According to calculations made by MIT's Tangible Media Group, even if dried macaroni pasta were to be packed in a box "perfectly," it would still be 67 percent air by volume. That's a lot of empty space to be shipping to supermarkets. With that in mind, a team of MIT scientists has developed flat pasta that transforms into a variety of 3D configurations … but only once it's immersed in water.
The production process starts with the creation of a flat sheet of gelatine and starch. That sheet is made up of two layers – a top layer in which relatively high-density gelatine is used, and a bottom layer containing lower-density gelatine.
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Both layers absorb water when exposed to it, causing them to expand. Because of the higher-density gelatine present in the top layer, however, it expands more. This causes it to curl around the less-expansive bottom layer, making the pasta sheet curve down.
Since this setup alone wouldn't result in much of a variety of shapes, a 3D printer is used to selectively apply patterns of edible (and non-absorbent) cellulose to the outside of the top layer. This limits the amount of water that can be absorbed by that layer, keeping it from expanding – but only in the places where the cellulose has been applied. As a result, the bottom layer in those areas expands more than the top, causing the pasta to curve up.
Through careful application of the cellulose, the team has made pasta that changes into shapes resembling macaroni, rigatoni, flowers and horse saddles. It has been tested by a chef at a high-end Boston restaurant, resulting in entrees that reportedly "had great texture and tasted pretty good."
Along with its use in the food industry, it also hoped that the technology could ultimately allow home cooks to design their own pasta.
The research was led by Wen Wang and Lining Yao, and is being presented this month at the 2017 Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The pasta can be seen in shape-changing action, in the video below.