In March 2014, Nathan Myhrvold, Francisco Migoya, and the team at Modernist Cuisine closed a 50-course meal for renowned chef Ferran Adrià with a unique absinthe service. Each glass was topped with a delicately curved ceramic spoon that held, instead of the traditional sugar cube, an intricate, accurate, and colorful replica of Barcelona’s famous Gaudí chimneys, an homage to Adrià’s native Spain. The chimneys were made entirely of sugar and fabricated for the dinner by a 3D printer, built layer by extraordinarily thin layer of sugar. As the water was poured over the sugar chimney and into the glass of absinthe, the sculpture slowly dissolved and flowed into the glass below. Cook’s Science senior editor Paul Adams, who was lucky enough to be there, noted that while he had “seen 3D-printed garnishes before, this was the first time it really felt like [the 3D printing] was an intrinsic part of the meal.” Adams continued, “Watching the tiny sculpture melt away, and then drinking it, that was kind of amazing.”
3D-printed parts have made their way onto jetliners, and NASA is currently working on a 3D-printed rocket engine. In the realm of biotechnology, 3D printers have been used to make prosthetic limbs for humans and animals. There’s a prototype that 3D prints functional human skin (!) for transplanting onto burn victims’ wounds, potentially eliminating the need for skin grafts. Fashion has even gotten into the game, with designers 3D printing bespoke shoes and fabrics.
As 3D printing has started to make its way into the culinary world and a handful of chefs are experimenting with printing beautiful, edible designs, I had to wonder: Is the technology ready? Should I set aside some of my meager kitchen counter space for a 3D printer? Is 3D printing poised to revolutionize the way we eat?
PRESSING ‘PRINT’ IN THE KITCHEN
Unlike a regular, two-dimensional printer, which applies a single layer on a flat surface, a 3D printer starts with that bottom layer and then builds upward from there in a variety of materials—what’s known as additive manufacturing. It turns a digital file into a physical object. 3D printers have caused ripples among engineers because they allow for unprecedentedly rapid testing and retesting of designs. New iterations of parts or products can be 3D printed virtually on demand, eliminating the need to create new molds and casts each time and vastly speeding up the design process.
And a number of chefs have taken advantage of early iterations of edible 3D printing technology to create unique, decorative, customized elements for their guests.
Kriss Harvey, executive pastry chef at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles, California, has used the ChefJet Pro culinary 3D printer to create life-size, three-dimensional bananas made entirely of sugar and decorated with images of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits. Josiah Citrin, chef-owner of Mélisse restaurant in Santa Monica, California, has used the same 3D printer in a savory application: a modern riff on classic French onion soup. He and his team printed “croutons” made of caramelized onion powder. Inside each crouton was a ball of onion petal–wrapped burrata, which mimicked the soup’s traditional cheese topping. The croutons dissolved in diners’ bowls as hot oxtail broth was poured over them. “The broth had no onion flavor at all, but when the crouton melted, the onion flavor mixed with the broth,” Citrin explained.
Paco Pérez, chef at Enoteca Paco Pérez in Barcelona, Spain, has used a 3D printer to pipe an elaborate pattern of seafood puree onto a plate, evoking the shape of fan coral. Pérez then places other elements on the plate by hand—sea urchin, carrot foam, egg—to create the finished dish.
Other culinary professionals use 3D printers to create customized objects and tools for use in the kitchen and the dining room—similar to the printers’ traditional use. Peter Zaharatos, owner of SugarCube cafe in Long Island City, New York, uses a 3D printer, along with his background as an architect and a sculptor, to print unique, customized molds for chocolate bars. (He also 3D-printed all of the physical components of his cafe, but that’s another story.) He uses software to design what he ultimately wants the chocolate bar to look like, prints that on his 3D printer, and uses it to create a mold, which he’ll fill with chocolate to create the final product. Harvey envisions something similar: “If I can see a design in my mind’s eye [and then create a mold for it] using my 3D printer . . . that gives me an advantage over the next guy.”
