Quirks & Quarks

Set weapons to sautée: Engineers use lasers to cook 3D-printed chicken

In an experiment cooking 3D-printed chicken, laser-cooked food retained moisture and tasted better — at least according to a study by engineers at Columbia University.

Laser-heated chicken tasted as good as chicken cooked by other methods, engineers claim

3D printed chicken being cooked by a software controlled blue laser. (Columbia University/Submitted by Jonathan Blutinger)

A team in the U.S. has used robotic lasers to cook 3D-printed samples of chicken — and they say that the food was superior in taste and texture to conventional cooking methods.

Jonathan Blutinger, a member of the team of engineers at the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University in New York, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that the precision of lasers is the great advantage over conventional cooking methods like ovens, stovetops, and grills.

"Lasers are great because you can control the heat on a much finer resolution", he said. "So with lasers you can control the scanning pattern, you can even control the type of cooking you're getting just based on changing the wavelength of light, which is pretty cool."

Their tests of laser cooking work hand in hand with another technology the lab has been working on: 3D-printed food.

Place chicken in blender, extrude, add laser heat

Blutinger said the process of 3D printing food is not as complicated as it sounds. "You've probably done 3D printing of food, just not even knowing it," he said.

"If you've ever squeezed ketchup out of a ketchup bottle or put icing on the cake, it's literally the exact same process, except instead of your hands doing it, it's a machine doing it." 

Blended chicken is 3D-printed into a 3mm-thick tile in preparation for laser cooking. (Jonathan Blutinger, Columbia University)

In their most recent work, Blutinger and his colleagues chose to 3D-print chicken. Ordinary commercially purchased chicken was blended in a food processor until it had the consistency of peanut butter. They then used a 3D printing system to deposit it onto a cooking surface at a predetermined thickness.

The result was a three-millimetre-thick square tile of raw meat.

They then cooked the sample with a combination of lasers: one blue and two different types of infrared beams.

"The laser just shines from above, and it scans as it moves across the food," Blutinger said. "We set the power, the speed, the intensity of the beam and all these things will change the type of cooking that we get. If we want to get browning of the food or if we just want to cook inside of the food without actually browning the surface, we can change the wavelength of the light."

All of the meat samples were the same thickness, but Blutinger said that if necessary, the laser can cook in a specific pattern, adapting to the thickness and density of the food. The lasers used about five watts of power to cook the food to 70 C, the temperature necessary to eliminate bacterial such as salmonella.

The 3D-printed sample of chicken meat, laser-cooked with 'grill' marks. (Jonathan Blutinger, Columbia University)

Laser cooking and the taste test

No food preparation experiment is complete without a taste test, of course. Blutinger recruited some students he described as "courageous" to give it a try.

They reported some very interesting differences over a 3D sample of chicken cooked conventionally on a range.

"Our food ends up a lot less dried-out than out of an oven," he said. "Because we're not overcooking the food with the laser, we can hit the food safe temperature of chicken pretty precisely without causing too much drying out. We also get all the texture quality that we're used to with normal chicken. The colour looks the same as well. And they taste very similar."

In fact, the laser-cooked chicken retained twice as much moisture as oven cooked chicken, and shrunk 50 per cent less. But Blutinger admits that is largely due to the fact that the 3D-printed chicken was an ideal sample for laser cooking. 

"You're not going to be cooking your Thanksgiving turkey in a laser oven any time soon," he said. 

As well, Blutinger acknowledges that 3D-printed food and laser cooking may face some consumer resistance, when and if they ever make it to the market.

"There's a lot of weird connotations that go with it. But I think we were saying the same things when microwaves were first introduced into our homes. It'll take some time, but I think soon enough you'll see kitchen appliances that use lasers."

The team's work was published in the journal npj Science of Food.

Written and produced by Mark Crawley.