The Pizza Lab

By Jeffrey Kluger|Monday, January 01, 1996
RELATED TAGS: NUTRITION
If you’re like me, when you hear the term sauce migration you just have to laugh. Actually, if you’re like anyone, when you hear the term sauce migration you just have to laugh.

When it comes to terms that make the average person laugh, you can’t beat the food industry. It’s the food industry, after all, that gave us cheese food (an extremely helpful distinction for those of us who also keep cheese pets), pita pocket (when you don’t feel like carrying a pita clutch purse), and Tater Tots (which was overwhelmingly preferred in marketing surveys to the second-place finisher, Tuber Youths). For me, however, it’s still sauce migration that takes the low-fat, preservative- free cake.

But what does sauce migration actually mean? And if that isn’t mystifying enough, what about foam performance, creep compliance, and salted snack food dough extrusion?

While you and I might be stumped by language like this, Michael King isn’t. King, a graduate student at the Cornell University Institute of Food Science in Geneva, New York, led the team that was the 1995 winner of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Product Development Competition--an annual event in which students nationwide invent processed food products that they believe have mass-market potential. For most university students, weaned on Big Eight football and Pac Ten basketball, a food technology competition would not have much appeal--and perhaps understandably so. (Would you rather cheer for the Syracuse Orangemen or the Syracuse Orangewedges? William & Mary or Callard & Bowser?) But for students at the country’s culinary colleges, the contest is nothing short of the Sugar Bowl, and the student whose team wins might as well have won the Heisman.

The Cornell institute, with more than 40,000 square feet of laboratory space, is by any measure one of the most sophisticated food technology facilities in the world.

The purpose of the food science institute, says associate director Mark McLellan, is threefold. First, we want to educate students. Second, we try to develop new food-manufacturing techniques that can be adopted by the industry as a whole. Finally, we want to provide scientific assistance to entrepreneurial food companies that may need technical help getting off the ground.

Of the food institute’s three raisins d’être, it is the students who receive most of McLellan’s energy and attention. And as a food technologist himself, he knows there is nothing like the annual competition to test their culinary mettle. It was this past summer that the 1995 judging was held, but for King and his winning team of Cornell students, the work began at least nine months earlier. The first step, of course, in entering any food development competition is to decide what food to develop. When I was in college, I would have found such a question easy to answer, largely because the foods I exposed myself to were drawn exclusively from what I considered the four major food groups: Ding Dongs, Ding Dongs, turkey roll, and Ding Dongs. While I saw nothing wrong with this, most nutritionists agree that whenever the majority of your entrée choices are sound effects, you may want to rethink your menu plan. King, for all his culinary expertise, was no less self-referential in making his choice.

Considering for a moment what he and his friends most like to eat, he realized that the answer was obvious: pizza. Considering further how much they like to pay for their snack of choice, he came to an equally self-evident conclusion: not much. The solution, he decided, was the Pizza Pop-Up, the world’s first successful toaster pizza.

To invent a toaster pizza, King knew he would have to start by studying toasters. There are thousands of different models of toasters on the market, and a single food product of a given size and weight may cook very differently depending on the model you use. An oversize pastry or waffle in a hot, narrow-slotted toaster may not pop up at all, turning a putative Pop Tart into something closer to a Pop Briquette, while a light product in a more generously sized toaster may pop up too far, resulting in an Eggo in low Earth orbit. In a world that has yet to settle the Fahrenheit-versus-Celsius problem, there is little hope that the United Nations will be convening a Global Toast Standardization Panel anytime soon. King and his team knew they’d have their work cut out for them.

Some years ago, he says, Pillsbury commissioned a study of nearly all the makes and models of toasters on the American market. The first thing my teammates and I did when we decided on our product was get hold of that survey and see what we’d have to work with. We discovered we’d be operating within some pretty narrow constraints.

The heating compartment of most American toasters reaches a temperature of about 500 degrees Fahrenheit before the toast pops up. Most hot pastry-type foods, King and his team knew, are best when heated to a temperature of about 150 degrees. Whether the Pizza Pop-Up could reach that palatability threshold in the 90 or so seconds allotted to it before the toaster popped would depend entirely on what it was made of.

Different materials conduct heat at different speeds, King says. One of the people on our team was studying chemical engineering, and he sat down with a description of our product and a table showing how every imaginable material from metal to wood responds to a rise in surrounding temperature.

While such a database might seem helpful only if King was designing a Mahogany Pop-Up or a Tungsten Tart, it actually revealed a lot, since among the materials included on the list were such essential pizza ingredients as water, organic fibers, dough, and meat. Relying on these numbers, King and his group determined that a pizza product could indeed be adequately heated in a toaster, with the additional proviso that it could be no bigger than three and three-quarter inches wide and three-quarters of an inch thick and weigh no more than 50 grams. This ensured it would be neither too wide for the toaster’s slots nor too heavy for its springs.

