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Chef Tim Anderson: BluRhapsody and the Possibilities of 3D Printed Pasta

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Tim Anderson is a Wisconsin-born chef and writer based in London, specializing in Japanese cuisine. He has published six books on Japanese cookery, including Your Home Izakaya and Japaneasy: Bowls and Bento.

Some of the most visually striking food being made with 3D printing comes in the form of that most humble of weekday dinner foods: pasta. BluRhapsody, a collaboration between Italian pasta makers Barilla and Dutch scientific research firm TNO, is truly exploring new frontiers in noodles, taking pasta in spectacular new directions. Senior TNO Consultant Kjeld Van Bommel, who initiated the group’s 3D printed food program, said printing pasta “started off as a crazy Friday afternoon experiment: we threw some chocolate powder in the machine, and, hey, presto! Some stuff came out!” The team approached various food manufacturers to see if any would like to experiment with 3D printing, and Barilla was the first to say yes.

“Barilla, at that time, were interested in what they called ‘impossible’ pasta shapes,” Kjeld recalls. “As you probably know, all shapes of pasta are made via an extrusion process. You have a die, and you push the pasta through it, and you get spaghetti or penne or whatever. But there are limitations to what you can do. You cannot make, for example, a sphere.” The creative team at Barilla had been “dreaming about new pasta shapes” and realized that 3D printing could be a way to make them.

An alla norma starter with BluRhapsody’s Petalum 3D printed pasta. Image courtesy of BluRhapsody.

The results of their collaboration with TNO are remarkable. Some of the new shapes they have been able to make are representational. They look like lobster tails, little urns, or butterflies, for example. However, others are more abstract, almost surreal, and accordingly difficult to describe. There is one called ‘Galassia’ (galaxy), which looks sort of like the Milky Way extrapolated into a warped double helix and has the slightly mind-bending quality of a Möbius strip. Another, ‘Vortipa,’ has a fractal-like appearance, calling to mind florets of Romanesco, or a pinecone made of stars.

Kjeld tells me that general interest in BluRhapsody’s technology combined with the eye-catching shapes it has produced resulted in “the biggest publicity in the whole history of Barilla.” French gastronomer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said that the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than discovering a new star. Maybe the same is true for the creation of a new pasta shape.

Cooking with 3D Printed Pasta

Kjeld kindly arranged samples of some of their pasta to be sent to my home for me to try. I chose the Vortipa, as well as some that looked like lobster tails and sea urchins. For the latter two, I had an idea: I wanted to see if they could be used as a sort of trompe l’oeil, or more accurately, a trompe le bouche.

A variety of 3D printed pasta sent to the author, courtesy of BluRhapsody.

Could the visual cue of lobster or sea urchin evoke those flavors in dishes that contained neither? To find out, I made a cream sauce using a decidedly un-luxurious product that nonetheless shares some vague similarities with both lobster and sea urchin: supermarket-brand crab paste. I piped the sauce into the sea urchin pasta, and in a separate dish, simply laid the cooked lobster tail pasta on top of it.

Supermarket-brand crab paste.

With the lobster pasta, the experiment worked – sort of. I was very briefly able to convince myself that the sauce tasted of lobster, and with some adjustments, I think I could successfully convince other people, too. In fact, when I first tasted the lobster pasta on its own, I incorrectly assessed it as having a slight lobster flavor, a vaguely sweet umami that I almost immediately re-evaluated as tomato powder (I was wrong again; the pasta is actually made with carrot). So, the potential for culinary trickery is certainly there.

3D printed lobster pasta atop a crab paste sauce.

As for the sea urchin, the sauce did not work, which I attribute to sea urchin’s simply irreplaceable texture and flavor. (It didn’t help that my sauce was slightly grainy.) Ultimately, I felt like I had simply wasted pasta of exceptional quality. The pasta itself had this fantastically complex texture, with a springy chew and dense, satisfying toothsomeness. Its interwoven strands of dough and soft-stretchy-supple tactility called to mind the comfort of a hand-knit sweater, and because the pasta had such an intricate structure, it held onto sauce beautifully.

3D printed sea urchin pasta filled with crab paste.

This was even more apparent in the Vortipa, which I tossed in a simple cacio e pepe sauce; the gaps in its net-like framework acted like little pockets for sauce, which then came gushing out with every chew. I was reminded of how Kjeld mentioned that some of pasta they developed was inspired by a 3D printed ‘sponge structure’ originally used in shoe soles; all the little holes take up the sauce, and then release it when squeezed between the teeth. It’s perfect. Ultimately, I felt that the pasta is too damn good to use it for gimmicks like my crab sauce experiment, because it isn’t just a gimmick itself. It’s properly delicious pasta, and great pasta demands a great sauce.

BluRhapsody’s 3D printed Vortipa pasta in a cheese and peppers sauce.

Some 3D printed food startups are utilizing the technology to try and solve issues of distribution, sustainability, and hunger – all very noble goals. But 3D printed food doesn’t have to change the world to justify itself. Food should nourish people, and ideally, the methods we use to produce and consume should also nourish the earth. But of course, another absolutely essential function of food is to bring people joy – and there is a lot of joy to be found in trippy pasta shapes. And that’s not just because they taste great and look amazing. It’s because of the sense of wonder they evoke, a feeling that somebody has actually manage to make the impossible possible.

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