Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rambling on Technocookery

I am surprised by the number of scientists and engineers I've encounted online and in real life who like to cook. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised; after all, rather than cooking, we might call it food engineering.

I've seen the great site Cooking for Engineers mentioned on at least couple of blogs (Raymond Chen and Brainwagon). Also noteworthy in the Cooking for Engineers category are cooks Alton Brown and Peter Barham (The Science of Cooking) whose books provide the sort of technical perspectives we engineers love.

In the back of my mind I have a few ideas about better recipe books. If I had infinite time, I think I'd try to make an interactive recipe book. I wonder if such a thing exists.

When I add a half a cup of flour to my chocolate chip cookie recipe, my cookies go from thin and crunchy to thick and chewy. An interactive recipe book might be able to show options such as that and make them selectable; this could clarify the variations possible with each recipe.

Another obvious capability of an interactive recipe would be to dynamically adjust the quantity. Tell it how much you want in the end and the software adjusts the quantities of ingredients accordingly. I'm sure someone has done this somewhere.

An interactive recipe book could also suggest substitutions. For example, I've gotten pretty good at converting butter and cream laden recipes from the Old Country over to new healthier ones that don't beg for a tablespoon of ground Lipitor. Click the "light and healthy" button and the interactive recipe book will replace the nasty ingredients with fat-free sour cream, skim milk and the like.

Going farther down Geeky Road, I'd like to see something like Sparkline probability density functions for ingredients. Often, when I feel like inventing or experimenting, I'll review several recipes to try and get a sense of the boundaries of sanity for each ingredient. E.g, you usually include 0.5 - 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder and/or baking soda as opposed to a cup, which would be pure insanity. The more one cooks, the more one develops such mental models; it would be nice to translate that knowledge into some form of visualization.

What does the average chocolate chip cookie recipe look like? I've actually tried charting multiple recipes to get a sense of this. The sum of all sugar seems to be pretty constant, but the split between white and brown varies. It's clear that if you run out of brown, you can make up the difference with white. The interactive recipe book would tell you this.

I've toyed with the idea of writing software that creates and manages "meta recipes" where multiple recipes for the same thing could be aggregated into a master recipe and each distinct recipe could be seen in reference to the mean recipe. Perhaps new recipes could be synthesized from such a "meta recipes."

Given the plethora of food recipes on the Internet and my imaginary life with infinite free time, I'd like to spend some time doing cluster analysis and data mining. With that much training data, I might be able to come up with an interactive recipe book that could make decent suggestions for additions to a recipe, or my interactive recipe book might even be able to synthesize whole new recipes.

But then again, maybe it's all ultimately unworkable. John, I'm Only Rambling.

I've started bookmarking the recipes I find online via my account. Delicious, how apropos. :) My primary motivation for this is being able to pull the recipes before I leave work, so I can make sure I have requisite ingredients before I get home or generate a grocery list if I don't.


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