Why are burgers delicious? Cook's Science is here to explain.


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Burgers are about more than just the meat, say Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza, the people behind Cook's Science. On Thursday, October 13, they'll be at the Athenaeum Theatre for the second stop of Cook's Science Live: The Burger Tour, explaining just what makes the standby such a crowd-pleaser. "We go through each part, everything from the bun to the ketchup to the burger to the onions," Souza says. "There's a lot more going on in each element than you would first imagine. This seemingly simple food is really complex."

It's not just a lecture, though: the pair describe the event as an interactive experience that will include video from America's Test Kitchen (the Cook's Science website launched in July under the umbrella of the popular PBS show and publishing brand), live experiments, and scent piped into the theater (but no food, though there may be food trucks outside afterward). "It's very much theater," Souza says.

Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza, the people behind Cook's Science - STEVE KLISE/COURTESY COOKS ILLUSTRATED
  • Steve Klise/Courtesy Cooks Illustrated
  • Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza, the people behind Cook's Science
While the tour will be focused on the science of burgers, Souza and Birnbaum also plan to tell related stories and explore the food's history. "We're trying very hard to make science fun, and not too intense or geeky or something that only people with a science background can understand," Birnbaum says. For example, one aspect of the show will explore the science and history of the ketchup bottle. "The glass bottle, as you may know, is superhard to get your ketchup out of," Birnbaum says. "This gets into the science of something called a Newtonian versus a non-Newtonian fluid, which is why some liquids, like water, will easily pour out of a vessel, while other liquids, like ketchup, need some kind of added force to get it to start moving."

In fact, the new website just published an illustrated examination of the ketchup bottle that explains everything from the mysteries of ketchup flow to the breakthrough that led to our modern plastic bottle. Cook's Science aims not only to explain the science of food, but to do it through narrative journalism, finding the stories behind the dishes and ingredients they investigate. Unlike its sister publications, Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, Cook's Science is online only—and, also unlike its siblings, it's free.

It did begin with a print publication, though: Birnbaum and Souza worked together on the production of the first volume in a series of Cook's Illustrated science books, The Science of Good Cooking. Published in 2012, it explores 50 principles of cooking and how they relate to basic kitchen techniques (the second book, Cook's Science, which came out October 4, examines the science behind 50 ingredients). It was during the process of writing the first book, Birnbaum says, that they came up with the idea for a Web-only publication.

They started with ice cream. For their first piece, Birnbaum and Souza enrolled in an intensive program, the Penn State Ice Cream Short Course. "We learned about the science of commercial ice cream, how it's made professionally, and then we brought that back to the kitchen and developed recipes for it. That's kind of our model," Souza says. A recent feature investigates the history, science, and modern usage of the fungus koji—a "delicious mold," as the story calls it—focusing on the unusual and occasionally illegal methods several chefs in the U.S. have developed for working with it and accompanied by recipes for shio koji and koji fried chicken.

"Everything we do in the test kitchen is really grounded in the scientific method, controlled trial and error to create the best recipe, or come up with interesting discoveries," Souza says. "And we're still doing that, but we're trying to tell the larger stories of the world of science."

Cook's Science Live: The Burger Tour Thu 10/13, 8 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-935-6860, $27

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