When technology invades your kitchen, you never know what will land up on your plate. 

Few would connect terms like “λ = 445 nm” with cuisine, but scientists have successfully put on the dinner table a 3D-printed chicken, “precision-cooked with multi-wavelength lasers”. 

3D-printed foods, where you load all the ingredients into the machine, which then deposits (or ‘prints’) the desired dish layer by layer, have been knocking about in Western restaurants for a few years now, but have not reached a “commercial scale”.

Recently, scientists at Columbia University, one of whom — Shravan Karthik — happens to be of Indian-origin, brought in a booster dose of technology to cooking. “Commercial cooking appliances that simultaneously print and cook food layers do not exist yet,” they say in a scientific paper, pointing out that the key challenge is the spatial control of cooking energy. Therefore, the team explored “precision laser cooking” for exact temporal and spatial control over heat delivery. This introduced “the ability to cook, broil, cut and otherwise transform food products via customised software-driven patterns, including packaging”. 

They used a blue laser, a near-infrared laser (NIR) and a mid-infrared laser to broil printed chicken and found that IR browns more efficiently and that NIR light can brown and cook foods through packaging. The dish also scored high on “organoleptic evaluation”, which is science-speak for properties such as taste, texture, colour and odour. 

Why bother, you might ask. Wouldn’t it be simpler to cook the chicken over a fire in a pan? Well, laser cooking gives you better “control and customisation”.

Here is how the Columbia scientists respond to the question: “Infusing software into the cooking process will enable more creative food design, allow individuals to more precisely customise their meals, disintermediate food supply chains, streamline at-home food production, and generate horizontal markets for this burgeoning industry.”