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Cocktail Science: MIT Researchers and José Andrés Make Edible Drink Garnishes That Swim Like Insects

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[Photograph: Michelle Nicole Photography]

Researchers at MIT have teamed up with chefs and food scientists to create edible cocktail accessories that smash together cutting-edge science with haute cuisine.

Imagine you're a graduate student at MIT, one of the world's premiere institutions for engineering, science, and academic research. You spend long hours in class and longer hours in lab, slaving over a thesis filled with complex equations and obscure references.

Maybe one of those classes you took was titled something like "interfacial surface tension" and was taught by a professor of applied mathematics. And then maybe, for your final project, you collaborated with internationally-renowned chef José Andrés in making a cocktail garnish.

Wait, what?

What I described above is what happened to Lisa Burton, first author on a recently published collaborative paper out of MIT. Lisa and her professor, John Bush, teamed up with Andrés, Mars food scientist César Vega, and MIT mechanical engineer Nadia Cheng. The collaboration was initiated when Bush met Andrés through Harvard's Science and Cooking Course.

Together, the group developed two edible accessories for cocktails that can only be described as the pinnacle of science collaboration with gastronomy.

The Cocktail Boat

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Burton and Cheng add small drops of high-proof alcohol to the boats. The alcohol propels the boats through a cocktail. [Photograph: Michelle Nicole Photography]

Swims like a bug, mixes your drink.

Think Roomba.

Now think Roomba powered by high-proof alcohol in a flavorful edible vessel. Seriously. You know how when you add a drop of dish soap to dirty, oily water, the oil seems to rapidly propel away from the soap? The cocktail boat team used the same concept to drive their invention.

The tiny "boat", made from an edible mix of gelling agents, is filled with high-proof alcohol. The difference in surface tensions between that liquid and the lower-proof cocktail in the rest of the glass pushes the "boat" around in a random pattern. Some insects that can walk on water also rely on surface tension for propulsion and these bugs helped inspire research into the cocktail boat.

Here's a video of the device in action:

[Video: MIT Mathlab on Youtube]

The specific shape and size of the boat were designed by Cheng and Burton to maximize speed and duration—the device drives around for about 2 minutes before running out of, well, fuel. The combination of edible hydrocolloids used for the final garnish were developed by Vega.

Think of this toy as a new way to float rum onto a cocktail while adding a chewy garnish.

Cocktails, drop by drop, out of a blooming flower

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[Photograph:Nick Wiltsie]

The scientists call it a "floral pipette." The chefs call it a beautiful way to serve a palate cleanser between courses.

As Bush explains, "[with the floral pipette], we were worrying about presentation, which is something scientists don't usually do. We're usually interested in mechanism, not style. But with chefs, while they definitely care about mechanism, part of their job is to get the presentation just right."

The mechanism once again relies on surface tension. When the device is dipped in a cocktail or liqueur, capillary action draws liquid up into the space between the petals. Surface tension holds the petals closed and prevents liquid from leaking out. Tap the flower gently on your tongue and the tiny burst of liquid flavor rushes forth.

To take the presentation to another level, the design team at MIT then added an LED to the middle of the flower. Although the current version of the LED version is not edible, future iterations could be.

Ready for prime time?

If you didn't think mechanical engineering and fluid dynamics could be applied to food, then team cocktail garnish at MIT has just proven you dead wrong.

To get a taste of the cocktail boat or floral pipette, you'll need to wait until these fantastic flourishes make their way onto Andrés' menus. But, then again, they might never make it to an actual table—the best chefs have an insatiable appetite for quality, and these cocktail garnishes just might not meet Andrés' exacting standards.

Bush observed, "Both of these items, inspired by Nature, had been built in our lab before. But to produce something to be brought into a restaurant, particularly a high-end one, was a challenge. Every member of the team obsessed over some tiny detail that made the products a little better."

What other magical inventions do you wish scientists would help chefs create?

About the author:Kevin Liu likes to drink science and study cocktails. Wait, that's backward. Ask him geeky food and booze questions on twitter @kevinkliu. While you're at it, check out his book about cocktail science.

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