'Digital chef' prepares printed foods using precision laser cooking

September 20, 2021 // By Rich Pell
'Digital chef' prepares printed foods using precision laser cooking
Engineers at Columbia University say they are developing an autonomous "digital personal chef" that uses software-controlled lasers for precision cooking and 3D printing technology for assembling foods.

While 3D-printed food technology isn't new, commercial cooking appliances that simultaneously cook and print food layers do not yet exist. A key challenge, say the researchers, has been the spatially controlled delivery of cooking energy.

“We noted that, while printers can produce ingredients to a millimeter-precision, there is no heating method with this same degree of resolution,” says Jonathan Blutinger, a PhD and member of the “Digital Food” team in the university's Creative Machines Lab. “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.”

To address this, the researchers explored various modalities of cooking by exposing blue light (445 nm) and infrared light (980 nm and 10.6 µm) to chicken, which they used as a model food system. They printed chicken samples (3 mm thick by ~1in 2 area) as a test bed and assessed a range of parameters including cooking depth, color development, moisture retention, and flavor differences between laser-cooked and stove-cooked meat.

They discovered that laser-cooked meat shrinks 50% less, retains double the moisture content, and shows similar flavor development to conventionally cooked meat.

“In fact," says Blutinger, "our two blind taste-testers preferred laser-cooked meat to the conventionally cooked samples, which shows promise for this burgeoning technology.”

While the researchers say they are excited about the possibilities of this new technology - which uses fairly low-tech hardware and software components - they note that there is not yet a sustainable ecosystem to support it.

"What we still don’t have is what we call 'Food CAD,' sort of the Photoshop of food," says Mechanical Engineering Professor Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab. "We need a high level software that enables people who are not programmers or software developers to design the foods they want. And then we need a place where people can share digital recipes, like we

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