Nathan Myhrvold, says Scott Heimendinger, technical director at Modernist Cuisine, “had an idea that, in addition to coming up with our own dishes, we would literally make our own ‘dishes’ . . . our own porcelain plateware.” In collaboration with Shapeways, the team 3D-printed molds that ultimately were turned into ceramic dishes.”
SOLUTIONS LOOKING FOR A PROBLEM
Considering that I love making French onion soup the old-fashioned way (in a pot) and have had good luck with store-bought plateware up to this point in my life, I had to wonder if a 3D food printer was for me—or any home cook, for that matter.
Talking to Heimendinger, I realized I’m not alone in my skepticism. He said, “3D printing of edible stuff still feels a little bit like a solution looking for a problem . . . I see a lot of [3D-printed] things and think, ‘That’s so gorgeous,’ but I wouldn’t necessarily order it off of the menu.”
To create the absinthe service, the Modernist Cuisine team used a version of the ChefJet Pro printer. It creates intricate confections by binding very thin layers of fine powdered sugar (which can be mixed with other sweet or savory powdered ingredients) with a liquid, which can be colored and flavored. If you desire detailed 3D-printed sweet treats covered with colorful patterns, the ChefJet Pro might be your cup of (sugary) tea. But while it can print elaborate, even architectural designs, the powder and liquid construction method limits your options for different textures or flavor profiles.
Other 3D food printers offer a bit more versatility. Instead of working in a bed of sugar, these printers function by extruding thin layers of food—with an appropriate consistency—out of a nozzle. The layers build vertically, creating three-dimensional shapes: trees, pyramids, dinosaurs—whatever your imagination (and your software design ability) can dream up.
Barcelona-based Natural Machines created the approximately $4,000 Foodini, an extruder-style 3D food printer, to “streamline some of cooking’s more rote activities” and “encourage people to eat more healthy foods,” according to the company’s website. The user fills stainless-steel capsules with raw ingredients and attaches an appropriate nozzle depending on the food’s texture. Suggested recipes include gnocchi, ravioli (the pasta and the filling use separate capsules), veggie burgers, pizza, quiche, crackers, and cookies, which, in most cases, still need to be cooked after printing.
After perusing some of Foodini’s creations, I’m still not clear on why I would want to make my pizza, gnocchi, or cookies using the machine. I still have to prepare all my ingredients (dough, sauce, filling, and so on), then fill the capsules, press “print,” and wait just as long for the machine to 3D-print my food as it would have taken me to shape, roll, or form everything myself. And I still have to cook it. Plus, I’ll have to wash the capsules and nozzles, which as anyone who has washed pastry piping tips can attest, is a pain. It’s not obvious to me, as Heimendinger noted, what problem, exactly, this machine is solving—it’s not saving me time, effort, or expense. And as for the health angle, unless the printer is able to physically restrain me from doing so, I’m still going to toss those gnocchi in browned butter and serve them with a salad on the side. You know, for balance.
Is your inner food geek craving something higher tech? Want even more control over the food you print? Then forget about sugar and pizza sauce and focus on food “pixels.” Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University and author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, and his team at the Creative Machines Lab, have spent several years working on what they’re referring to as the “food printer.” Their current model can print in 12 different ingredients at once and, according to Lipson, it “assembles the food, pixel by pixel,” meaning it prints tiny dots of different ingredients side by side and layer by layer to create varied textures and flavors within a single print. “It [in essence] mixes two different materials, not using a spatula, but by placing very fine dots next to each other.” Lipson noted that these dots—which he compared to the resolution on a digital image—can range in diameter from more than 1 millimeter, for something like cookie dough, down to 200 microns for an ingredient like oil or water. Though still in the prototype phase, this sounds intriguing (or at least not something a home cook could easily achieve on her own).
In 2016, Lipson and his team partnered with chef Hervé Malivert, director of food technology at the International Culinary Center in New York City, and his students to test the food printer and exercise their culinary creativity. A mixture of cooked polenta, goat cheese, and honey was “one of the most successful recipes,” said Malivert, though he noted it took about 10 minutes to print. (“Could a similar result have been achieved with a piping bag and some patience?” I thought.) Cookie dough and pâte à choux also worked well, but for every 3D success, as with any new technology, there were just as many flops. For example, 3D printing a mousseline fish puree looked promising but, according to Malivert, “when we tried to cook [the printed mousselines], they tended to shrink and the shape changed . . . so that needed work.”
