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Food Science


From ancient meals to modern autoclaves: More fun things to do in the kitchen

by Melissa Gilden
July 18, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 28


Sterile under pressure

An image of an N95 mask being lifted out of an Instant Pot with a wooden spoon.
Credit: Beth Halford/Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Steam cycle: Moist heat, like that from an Instant Pot or rice cooker, can disinfect your mask.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a multitude of anxieties around cleanliness. For the last several months we’ve asked ourselves: Which disinfectants should I be using? Is my mask made out of the right materials to keep me safe? Should I be disinfecting my takeout containers?

The one thing experts all agree on is that you should be disinfecting your mask. N95 masks are supposed to be single-use items. However, health-care facilities, which have been strapped for personal protective equipment since the start of the pandemic, have gotten creative with disinfecting the masks using hydrogen peroxide vapor, among other things, to sterilize the precious commodity.

But if you’ve got an Instant Pot—the ubiquitous, all-in-one pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer, and food warmer—or just a plain rice cooker, you don’t need to go searching for hospital-grade sanitation equipment. In a letter to the editor in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center compared how well rice-cooker steam and equivalent levels of dry heat killed staph bacteria and bacteriophage MS2 viruses on cloth masks and N95 masks (2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.ajic.2020.04.012). The researchers found that a heat-and-steam cycle of about 60 °C for 15 min in the rice cooker was far superior for decontamination compared with dry heat alone. Notably, they found that the steam cycle was more effective than UV light and nearly as effective as the hydrogen peroxide vapor being used in health-care settings.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sings a similar tune. Moist heat appears on their list of methods for decontaminating and reusing N95 masks, along with UV radiation and vaporous hydrogen peroxide. Neither the heat nor the steam seem to affect an N95 mask’s fit or performance after 3 cycles of decontamination.

So next time you clean your face mask (which should be after you wear it next), consider taking your dusty Instant Pot off the shelf, or clearing out those last few stuck-on grains of rice out of your rice cooker, and trying a different kind of recipe.


A feast fit for Gilgamesh

A photo of a Mesopotamian stone tablet, with recipes written in ancient text.
Credit: Courtesy of Bill Sutherland
Mesopotamian menu: A University of Cambridge professor used a nearly 3,800-year-old recipe inscribed on an archaeological relic to cook an authentic meal.

Many have taken the extra time at home and reduced trips to the grocery store the last few months to try new recipes, like creative sourdough starters or the perfect guacamole.

But Bill Sutherland, the Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, left many would-be recipe challenges in the dust. The professor crafted a four-course Mesopotamian meal using a highly unusual recipe book: a stone tablet dating back to 1750 BCE.

Sutherland says his love for both history and cooking led him to the recipes. “It was remarkably straightforward to cook these dishes,” he tells Newscripts. “I never dreamt that this might go viral.”

In a thread on Twitter, he displays, side by side, the ancient recipes with their modern, home-cooked counterparts: mê puhādi, a lamb stew; tuh’u,a mixture of meat and beets; pašrūtum, meaning “unwinding”, a leek and onion casserole; and mû elamūtum, an Elamite broth.

He confesses that he had to make a few substitutions. Some of the recipes call for sheep’s blood and fat, which aren’t readily available in 2020.

Sutherland didn’t exactly hoist the ancient stone tablet onto his kitchen counter. The recipes (and their English translations) can also be found in the book Ancient Mesopotamia Speaks: Highlights of the Yale Babylonian Collection. The recipes found on those tablets are some of the oldest recorded that are known to archaeologists.

This Newscriptster finds the project fascinating, and hopes to see more modern interpretations of ancient cuisine.

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