...

My impression is that there is a fine line between reducing a sauce and oxidizing a sauce. Does not sound like good chemistry.

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22. gyges on November 15, 2010 1:51 PM writes...

Has anyone used calcium alginate for cooking?

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23. Mildweasel on November 15, 2010 2:51 PM writes...

Ive had fits recently trying to get a Pomegranet sauce to reduce properly. If I coudl afford it and ahd the space Id have more use for a rotovap then the stupid cusinart FP I have.

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24. Mildweasel on November 15, 2010 2:54 PM writes...

Spell checking and proof reading are good things... sorry for the previous comment

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25. gippgig on November 15, 2010 3:09 PM writes...

Some of the same hazards also apply to chemistry & cooking, such as the effects of scale (175 Times. And Then the Catastrophe, Sept. 18, 2009). The first time I made a large quantity of green tea (Dietary Supplements, Charted, March 17, 2010) it apparently spoiled because it took too long for the large bottle of hot tea to cool in the refrigerator. (I oversolved the problem by cooling the pot of (concentrated) tea in a cold water bath then pouring it into a jug I had previously frozen several cups of water in.) Hmm, sounds more like chemical engineering than chemistry...

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26. CMCguy on November 15, 2010 3:31 PM writes...

The impact on use of rot vap in food preparation is not clear to me. Would the taste be dramatically altered since Esters and other small volatile compounds that would contribute the smell and flavor being likely taken out and either end up in the distillate or blow through the pump? Is the idea actually to take the distillate to use as more concentrated flavor? While does allow reduction in heat requirement how many seasoning and spices require heat to break down or release the desired taste?

Going the other way I do know most analytical and formulation development labs I have been around tended to purchase basic blenders and mixers at local stores rather that get those same items through catalogs which jacked up the cost because was labeled "scientific". Along those same lines I used to regularly pick up certain tubing and other items at a nearby hardware store as quicker and cheaper source than scientific suppliers although the same store had graduated cylinders, beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks that were much more expensive.

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27. Sili on November 15, 2010 4:04 PM writes...

The usual saying is that you should never trust the lab work of an organic chemist who's hopeless in the kitchen.
So am I likely to become better at synthesis now that I've taken to cooking irregularly?

I've always preferred baking - no need of creativity. Stick to the recipe, or the thing is bound to fail.

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28. Barry Steele on November 15, 2010 4:05 PM writes...

Re: " I've known good chemists who don't cook (among them, a colleague in grad school who used his oven as a filing cabinet), but I don't think I've ever known one who can't"

I've known one. We used to share a house with 2 other students. When he was left on his own he had a hard time even boiling an egg. Maybe, however, he's the exception that proves the rule: he got his PhD in theoretical chemistry.

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29. Jordin Kare on November 15, 2010 5:11 PM writes...

My boss, Nathan Myhrvold, is a proponent of "high-tech gastronomy" (and an umpty-millionaire, which comes in handy). He's just published a GIGANTIC textbook/cookbook on the subject -- it was originally supposed to be ~150 pages and ended up as 6 oversized volumes totaling 2400 pages. It covers the physics and chemistry of all sorts of food preparation, and includes some rather mind-boggling photos (cross-sections of food, cooking in cross-sections of pots on cross-sections of flames -- real photos, not illustrations -- micrographs, high-speed photography, etc). Rotavaps are just the beginning -- he uses everything from constant-temperature baths to ultrahigh-pressure homogenizers, and built an entire sub-section of a lab to do research for the book (see above RE umpty-millionaire). See if you want an, er, taste.

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30. Savarin on November 15, 2010 5:19 PM writes...

Just a small thought the other way round. Did it ever cross anyone's mind that a peppermill might be perfect for adding that hint of catalytic DMAP to your reaction?

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31. Ken Bob on November 15, 2010 8:41 PM writes...

Here's a couple more that I haven't seen on this post:

Roasting a hog in the autoclave - can even add the barbeque sauce. Cooks very fast compared to the old pit in the ground, and comes out very juicy. Also works for your routine pot roast with potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage and all. Roasts are never dried out leather-like things.

Using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. Start with your favorite homemade ice cream recipe. Add an equal volume of liquid nitrogen (in a metal bowl, stir with a wooden spoon). Does two things: bubbles the nitrogen through it for that whipped quality, and is very smooth because the ice crystals are very small from the rapid freeze. I'm a farm boy by upbringing, so our source of liquid N2 was the semen tank preserving those little vials of semen for AI for the cows.

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32. choco on November 15, 2010 8:45 PM writes...

Freeze dryers are also all the rage at the moment ... freeze dried chocolate, coconut milk, etc.

