Their plot worked perfectly.
Harvard scientists on Monday conspired with one of the nation’s top barbecue chefs to slip some science into his cherry-wood-smoked pork ribs. The academic bits came compliments of David Weitz and Pia Sörensen, organizers of the 13-year-old “Science and Cooking” lecture series. Its latest installment Monday evening was a damp and smoky, affair that, despite the threat of rain, lured an audience of about 80 of the barbecue-curious to the patio outside Harvard’s Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering.
The smoke came compliments of Bryan Furman, an Atlanta pitmaster who in 2019 was named one of Food and Wine magazine’s best new chefs. Furman, whose appearance Monday was an encore from a year earlier, is a former welder who has blended his knowledge of the transformative power of heat with an appreciation for the heritage hogs raised on his grandparents’ South Carolina farm, where he spent time growing up.
Furman said science was one of his favorite subjects, but his teachers weren’t able to make it as accessible, practical — and alluring — as he aimed to make his talk, “The Thermodynamics of Barbecue.” Barbecue, he said, could be used as a medium to teach not just science, but art and business as well.
“This wasn’t what they were talking about when I was in school,” Furman said. “When you’re teaching students like this, it keeps them more involved and interested, compared to just sitting in class.”
Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, kicked off the session with some scientific basics, describing diffusion of compounds and heat, both of which work to impart texture and flavor during the smoking process. He also offered a “Science and Cooking” standard: the equation of the week, which elicited appreciative applause. This particular one describes the distance that heat diffuses into a substance, L=√4Dt, where L is the distance heat diffuses, t is the time heat has to work, and D is the substance’s diffusion coefficient.
Weitz noted that the diffusion coefficients were similar for several very different foods — beef, strawberries, chicken, potatoes, and water — mainly because water is a major component of each.