What is Brain Freeze?

Rooster Punch Popsicle With the summer heat here to stay, brain freeze is something we will come into contact with more often. But what really happens? Surely your brain isn't actually freezing... or is it? With an ice cream cone in hand (mint chocolate chip, of course), and these questions on the brain, I thought I'd do a bit of research to find out what really goes on when the freeze hits.

As most of you know, brain freeze or "ice-cream headache" occurs when a cold stimulus such as ice cream, popsicle or frozen beverage is consumed too quickly causing a painful headache lasting about 20-30 seconds. But why does this occur?

The trigeminal nerve, shown in yellow.

To get all scientific on you: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (don't worry, we can't pronounce it either) which means the nerve pain of the sphenopalatine gangliori (or simply brain freeze), occurs from the dilation of the capillaries in the sinuses. This is the body's way of trying to bring blood back to that area of the mouth or throat that was shocked by the cold substance in order to bring it back to its normal temperature.

Why do you feel it in your forehead?

This instant freezing of the mouth and thus dilation of the capillaries also triggers pain receptors in the trigeminal nerve that alert the brain of facial discomfort, connecting it to the forehead. That's why, after about 10 seconds, what is called deferred pain, in the forehead and temples occurs making you feel as though you've "frozen your brain".

So how do you get rid of it or avoid it from happening at all?

Some doctors suggest that by applying your tongue to the roof of your mouth and thus rewarming the area, the capillaries will release quicker giving you more instant relief. Another option is to slow down and savor that frosty treat, making it less likely for the whole song and dance to occur at all.

wild blueberry frozen yogurt

Here are some frosty treats to enjoy* this summer:

For more stories from Ashley Beck, click here.

*Please enjoy responsibly. Your sinus capillaries will thank you. 

Harvard Brings the Spice to Science Class

Harvard University's Science and Cooking lecture series kicked off its third semester last week. The semester-long event hosts some of the most notable faces in innovative cooking—each talking about a topic of their choosing. As the lectures are open to the public, anyone with easy access to the university's Cambridge campus are welcome into the lecture hall, free of charge.

The series seeks to break down some of the walls standing between the American public, inventive culinary ideas, and academia. In past years, speakers have discussed such ideas as natural gelatin, avant-garde cocktails, and "meat glue". The idea is for chefs to explain these seemingly unconventional techniques—and maybe make them more familiar to the average diner in the process.

On the other end of dining accessibility, Harvard's School of Public Health unveiled its "Healthy Eating Plate" last year. As a replacement for the now defunct "food pyramid",  the brightly colored graphic seeks to teach kids and parents how to construct a balanced meal. The program is also notable as being a groundbreaking healthy eatinginitiative devoid of lobbyists and government infuence.

This year's lineup of lecturers includes José Andres, Dan Barber, David Chang, and Wylie Dufresne. Also speaking this semester are Joan and Jordi Roca (of the #2 ranked El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Spain) and Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold. For the big finale (and the only non-free event all semester), culinary legend Ferran Adria will return to the podium. (Adria was also the first-ever Food and Science speaker back in 2010.)

This year's roster also features some notable Boston faces like Jack Bishop and Dale Souza of the Boston-based Cook's Illustrated magazine, and Joanne Chang of Flour bakery in Cambridge. However, anyone outside the Bay State can join in on the lectures too, as they are put up on Harvard's YouTube channel.

The Science of a Better Burger

Who doesn't love a hamburger? A fresh, juicy patty of perfectly-grilled meat sandwiched between two soft buns, preferably with a side of fries is the perfect summertime treat. But can science build a better burger? 

Today the New York Times profiled Nathan Myhrvold's research on the science of cooking the perfect hamburger. Mr. Myhrvold is a former Microsoft chief technology officer and a contributor to the recently published six-volume cookbook, "Modernist Cuisine", which offers an unprecedented look at technologically-enhanced cooking.

Both scientific cooks like Mr. Myhrvold and classic chefs like Daniel Boulud maintain that the essential key to a great burger is the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is the chemical process undergone by foods when they turn brown. In the case of a beef patty on a hot grill, heat from the surface of the grill interacts with the sugars and proteins in the meat and browns the burger, binding the meat together and producing molecules that are delicious to most human taste buds.

"The great challenge in a burger is to create the Maillard flavors on the outside while keeping the inside fairly pink. Gray meat is tasteless and tough because you've broken down the proteins without breaking down the collagen," said Mr. Myhrvold.

Here's how Mr. Myrhvold attains that perfectly juicy, tasty burger: liquid nitrogen. He suggests that the best way to create a burger that's browned on the outside and pink on the inside is to first cook it sous vide (in a sealed plastic bag immersed in water) for about a half hour, then dip the burger in liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds to freeze the outer surface of the meat. He finishes it off by deep-frying the patty in 450-degree oil.  While this method may attain the perfect Maillard reaction, it's not really practical for home cooks, yet.

The lesson is: season and sear your burger well! Creating that delicious crust on the outside of the burger is one of the reasons we keep ordering this century-old take on a sandwich again and again.  For a great burger, check out this video for one of my favorite basic recipes. Or, if don't feel like cooking tonight, explore this list of the Five Best Burgers in NYC!

Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography on flickr

Texture of Food

It's always really interesting to me to read about the science behind food, to get another perspective on the things I do on a gut level.  A new article about texture has taught me about the chemical basis of texture, and how it influences our food preferences. Texture is always on my mind when it comes to food.  For me, a meal is not simply about taste, it should look and feel amazing - it should be a multi-sensory experience.  When I'm making a recipe, I could think that a bean chili needs something crunchy and I'll throw in tortilla chips for texture.  For other recipes, I might use lettuce, or breadcrumbs for texture; I often improve recipes with little things like this.  It's all about giving you that play and balance between the consistencies of different foods.

The enzyme amylase is responsible for breaking starch into liquid, and a new study "shows that people produce strikingly different amounts of amylase" so the more amylase you produce, the faster you liquefy starchy foods.  So for some people, maple syrup, which is high in starch, would taste runny to people with more amylase, and not "melting enough" for people who produce lower amounts.  Also, amylase amounts slow with age, so "young children [who] dislike certain fruits because of a perceived sliminess" may grow to like them as they produce decreasing amounts of this enzyme.

I'm not sure if this information will change how I cook, but it's great to learn something new about the science behind cooking.

Read about the rest of this research here.