Samuel Arbesman, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “The Half-Life of Facts”, examines the rapid growth in the science of cooking in a recent article and questions whether there are really any fundamental laws of cooking.
Arbesman points to the array of new food branches, from molecular gastronomy to Modernist Cuisine, to the application of mathematics. As one example, Arbesman cites Michael Ruhlman, who “has explored how certain ingredient ratios can allow one to be more creative while cooking.”
In Ruhlman’s book, “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking”, Ruhlman discusses “basic preparations that teach us how the fundamental ingredients of the kitchen — water, flour, butter and oils, milk and cream, and eggs — work. Detailing thirty-three essential ratios and suggesting enticing variations, Ruhlman empowers every cook to make countless doughs, batters, stocks, sauces, meats, and custards without ever again having to locate a recipe.”
Arbesman also mentions Yong-Yeol Ahn and his colleagues. Ahn has researched components of cooking ingredients in different regional cuisines that lead to Ahn’s food pairing hypothesis — the idea that foods that go best together contain similar molecular components.
Arbesman explains that after Ahn and his researchers examined more than 50,000 recipes, they combined recipe data with information about the chemical components in each of the ingredients in order to create a network map of related ingredients.
For example, shrimp and parmesan are connected in the network, because they contain the same flavor compounds, such as 1-penten-3-ol. [See flavor network map.]
Using this network of related ingredients, Arbesman claims the authors were able to test the food pairing hypothesis. “And they found that it was true, at least when it came to Western cooking. North American and Western European cuisines, which share many of the same ingredients, both adhere to the food pairing hypothesis: Foods in the same recipe often have the same underlying molecular components.”
But Arbesman notes the further one strays from these cuisines, the more the food pairing hypothesis breaks down. “East Asian and Southern European recipes use ingredients that do not overlap in their flavor compounds, implying that these styles of cooking are in fact quantitatively distinct.”
It’s interesting to note that Latin American cooking is halfway between Southern European and East Asian, and thus, Arbesman concludes “the food pairing hypothesis is not the Grand Unified Theory of Food it had been hoped to be.”
Arbesman also mentions the “Incompatible Food Triad”: three foods that are acceptable when paired separately but when all combined together are incompatible.
“An example solution would be three pizza toppings — A, B, and C — such that a pizza with A and B is good, and a pizza with A and C is good, and a pizza with B and C is good, but a pizza with A, B, and C is bad. Or you might find three different spices or other ingredients which do not go together in some recipe yet any pair of them is fine.”
Finally, Arbesman suggests food is much more an art than something that can be ruled by theorems. Arbesman questions the validity of mathematical invariants in the food world, and writes: “In the end, it might be that the only regularity we can count on is the Periodic Table of Meat.