Scottsdale engineer Peter Pelletier has built a better flavor trap. Will foodies bite?

Electric Meat

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Valley News Issue: April 2016
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The breast is juicy, that’s for sure. It takes only one bite of Dr. Peter Pelletier’s fresh-off-the-grill chicken to confirm it delivers on his promise of succulence and balanced salinity. Pelletier grins at his diners’ delight and begins cleaning the contraption behind this poultry production: the Flavorkey Culinary Pulser, his own invention.

A little more than a decade ago, Pelletier (who now has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering) and his fellow engineering classmates at Arizona State University won the senior design prize for their capstone project, a pulse generator for electroporation (see sidebar) that employed nanosecond electrical pulses to inject DNA or chemotherapy drugs into cancerous tissue. Cut to the following Thanksgiving, when Pelletier’s wife Kara rued the space and time hogged by the turkey brining in a bucket in their fridge for 12 hours. “She goes, ‘I wish we could do this quickly and we wouldn’t have to take up space in the refrigerator,’” Pelletier says. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, we could do that using electroporation!’ And then it was like, ‘Whoa, wait a second!’” 

Pelletier, whose scientific savvy, culinary prowess and bookish physicality evoke a kinder, softer Alton Brown of Food Network’s science-heavy Good Eats, began a long journey to bring his speed briner to the people. He won ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative and put the $20,000 prize toward starting Flavorkey’s parent company, ETEKA (made up of letters from his and his wife’s names), and patenting and producing his invention, which cuts brining time down from several hours to several minutes (see sidebar for how it works). The device works on poultry, beef, pork or any meat sturdy enough to stand up to a bath of salt water and sugar or a marinade.

Flavorkey prototypes are now available on Amazon, but Pelletier plans to host a crowd-funding campaign to secure more capital to mass-produce the devices, which retail for $169.98 (flavorkey.com). Will he be able to hook ambitious home cooks with his speedy – but not cheap – solution? In a country where 80 percent of businesses fail within the first 18 months, according to Bloomberg Business, it’s encouraging he’s made it this far. Scaling the peak to mainstream popularity is next.

“The challenge is always getting your customer base and getting it in front of somebody,” says Flavorkey devotee Eric Peck of Paradise Valley, an avid home chef and barbecuer who has been using the device since its infancy, when it was just “PVC hooked up to an electrical box of some sort with a bunch of batteries.” Peck is confident Flavorkey will permeate home kitchens across America. “It will take some time for people to catch on, but they’ll get there. Assuming you’re a foodie and you want to spend that kind of money on a gadget, it’s a must-have.”

Pelletier’s longtime friend and fellow engineer Moe Naseem thinks it could be the beginning of larger innovation for Arizona. “We have the large Intels and the Honeywells, but we don’t have the success stories like one guy thinking up Facebook – or in this case, one guy thinking up cooking tools,” Naseem says. “I think in five to 10 years down the road, this could be something that could be as ubiquitous as the barbecue grill. I’d love to see that.”

How Does It Work?

  • Pierce a piece of meat with the Flavorkey’s forks – going with the grain of the meat – and press the “pulse” button to administer quick bursts of electricity. Do this all over the meat. Place the meat into a brine or marinade for about about five minutes.
  • The electric pulses open up the cell membranes and “unlock the cell” (thus, Flavorkey) to allow the salt and flavor in a brine or marinade to permeate the cell membranes.
  • The cycle of the cell being stressed and unstressed eventually achieves equilibrium and the proteins unwind to form a water- and flavor-holding gel matrix so there’s no flavor loss. The electric pulses also relax the muscle fibers, making the meat more tender.