Cooking Printed Food with Lasers

Cooking with blue laser

A printed layer of raw chicken is cooked with a blue laser directed by two software-controlled mirror galvanometers. [Image: Jonathan Blutinger, Columbia University]

Engineers from Columbia University’s Creative Machines Laboratory tested a proof-of-concept digitized platform to precisely cook thin layers of 3D-printed chicken with lasers (npj Sci. Food, doi: 10.1038/s41538-021-00107-1).

What’s wrong with using an oven to cook chicken? Well, nothing. But the Columbia team sees its laser-based cooking platform as a tool to enable more creative and customized at-home food design. In addition to energy-efficient and temperature-safe cooking, a more evolved platform could, the researchers believe, ultimately let users flex their creative muscles by designing edible works of art from home.

In demonstrations, the engineers used the platform to print pureed raw chicken and then cook it to food-safe temperatures with millimeter precision. Compared with oven-broiled pureed chicken, the laser-cooked chicken retained more moisture and, in blind taste tests, had a similar flavor to the traditionally cooked poultry. The engineers also found they could laser-cook printed chicken through a plastic film, suggesting commercial applications for precooked meals with a longer shelf life.

A digital personal chef

“Cooking is essential for nutrition, flavor and texture development in many foods, and we wondered if we could develop a method with lasers to precisely control these attributes,” the paper’s lead author, Jonathan Blutinger, noted in a press release accompanying the research.

The platform Blutinger and his colleagues developed consists of a food printer coupled with a blue (445 nm), near-infrared (NIR; 980 nm) or mid-infrared (MIR; 10.6 µm) laser controlled by a set of mirror galvanometers. For proof-of-concept demonstrations, they characterized each of the lasers’ depth and breadth of heat delivery to thin printed layers of raw chicken. They also varied the circular laser cooking pattern to optimize heating conditions for chicken.

They found that the blue laser more efficiently cooked the inside of the chicken and the infrared lasers both produced a nicely browned surface on the chicken, similar to grill marks. As for the best laser cooking pattern, repeated high-speed passes resulted in the fastest cook time and lowest loss of moisture.

Taste, while difficult to quantitatively measure, is a very important factor in food. The team conducted a blind taste test of the laser-cooked chicken and oven-broiled chicken with two lab volunteers. Both testers, the team reported, preferred the laser cooked chicken because it was juicier and more uniform in texture.

Digital cooking platform

Illustration of a digital cooking platform with different ingredients and a precise cooking laser to assemble and cook meals using digital recipes. [Image: Jonathan Blutinger, Columbia University]

What’s next?

The Columbia University engineers plan to next investigate layer adhesion in multi-ingredient printed foods, simultaneous laser cooking and browning, methods to reduce cross-contamination between cooked and raw printed layers, as well as characterizing cooling rates and their effect on microbial growth and food safety.

The team also wants to develop higher-level software to enable people who are not computer programmers to design and ultimately share their digital “recipes” with friends and family members.

“This technology is the first step in digitizing the cooking process,” says Blutinger. “The platform is poised to change the way we cook and think about food.”

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