Writing an xmas article is always a strange thing for me. Due to various deadlines I always have to write them in September/October when it’s hard to get in the jolly spirit while it’s grey outside and radio stations are mostly playing ‘spooky’ playlists. This year inparticular is hard because in 2020 every week seems like it’s own roller coaster of crazy and who knows what will be left of science by the time you read this in December!

But many of us have spent the entire year not knowing what is happening with our science and some of us barely getting to do our science at all thanks to lab closures and lockdowns.

So this Christmas to try and keep our scientific minds active and not despair at experiments lost but think to new experiments we can do. If we can’t do experiments in the lab let’s do experiments on Christmas!

Now I don’t know about you but the cooking of Christmas based food is a highly contentions issue in my family. There are numerous preferences regarding everything from the crispness of the potatoes to the dryness of the turkey and it’s hard to cook for people who can only describe these preferences with terms such as “like crunchy but not too much”. So it’s critical that we provide some much needed data to help people better choose how they want their Christmas dinner cooked.

Here’s where science can help providing some much needed data.

First off, how do you like your vegetables? Personally I like my carrots and parsnips to have a little bit of crunch to them, not all soft and floppy. But that’s hard to convey accurately so what we need it a method for measuring how ‘soft’ the vegetables are.

  • Take some string from the turkey (there should be some tying up the legs) and tie two bits to each end of a carrot (tie really really well).
  • Put one bit under a plate so that the carrot hangs off the side of the table.
  • On the other (now dangling end) of the string start added clumps of potato and stick them to the string. Try to add similar amounts each time (around a teaspoon).
  • Eventually the carrot will snap and the potato will fall to the floor.
  • Scoop it up and, using kitchen scales, weigh how much potato you needed to snap the carrot.
  • This can then be converted to tensile strength, or you can use the SI unit of potato tea spoons. Make a note of which carrot tensile strength tastes the best to you.

Next dryness of meat is always a difficult part of the Christmas cooking experience. Turkey, chicken, beef, goose and even nut roast (v) all suffer from possible overcooking or under seasoning causing drying out. Unlike carrots there isn’t s specific ‘dryness’ to aim for but a threshold below which no one like it as it tastes like they are eating some kind of biscuit. Understanding what this point is another important Christmas data point.

  • Take a couple of nice slices of your christmassy meat. Preferably try to find a selection of meats that range from ‘jucy’ to ‘sand like’.
  • Weigh them all to get their ‘original’ cooked weight.
  • Now lay the meats out on a baking tray and bake in the over at as close to 100 degrees C as you can get (leaving the oven door open a little if possible) for 2 hours + (the + is because it may take more time depending on how thick your meat is).
  • Once it’s completely dried out weigh it again. The difference from the original weight is the amount of water you have managed to remove.
  • Make a note of which was the most delicious and enjoy a dried turkey snack before moving on to the next experiment.

Crispy potato are one of the most requested things that I cook for Christmas lunch. If they are not crispy enough then my daughter in particular gives me a look that oozes disappointment and expensive therapy. But how crispy is crispy before it’s burnt or ‘a rock’. Luckily science can answer this one too.

  • Position the roast potato under test in the centre of your plate. In order to help stabilise things later position a small piece of turkey on the top of the potato.
  • Now carefully measure the thickness of the potato possibly using a knife that you mark with gravy.
  • Add an extra potato on top and measure the change in height of the original potato.
  • Keep adding and measuring until the original potato is crushed.
  • Now this is tricky as the data can tell you two different stories. If the potato compresses relatively quickly and evenly then there’s no crisp at all and it’s probably undercooked. If the the potato holds a bit of extra potato weight and then suddenly crushes this this was a crisp potato. record how many potato weighs it held as your measure of crispness.

Finally the most overlooked buy some would say the most important of Christmas food ingredients, the gravy. How gravy is served is I think one of the most hotly contested issues. My mum has on more than one occasion served two different gravies just to avoid disagreements over the thickness of the gravy. You can either have gravy so thick it oozes nicely over everything or you can have gravy thin enough to allow you to turn your plate into a swimming pool. But again science is there for you and can provide actual empirical value for your gravy needs.

  • This works best with a nice flat side of a parsnip, however any relatively firm flat surface will do (you’ll need a parsnip with the tensile strength of at least 3 teaspoons of potato for this, limp parsnips won’t do).
  • Give the flat side of the parsnip a good clean (polish with a bit of turkey if needed) and lay it flat on your plate.
  • Carefully pour out a drop of gravy onto the flat surface so it nicely sits in the middle near the wide end of the parsnip.
  • Then using a fork gradually rise the fat end up so that it is tilting down towards the small end. You may wish to then prop it up on thin carrot (also helps with measurement).
  • The height you lift the parsnip to before the gravy runs off gives you a direct measurement of the viscosity of your gravy. Personally I like it to be thick enough to not move until at least 2 carrots high.

Once you’ve collected your data you should upload it all to an open repository like Figshare and write up a short paper detailing your findings. Next year when you’re asked what you want for Christmas you can simply give your family a DOI. This will make is so much simpler and helping everyone have a Merry but scientifically measured Christmas.

This article was made possible by the author listening to Maria Cary “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat… please send help.


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