The benefits of high-pressure technology are not limited to burgers. Eggs lose their sulfurous odor, returning dignity to the otherwise delightful egg salad sandwich. Oysters, shrimp, and lobsters cleanly separate from their shells and emerge appealingly firm due to pressure-induced protein coagulation. That means raw lobster, normally slimy and inedible, becomes a whole new safe and tasty treat. “I’d like to try this,” says the not-easily-impressed Hervé Malivert, chef-coordinator at the International Culinary Center in New York.
Hey, get in line. And start saving: A compression machine like the one Balasubramaniam uses sells for about $3 million. For that reason, the technology has been adopted only by large industrial food processors, like Oscar Mayer and Hormel, and applied to foods for which some consumers are willing to pay a price premium of 5 to 10 percent to cover the extra processing cost. Right now, a couple of brands of deli meat and packaged guacamole are the only compression-treated foods you’re likely to run into at your local supermarket. These items justify the special treatment because they can be slapped with the “preservative free” label that makes some chemophobic shoppers happily willing to shell out an extra 50 cents. Balasubramaniam predicts companies could begin selling smaller, cheaper models for the home within a decade. “There’s a real advantage to point-of-consumption compression,” Balasubramaniam says, noting that a home compressor would mean you could buy raw, unpreserved food, throw it in the machine for a few minutes, and either heat it or eat it raw without fear. Sushi would be a natural for this treatment; Balasubramaniam says he’s working with fish and has obtained good results.
Crushing lettuce with 100,000 psi is another matter. Leafy greens and strawberries get mashed to almost nothing. This is no small disadvantage, since raw fruits and veggies are especially vulnerable to spoilage and contamination with E. coli and other harmful bacteria, as we are painfully reminded whenever tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, and other greenery shows up in the news as killers. To make matters worse, washing fruit to rid it of surface contaminants tends to accelerate rotting, because it removes the plants’ natural waxlike protective barrier, sometimes called the “bloom” or the “cuticle.”
An ingenious solution to this knotty problem comes from Yanyun Zhao, another food scientist from Oregon State. Zhao uses a mixture of chitosan, a cellulose-like compound extracted from crab shells, and lysozyme, an enzyme taken from egg whites, to create a liquid that can be applied and dried to form an edible, antibacterial coating on berries and other produce. One dip in the liquid can double the food’s shelf life, Zhao reports. She is working to commercialize the dip, although first she must resolve a couple of problems. One, the dip would render produce flora non grata to anyone with a shellfish or egg allergy. The other problem—less lethal, but possibly commercially deadly—is that the coating, though edible, is not entirely tasteless. “In tests, consumers say it tastes, uh, pretty good,” Zhao says, a little unenthusiastically.
As scrumptious as crab-fortified raspberries sound, the food-prep technology that I am most excited about is the multilaser oven, invented, sort of, by Ludovic Peperstraete at the International School of Design in Valenciennes, France. A few years ago Peperstraete stumbled on an article in a science journal about medical researchers using crossed laser beams to image and heat tumors in a patient without disturbing any of the surrounding tissue. “I realized this was a way to make the perfect moelleux au chocolat,” Peperstraete says, referring to the classic French dessert comprising a warm cake with a liquid chocolate filling. Mounted in an oven, the crossed beams could melt the chocolate interior with pinpoint accuracy, even as they monitor the corresponding change in texture and trigger the heat to shut off at just the right moment. The same technique could produce the perfect medium-rare turkey burger—cooked, not compressed.
At least it works on paper. Peperstraete’s idea is still a concept. Building an actual laser oven will take some time. “I think we’ll have this in our kitchens in about 100 years,” he says with (one infers) a bone-dry French wit.
That’s well within my projected life span, I reckon, if I continue my healthy eating. And if by some freak turn of bad luck I kick the bucket before then, at least I know there is a means for preserving my remains bacteria-free until science figures out how to reverse the compression process and restore me. Who knows what advances they will have made in deli meat by then.