@25. gippgig, you can also make cold green tea from steeping tea in cold water for a few hours (I've gone as long as leaving it overnight). Learnt it from reading the instructions on one of my Japanese green tea packets.

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33. choco on November 15, 2010 8:48 PM writes...

btw, this guy does a great write-up too... AND he's an inorganic chemist. :)

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34. choco on November 15, 2010 8:50 PM writes...

Sorry, my bad... lousy memory.
An organometallic chemist.

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35. Anonymous BMS Researcher on November 15, 2010 9:14 PM writes...

Lacerta Bio and J-bone: I knew several people in grad school who used lab Bunsen burners to cook Ramen noodles. I winced then and wince now, but it was actually fairly common.

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36. NHR_GUY on November 15, 2010 9:30 PM writes...

I use a coffee grinder to make powdered KOH in the lab. It comes off as a very fine powder but it is extremely hygroscopic so you have to use it right away.

I love to use a crock pot for cooking but you don't get any stirring. While the rate of diffusion on the molecular scale is ~ 10e9 (which really makes stirring heterogeneous mixtures moot IMO)the rate of diffusion of meat and potatoes is 0. You really need some type of stirring here

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37. NHR_GUY on November 15, 2010 11:14 PM writes...

my bad....I meant "makes stirring homogeneous mixtures moot IMO"

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38. Lab rat on November 16, 2010 12:50 AM writes...

gc ovens are perfect for baking with

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39. insidecircles on November 16, 2010 3:26 AM writes...

My phd supervisor uses a sep funnel at home to make mayonnaise.

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40. Morten G on November 16, 2010 3:27 AM writes...

@31 Ken Bob: What is the difference between cooking in an autoclave and a pressure cooker?

Heston Blumenthal did a show where he showed off some fancy stuff. One of the cooler things was when he MRI'ed his chicken breast fillets to see how far the marinade went into the meat.

For roasts I usually take a torch for plastic pipe welding and cauterize the meat and cook it at about 100 degrees Celsius, with a cooking thermometer in of course. I guess you could do it at lower temp but I am impatient and I worry about inaccuracy in the temp setting.

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41. processchemist on November 16, 2010 5:39 AM writes...

About overhead stirring in cooking, the so called "cooking robots" are quite popular in my country.And they found their way in some labs. A friend of mine was using a small machine of this kind to perfom granulation tests, I too used one to mill small quantities of material.
Usually, when people approches to these machine with a traditional recipe, the results are not so good: low and non uniform shear stress and energy dissipation (hand stirring) seem to be necessary in some cases.

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42. HelicalZz on November 16, 2010 9:54 AM writes...

Curiously, I find the kitchen as a refuge from the lab. I am loath to actually measure anything when cooking, and very much inclined to 'think with my tongue' and use a recipe to make something entirely different from what it describes, adding and subtracting items at whim.

My wife once laughed at someone who asked me for a recipe for something I'd prepared, saying 'He has no idea how he made it'. I took it as a compliment. Then again, with young kids, the days are now filled with a lot of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese.


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43. Ken Bob on November 16, 2010 2:43 PM writes...

@40 Morten G.

No difference between pressure cooker and autoclave, except volume. I've never seen a pressure cooker big enough for a whole hog.

Most cooks don't do roasts in pressure cookers, either, so it is a bit different from that perspective, too.

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44. William B Swift on November 16, 2010 4:46 PM writes...

There was a related story on Gizmodo, How to Steal a Four-Star Chef's Secret Cooking Technology - By Building It Yourself, that I found via HackerNews. It pointed out that actual lab-grade equipment isn't needed for cooking, and grossly expensive, and some things you could make yourself for your kitchen.

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45. goldilocks on November 18, 2010 2:41 PM writes...

Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) has a rotovap... I can't remember what he uses it for, but it wasn't surprising when it came up in discussion.

Not quite lab equipment, but this caught my eye: "Tight-fitting lid has a recess for ice cubes; warm vapor from simmering food meets the cool lid, promoting condensation, and nibs on the lid's underside direct the water droplets to the center of the pot, continually basting the food below."

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46. gippgig on December 2, 2010 3:06 AM writes...

The Dec. 1 Washington Post newspaper has an article "A how-to guide for gastro-geeks") about Jeff Potter's book "Cooking for Geeks" that mentions "lab-style cooking equipment" & making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

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47. krummelk on December 4, 2010 11:07 AM writes...

I am still amazed that with the plethora of flat cooktops out there that no company has yet incorporated a magnetic stirrer. It's been in the labs since Sydney Brenner was at the bench, but still no reprieve for chefs trying to make a Hollandaise sauce. Simply solvable by a rotating magnet and its mate-pair in the pot... sigh...

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