Maybe you’ve seen those Internet ads featuring some variation of the following headline: “Two Harvard/Boston/ Local College Students/Graduates/Dropouts Are Revolutionizing Car Insurance/Auto Sales/The Way You Shop for Clothing.”
How could you not notice them? They’re ubiquitous.
The topic may vary, but the ads always feature two “unheralded college students” who came up with a brilliant idea, and like all come-ons, the pitch always end the same: with an appeal to buy something.
Now, however, there’s a new “Two Smart Students” story that actually delivers some value, rather than just a come-on.
The protagonists in this case are actually a trio, rather than a pair, of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as “MIT,” which in advertising is shorthand for “genius.” I’m not sure if that appellation fits, but the three — Kate Roe, Laura Breiman, and Marissa Stephenson — developed what is described as “a nifty tool, much to the excitement of steak-lovers everywhere,” according to a report on LifeHacker.com
And if LifeHacker’s carrying the story, you know it’s legit.
The tool, sensibly and practically branded as “Cook My Meat,” was actually developed by the students a few years ago, but has recently resurfaced — just in time for the summer grilling season.
Here’s how it works: You enter some parameters as to how the meat is to be cooked, pick the temperature to cook your cut, then you’re shown an approximation in familiar colors of red and pink to show how your meat will turn out when it’s finished.
The tool does this by calculating heat diffusion in the meat at each time step, using the Crank-Nicolson method.
And if you’re wondering whether the MIT connection is really as sophisticated as it’s cranked up to be (no pun intended), here’s how Wikipedia explains its application:
“In numerical analysis, the Crank–Nicolson method is a finite difference method used for numerically solving the heat equation and similar partial differential equations. It is a second-order method in time. It is implicit in time and can be written as an implicit Runge-Kutta method, and is numerically stable.”
Obviously. I mean, who doesn’t know that?
More to the point, the students used “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” a cookbook that has become something of a reference work since its publication in the 1980s, as the rubric for the protein denaturization temperatures that occur as grilling proceeds.
To use the Cook My Meat online tool (http://up.csail.mit.edu/science-of-cooking/home-screen.html), you first compare cooking methods for whatever cut of beef you intend to prepare.
For example, the tool allows you to choose from among:
· Four minutes a side
· Sear, then cook low heat
· Flip every 15 seconds (sic)
· Sous vide, and liquid nitrogen
That last method is a little out of my league, in that I don’t normally have a tank of liquid nitrogen stashed in the kitchen.
After choosing a cooking method, you select the starting temperature of the meat, input that and hit the “Cook” button. What appears next is what makes the tool so cool.
A color graph appears that displays the internal protein state of a thin slice at the center of the beef as the color changes over time. As the caption for the chart explains, “The [colored] flame represents which side of the steak the heat is applied. Inside the flame is the temperature of the heat source for that side. When you mouse over a slice of steak, the legend highlights the information pertaining to that slice.”
In other words, you see the time and temperature required to reach that specific color of done-ness.
Pretty slick. But even with such a precise tool, cooking the perfect steak is still as much art as science. As noted on its website, “Cook My Meat can’t account for stove and grill quirks, different pan types, and different meat consistencies.”
Which are pretty significant variables.
I want to try the Cook My Meat tool, but I plan to hedge my bet.
My back-up is going to be that other sophisticated, temperature-dependent tool.
It’s called Cut It Open and See If It’s Done.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.