by Dave Arnold
Last year Cornell University’s Fab@Home program gave us a 3-D printer (read the post here) that uses syringes to make any 3-D shape you like –out of any paste you like. Fab@Home asked me to find a great application for 3-D printing food. Last week, I finally did.
Problem: CNN Money was coming to shoot a segment at the FCI on 3-D food printing, and:
- Our printer was broken (long story).
- I had come up with zero applications worth talking about.
Jeffrey Lipton, currently the leader of the Fab@Home project, solved problem 1 by showing up with a new printer. Problem 2 was the tricky part. CNN was hoping for a story about how great it will be when, in the near future, we come home, press a button, and have machine print out dinner for us. I find that whole idea, which removes ourselves even further from the way our food is made, horrifying. Dinner from a series of homogeneous pastes?
I needed a food idea that really warranted using a 3-D printer.
3-D food printing has a pretty big limitation: its raw material must be homogeneous and must be a paste, like cake icing — the printer extrudes products out of a moving syringe to create 3-D shapes. What can you do with paste? For kids’ birthday parties, say, you can print out the guest’s faces onto cupcakes. Whole businesses could be built around such cupcakes, but that isn’t the kind of application I care about. What does it matter if my homogeneous meat-paste is shaped like a turkey, or a car, or a penguin? Furthermore, if I were inclined to make meat-paste penguins, I’d probably need a whole bunch of them, so I’d make a silicone multi-penguin mold instead of 3-D printing them — molding is much more efficient for production runs than printing.
Jeffrey and I had a brainstorming session. I told him I was hoping to use the printer to create a custom texture instead of a custom shape. He showed me a picture of an object he had printed out of silicone caulk that looked like the nappy part of Velcro. “Whaddya think of that?” he said. I liked it a lot – there were possibilities here. “It’s a technique I developed called stochastic printing,” he said. Stochastic wha?
Stochastic printing, he explained, is when that the shape of the printed piece isn’t fully determined. It has a random characteristics. “You can just call it squiggle printing if you’d like,” he said. The concept is simple: instead of keeping the tip of the syringe against the object being printed, you hold it high. Instead of extruding exactly the amount of paste needed to create a straight line, you squeeze out more. By altering these variables you can make the squiggles as dense or open as you’d like — as you can see in my nine-second video here:
After the silicone Velcro, my Eureka moment. “I have the perfect material to print,” I told Jeffrey. “Masa.”
Masa is dough made from corn that has been nixtamalized (treated with calcium hydroxide). Corn tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos and the like are all made from masa. It’s a wonder-dough. Unlike like normal cornmeal dough, masa isn’t sticky; but sticks to itself quite well –it is cohesive. Unlike wheat dough, which is stretchy, masa isn’t elastic at all –it holds the shape you give it. Masa is a homogeneous paste. Masa is delicious. It is the ideal printing medium. I had a feeling that the taste and texture of steamed and fried squiggle printed masa would be fantastic. I was right.
The first shape we printed was a fairly dense block about 1.75 inches on a side. It fried up great. The inside didn’t get crunchy all the way through, but we liked it.
The next shape was a rather loose flower. Here it is fried:
Terrific. It had the taste of a tortilla and texture reminiscent of shredded wheat. I could eat many, many masa flowers. The flower was my favorite shape to look at; but my favorite shape to eat was the loose block:
I could eat a bajillion of those. The next step is figuring out how to produce a bajillion.