Coming Soon to a Kitchen Near You?

Three-dimensional printing brings new possibilities for food. Some of those currently under development — pizzas for astronauts made from powder and animal-free meat, for instance — may sound like science fiction. But researchers at Cornell University are working to bring 3D printing into regular kitchens. So far, their efforts have focused on novelty foods printed into distinct shapes and designs.

Hardly Cookie Cutter

Cookies created with a 3D printer include this cookie with a “C” for Cornell embedded. This is a rough version of the sort of customized food 3D printing is well suited to make, said Jeffrey Lipton, a doctoral student at Cornell’s Creative Machines Lab. Ultimately, he envisions 3D printing being used to make products like a birthday cake with a message hidden inside, but so far, the technique has only been tested on cookies.

Layer Upon Layer

Three-dimensional printers create three-dimensional objects from digital designs; the technology is a type of additive manufacturing, in which materials are added, rather than removed, to make an object. This is done in layers, which are clearly visible in these unbaked cookies. The Fab@Home printer used to make them deposit material using a syringe. As a result, this printer is well suited to the uncooked batter of baked goods.

Printing with a Chef

While traveling, Lipton read an interview with Chef David Arnold of The French Culinary Institute. Arnold, who specializes in applying innovative techniques to food, agreed to help out and has since worked with the researchers on projects, using the printer to produce meat and to alter the porosity of masa (corn dough). The latter changed how the dough responded to being fried.

Printing for Health

Here, the 3D printer assembles a cube of turkey with celery paste at its center — the result of a collaboration between the Cornell researchers and Arnold. The technology has the potential to offer more than novel food designs; Lipton and his colleagues say 3D printing could be used to quickly prepare meals that are precisely calibrated to an individual’s nutritional needs based on data, such as a person’s activity level and diet for the day.

Animal-Free Meat?

This turkey cube was printed using turkey sausage paste, which originated from a real turkey. However, researchers elsewhere are working on using 3D printing to assemble meat from lab-grown cells in order to avoid slaughtering an animal. The two big challenges in these efforts are cost and the marketability of lab-grown meat. “Even genetically engineered food is a tough sell to people,” Lipton said.

Broken Down, then Built Back Up

Printing begins on a form made of sea scallop. To make a paste the printer’s syringe can extrude, the scallops were pureed. An enzyme known as transglutaminase, or meat glue, was added to bind the pureed scallops together, Lipton said. Transglutaminase is typically used to combine small cuts of meat to create a larger serving, according to the USDA.

Time and Labor

Scallops are printed into a familiar form: a house. While automation has replaced manual labor in many areas, small-scale food preparation in restaurants and homes remains dominated by manual labor, Lipton told TechNewsDaily. He and his colleagues have calculated that 3D printing in the kitchen, technically known as food Solid Freeform Fabrication, could save the average person 150+ hours per year in food prep time.

The Need for Speed

The team also printed scallops to resemble a tiny space shuttle, which they deep fried. They used this design with a variety of other substances, including latex, plastic and cheese. But 3D printing is not ready for prime time in the culinary realm. “It takes a very long time to print something,” Lipton said. “[Before these] foods take off at the commercial scale, we need to make 3D printing faster.”

‘Culinary Magic’

A variety of scallop sculptures is assembled with a 3D printer. This technology has significant potential for fine dining, said Lipton and colleagues, who wrote that 3D printing could be used to create 'culinary magic', which could include “flavored gelatin spheres with liquid centers, sauce foams, hot liquid deserts with flash frozen shells, syringe-extrudable meats, and much more.”

The Machine

The team is using the Fab@Home Model 2 printer for its cooking experiments. The Fab@Home is a personal fabrication platform being developed at Cornell’s Creative Machines Lab. It can work with any material that can be pushed through a syringe yet also stack in layers. The goal of the project, which Lipton heads, is to democratize innovation by giving everyone the ability to fabricate ideas at home. Anyone interested in getting a unit can email [email protected].

Future Foods: Photos of 3D-Printed Snacks