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Feb. 01, 2013

How to Cook on Mars

by Julie Leibach

Click to enlarge images
For a warm, cozy, and satiating feeling, nothing beats good ol’ comfort food—especially if you’re on Mars.
 
That’s Rupert Spies’ theory, anyway. A trained chef with a background in food chemistry, Spies taught an intensive two-day cooking course this past summer at Cornell University, tailored for crewmembers who are currently participating in a 120-day simulated Mars mission. Located at a site on Hawaii's Big Island called HI-SEAS (for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), the mission is designed to explore new forms of food and culinary strategies for long-term space exploration. “If you’re so far away from humanity, one of the things that you really crave, that you depend on, is food,” says Spies. (Hear more about the HI-SEAS mission in this Science Friday segment.)
 
Whipping up a meal on Mars isn’t quite the same as terrestrial cooking, of course. In a station where astronauts might reside, the pressure would be around 0.6-0.7 bars, says Spies, which means that a chef must contend with a lower boiling point, for instance. And deep-frying is a no-no: Volatile grease bubbles can glom on to instruments and muck things up.
 
Yet, there’s plenty of earthly dishes that will serve up well on the Red Planet. The key is tweaking favorite recipes that call for perishables and learning to rely on shelf-stable ingredients instead. “Fresh eggs wouldn’t last for very long, as you can imagine,” says Spies, who is a senior lecturer at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. But dried eggs are fine, as is powdered cheese and canned tuna, for example. Pasta-, rice-, and flour-based dishes work wonders, too, as do those that use dried beans.
 
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In fact, many ingredients made the HI-SEAS mission cut—and some may even seem surprising, such as truffle oil and dried shiitake mushrooms (see the crew’s pantry items here; if inspiration strikes, enter your concoction into the HI-SEAS Recipe Contest). Yet, considering the isolation facing a Mars-rooted crew, why not go for the gustatory gusto? As long as the food won’t spoil and the cooking methods work, there’s no reason to go hungry as an astronaut. “The food is more than sustenance,” says Spies, “It really needs to appeal to their emotions—their physical and emotional wellbeing—and it needs to be relatively easy to prepare because these people are not there primarily to cook food but to be scientists.”
 
If you’d like to test a Mars-approved recipe, try Spies’s twist on macaroni ‘n cheese, a favorite dish in his native Germany. “To me, the recipe exemplifies a version of comfort food, he says.” His HI-SEAS students apparently agreed: During their cooking course, he says, “It vanished fairly quickly.” 
 
Rupert's Mars-a-roni and Cheese (Kasespatzle)
 
Ingredients
4 cups all-purpose flour
9 tablespoons egg powder (6 fresh eggs)
1 1/2-2 cups water (when using fresh eggs, reduce water to about 1 cup)
1 cup grated, dried cheddar cheese, rehydrated (or about 1 cup of fresh Emmenthal)
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan for extra flavor when using dried cheddar
1 cup dried onions, rehydrated (about 2 cups rehydrated or fresh)
1 pinch nutmeg
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
 
Directions
1. Mix flour, egg, water, nutmeg, and half the white pepper. Beat the dough with a cooking spoon, sliding the spoon underneath the dough and lifting it up until bubbles form and the dough has a semisoft consistency.
2. Squeeze excess water from the rehydrated onions and sauté them in oil until golden brown; remove from heat.
3· Squeeze the dough into boiling, salted water through a spatzle press or by pushing it through a large-holed colander with a rubber spatula. The spatzle dough can also be spread onto a cutting board that has been dipped in cold water; cut the dough into thin strips and scrape them into the boiling water. Once the water returns to a boil, transfer the spatzle to a colander.
4. Toss steaming-hot spatzle with cheese and the remaining white pepper.
5. Season to taste and top with sautéed onions.
6. Serve immediately.
Makes 4-5 portions as a main course.
 
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated that the boiling point would be higher for chefs cooking on Mars. The boiling point would be lower. 
About Julie Leibach

Julie is the managing editor of ScienceFriday.com. She is a huge fan of sleep and chocolate. Follow her @julieleibach.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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