The next It appliance for your kitchen? A 3-D food printer (really)

September 13, 2011

Fancy a tiny, puffy pastry popping out from your printer?

Researchers at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab are experimenting with 3-D food printers, envisioning them as the next It appliance for restaurants and home kitchens – digital gastronomy, if you will.

Using edible "inks" and digital blueprints, their latest printer, Fab@Home, can make precise, novel treats, from perfectly shaped Austrian sugar cookies to scallops shaped liked miniature homes or space shuttles, if that's more your speed.

"It's digital cooking," says Jeffrey Lipton, a mechanical engineering PhD student who worked alongside molecular gastronomy pioneer Dave Arnold of the French Culinary Institute.

Together they are conjuring new forms for the foods we've come to know, with the hopes of making them more delectable.

The technology is nascent, and so far only produces raw food, but "it is conceivable that a printer would also cook the material as it prints," said Hod Lipson, head of the Cornell lab.

The ingredients so far have mostly been soft foods such as pesto, cheese, chocolate, frosting, peanut butter and cookie dough. These are poured into a print head and then pumped out via syringe to form whatever intricate design a digital blueprint exacts.

The technology will let chefs play with food textures and flavours, even if they don't have a steady hand. "You can make things that are far more complex than what most people are skilled [enough] to do manually," Dr. Lipson said.

"It could be a novelty in a high-end restaurant but it could also, in the longer term, be an appliance not unlike the bread maker, much more sophisticated but as easy to use."

Eggheads have been experimenting with 3-D printing for nearly three decades. They started with plastic and moved on to metals and ceramics: "It literally makes three-dimensional things on the fly. ... You can print toys, a toothbrush, an iPod holder – whatever you want," Dr. Lipson said.

The food printer also has implications for healthy eating, said Mr. Lipton, the PhD student.

"If you gave kids peas that didn't look like peas and said they were a space shuttle, they're much more apt to eat them because it's now playtime," he said. "It's a way of introducing nutrition to kids, sort of through trickery."

With the help of the French Culinary Institute, he said, "We did a meat cube with celery on the inside for children. In order to get their meat they also have to eat their vegetables."

Mr. Lipton envisions a simple touch interface that would let users program their recipes.

Dr. Lipson, meanwhile, sees downloadable menus: "You can record a well-known chef's recipe and have that be made at home for you, on the spot."

But is any of it better than grandma's Austrian sugar cookies, rolled out painstakingly by hand?

"A hexagonal piece of cheese is a lot better than a square piece of cheese," Dr. Lipson giggled. "Does the ability to completely control the geometry change the taste? It's a philosophical question about the aesthetics of food."

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