But though they’d determined the contents of the Pizza Pop-Up, the team had yet to figure out its actual structure. Here too, however, they were fairly limited, and one of the strictest limitations had to do with the placement of the sauce. In most pizzas, of course, the sauce is found on top of the crust; in a toaster pizza, however, a sauce-on-crust design would quickly become a sauce-on-toaster-coils design, which would quickly become a sauce-on-fire design. In the case of the Pizza Pop-Up, therefore, the sauce would have to be within the crust. It was here that the designers first encountered the formidable problem of sauce migration.

To food technologists, sauces are what are known as rheological substances. Rheology is the study of the way certain types of materials-- particularly complex polymers--flow and deform, changing their shape in response to temperature, gravity, and other variables. Problems of rheology would seem likelier to be found in a chemistry book than in a cookbook (Bring ’em to the table fast with a piping hot mug o’ long-chain polymers!), but in the case of the Pizza Pop-Ups they had some serious implications.

One of the places the polymers and water in a product like ours can flow is directly into the dough, King says. If there’s one thing that people who like pizza look for, it’s a crispy crust. In a product like ours, in which several wet tablespoons of sauce would be sealed inside a pocket of dough, that’s exactly the opposite of what we’d be providing.

To prevent his crust from becoming saturated, King knew he’d have to coat the inside of it with what chemists and food scientists call a hydrophobic substance. In a world rife with human phobias, most people would probably prefer that their foods show a little more courage, and I certainly don’t know how I’d react if a toaster snack phoned me in the middle of the night with a panic attack. King explained, however, that hydrophobic substances don’t recoil from water but resist it.

Among the most common hydrophobic materials are lipids--or fats-- most of which are also edible. King’s team determined that if they covered the inside of their dough with a light, sprayable fat known as acetylated monoglyceride, they’d be able to prevent sauce from migrating into the crust without affecting the pizza’s overall taste.

Just because a sauce won’t seep into a crust, however, doesn’t mean it won’t break through it, and this presented King and company with another challenge. The act of chewing can be a dangerous business, and when a pair of jaws closes on a piece of food, practically anything can happen. Most of us learned this lesson the hard way the first time we attended a wedding reception, bit down on a cherry tomato, and launched a globule of vegetable innards into an adjacent ballroom. Bad as this can be when you’re dealing with room-temperature tomato glop, it can be a lot worse when you’re dealing with 150-degree tomato sauce.

To make their sauce stay put, King knew they’d have to make it stay thick. Sauce manufacturers who conduct research at the Cornell institute make use of a machine known as a rotational viscometer. Standing just under two feet tall and measuring about an inch and a half in diameter, a rotational viscometer is essentially a hollow cylinder with a slightly narrower solid cylinder nested inside. Separating the two cylinders is a space of about two millimeters. When manufacturers want to study a viscous food, they pour a sample of it into that space, seal the top, and then set the inner cylinder spinning. As lubricants go, a steaming cup of Quaker Oats will never replace a quart of Quaker State, but for the Cornell researchers that’s just the point.

The viscous food, King explains, imparts torque on the center cylinder. The greater the torque, the greater the viscosity. Once developers have produced a processed food with the consistency they want, they can measure its thickness with the viscometer and use this to check the product in the future.

For the purposes of the food competition, King and company did not want to fire up the viscometer and whip up a sauce from scratch--and there was no need to. Most commercial tomato pastes have already been subjected to viscometer study, and the better ones boast a viscosity so great they can almost stand without their can.

The one that was thick enough to stay where we put it without being too unappetizingly dense, says King, was the one we used as the basis for our sauce.

With the Pizza Pop-Ups assembled and tested, King and his team had only to develop a marketing plan for their new product. Calculating the costs of ingredients and packaging, and estimating what consumers would be willing to pay for a food that was something less than a dietary staple, they concluded that they could sell a box of eight pizzas for $2.69. Packing up Pop-Ups and prospectus, the team traveled to the food technology contest in Anaheim, California, where they handily beat such worthy competition as Pea Pleasers (a yellow-pea-based tortilla chip), Pasta’bilities (a low-calorie pasta), and Cherry Stout Beer (a beer self- evidently--though perhaps ill-advisedly--brewed from cherries).

Whether the sophistication of King’s Cornell training conferred any advantage on him and his team is impossible to know, but even now other students in the institute’s dozens of labs are blazing other gustatory trails. And as they do, the need to churn out new words to describe all this research grows greater and greater. Foam performance, for the record, refers to the ability of frothy beverages like root beer or real beer to stay frothy; creep compliance refers to the ability of foods to deform without rupturing; salted snack food dough extrusion refers to, well, salted snack food dough extrusion, though any time the words food and extrude appear in the same sentence, you probably want to rethink your syntax. Elegant as all these terms are, however, they still have a way to go before reaching true legendary status. In an industry that gave us Necco, Nehi, Yoo-Hoo, Ring Ding, Fluffernutter, Redenbacher, 7-Up, and Spam, the linguistic shoes may always be too big to fill.
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