A more recent prototype is able to cook the food while it prints, using infrared heat—potentially solving chef Malivert’s shrinking mousseline conundrum. The team is currently exploring using lasers as an even more accurate cooking method, something that, according to Lipson, “is a totally unexplored part of cooking.”
Other extruder-based 3D food printers, such as the CocoJet, ChocALM, and the PancakeBot, work with specific ingredients: chocolate and pancake batter, respectively. The PancakeBot features a heated printing surface, which cooks the pancakes as you print your (barely three-dimensional) design. You still have to flip the pancakes yourself. At only $299, it’s the most affordable of the bunch, but I think I’ll hold out for a self-flipping feature and stick to making quirky pancake shapes using my trusty squeeze bottle.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
The professionals I spoke with don’t envision 3D printing taking over restaurant or home kitchens anytime soon, due to their high costs, lengthy print times, and limited functionality. They also don’t believe 3D printers will replace the human act of cooking. “I don’t think people are going to print their whole meal . . . They’ll still do their cooking, but they might add a 3D printed [element] to add a different flavor, or for a nutritional component,” said Malivert. But with significant advances in the technology, they all agreed that it could have the potential to impact particular aspects of the food industry.
One vision is that foods could be printed based on biometric data about the individual eater and could contain computer-customized ingredients and nutrients fine-tuned for each person. According to Heimendinger, “Bespoke or customized nutrition is a great opportunity for 3D printing, not only for getting nutrients into your meal in a precise way, but also for having data and traceability on your nutritional intake, which is currently a big missing puzzle piece.”
Lipson agrees. “From a health point of view, it’s the ultimate thing. Today we tend to eat one-size-fits-all food. Imagine that you wake up in the morning and the slice of bread that you eat was baked on the spot for you, it doesn’t have any preservatives and [its ingredients are] based on your specific biometrics.”
What if 3D printers could make their way into hospitals, nursing homes, and even schools as a way to meet individual nutritional needs? Malivert imagines a hospital “having a 3D printer that’s able to print [an edible item] to meet [each patient’s] needs, that has vitamins, and that’s also nice and flavorful, maybe with a little crunch.”
Heimendinger imagines a new field of food materials science “when the technology takes a leap in scale downward. When we’re able to manipulate things at a [close to] molecular scale, we’ll be able to essentially do food material science through the use of 3D-printer-like technologies. You’ll be able to achieve some of the textures we love through new means. Imagine a French fry that is always crispy, that’s never soggy, but was never fried in oil.”
Someday we might even see printed food in space. In 2013, NASA awarded a contract to an Austin, Texas-based startup to design a 3D food printer to be used on a future manned mission to Mars to provide astronauts with freshly prepared hot meals customized to their personal nutritional needs.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently used a 3D printer to help engineer the equivalent of “edible origami.” Thin, flat sheets of gelatin and starch transform into three-dimensional shapes—tubes, curves, even flowers—when submerged in water. The team created these intricate shapes by precisely 3D printing patterns of edible cellulose, which doesn’t absorb water, over the top gelatin layer, which quickly expands as it absorbs water. They believe their findings could help drastically reduce shipping costs for foods such as pasta by allowing them to be packaged as space-saving flat sheets that only take their final shape when cooked.
Just like any technology in its early stages, the kinks of 3D food printing still need to be ironed out. In their current state, the printers on the market today don’t appear to improve upon the abilities of cooks, both amateur and professional, to make beautiful foods that are full of flavor and with appealing textures, nor do they save time or money. However, there’s no denying the technology’s future potential. Perhaps, in the future, when you get home from work, hungry and tired, you’ll head into your kitchen and press “print,” but for now, I think I’ll save that last bit of counter space for my food processor.
Header image by Chris Hoover / Modernist Cuisine, LLC.