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These pasta shapes were caused by immersing a 2-D flat film into water.

MIT engineers revolutionized the experience of cooking pasta into an artistic experience


MIT engineers revolutionized the experience of cooking pasta into an artistic experience

WATCH |  This 3D-printed pasta can be engineered to become any shape you want... ???

In recent years, novelty items such as "Grow a Boyfriend" or "Grow a Dog" have inundated shelves in American stores--providing a brief moment of entertainment to children, and yes, let's admit, some adults, who eagerly anticipated the blossoming of their newfound friend. 

A group of MIT researchers seemingly adopted that philosophy and applied it to pasta, which, when submerged in boiling water, transforms into an artistic culinary experience.

The engineers from MIT’s Tangible Media Group created a concoction in which flat sheets of gelatin and starch sprout into common pasta shapes, such as macaroni and rotini.

The researchers' goal, however, extends beyond amusement and entertainment. The group aimed to create ways to reduce the food-shipping costs.

Wen Wang, co-author of the paper and research scientists in MIT's Media Lab, said, “We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air. We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

The somewhat futuristic pasta is even programmable. Wang and colleague Lining Yao began experimenting with gelatin, a substance that naturally expands in wanter. Eventually, the two researchers engineered a flat, two-layer film made from gelatin of two different densities. The top layer is more densely packed, meaning it's able to absorb more water. So when the entire structure is submerged in water, the top later curls over the bottom layer, forming a slowly rising arch.

Hoping to create additional 3D-shapes, the researchers investigated ways to control where and to what degree the structure bends. Eventually, they settled on 3D-printing strips of edible cellulose over the top gelatin layer. Those strips naturally absorb very little water and found that they could act as a water barrier, thus controlling the amount of water the top layer of gelatin is exposed to. By printing cellulose in different patterns, the engineers discovered they could predictably control the structure's response to water and the shapes it created.

“This way you can have programmability,” Yao said. “You ultimately start to control the degree of bending and the total geometry of the structure.”

Yao and Wang created a variety of shapes from the gelatin films, from the traditional macaroni- and rigatoni-like configurations, to shapes that resembled flowers and horse saddles.

And the growing pasta isn't only amusing, but it serves its main objective: to be edible.

The team, curious in how their scientific experiment would hold up in the kitchen, showed their pasta creations to the head chef at a high-end Boston restaurant. The collaboration between culinary artists and scientific engineers resulted in two unorthodox creations. 

One included transparent discs of gelatin flavored with plankton and squid ink that instantly wrap around small beads of caviar. The other included long fettuccini-like strips, which were made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures--causing the noodles to divide when hot broth melts away certain sections.

“They had great texture and tasted pretty good,” Yao noted.

This isn't the end for the MIT engineers. They hope to bring the artistic pasta into the homes of everyday people, using much simpler techniques, of course.

“We envision that the online software can provide design instructions, and a startup company can ship the materials to your home,” Yao said. “With this tool, we want to democratize the design of noodles.”

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