Laser Cooked 3D Printed Chicken Dinner

The gourmet menus of tomorrow could feature dishes prepared with complex cooking techniques and complex presentation, all at the push of a button. Mechanical engineers at Columbia University have designed a 3D printer that can simultaneously produce and cook dishes with millimeter-scale detail.

The design of the proof of concept, described in npj Food science, combines a multi-wavelength laser cooker, roughly the size of five stacked smartphones, with a microwave-sized food printer. As the device’s robotic arm deposits thin layers of mashed chicken, a high-powered beam zigzags over it and cooks the meat with literally laser-focused precision. “It’s almost like having a crème brûlée blowtorch,” says Jonathan Blutinger, lead author of the article and digital cooking researcher at Columbia. “It gives you a lot more control and customization. The researchers only tested chicken for this study, but the system may work with other foods as well.

Beyond applying sophisticated textures and presentation patterns, this kind of software-controlled setup could one day scan a QR code to automatically prepare dishes tailored to individual eating habits and dietary restrictions, says Blutinger.

The system, which the researchers say is the first to combine a laser cooker with a 3D food printer, uses different wavelengths of light to cook in different ways: a short-wave blue laser penetrates deep inside the meat, for example, while infrared beams (which have longer wavelengths) grill or brown the surface. Thus, users can achieve elaborate results such as a machine-made burger that alternates between rare and well done in a checkerboard pattern.

The new technology is “amazing,” says Megan Ross, a food scientist who studies 3D printing at the Irish University of Cork and was not in the study. Ross notes that the design is still in its infancy and that many technical challenges remain, such as preventing cross-contamination between the layers of raw and cooked meat.

Still, Ross is impressed with the device’s ability to produce food outside of the realm of conventional cooking. “Is this going to be sold in stores all over the next few years? No, she said. “But everyone has to start somewhere.”

Compared to 3D-printed chicken baked in a traditional oven, the laser-baked version retained nearly twice the weight and bulk, the researchers found. “This chicken is going to be juicy,” says Liam MacLeod, a Denver-based chef and former 3D food printing specialist at the Culinary Institute of America, who was not involved in the study. MacLeod doesn’t think such technology will ever replace chefs, but it could “add a tool to their arsenal” to deliver a new sensory experience. “Cooking is a skill set that has been practiced and perfected for thousands of years,” he says. “It’s very exciting to come up with something new and unique that people haven’t experienced yet.”


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