Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reflections on Science and Cooking

Cooking. It’s simple right? You take food, apply some heat, and end up with something that is (hopefully) edible. It’s all just guessing: a little bit of this, a touch of that, and pinch of mystery-essence-bottled-allpurpose-celebrity-chef seasoning. That’s all you need for to cook right? Wrong. While on the surface cooking may look like a simple process, on the scientific level there is much more going on.

For January Term I took a class entitled “The Science of Cooking.” This class is aimed at explaining why cooks do the things they do. Often these explanations are counter to conventional wisdom on the same subject. Take for example the simple grilled steak. Modern wisdom tells us that we sear a steak to lock in the juices. By using high heat we are somehow able to block the escape of liquid from the interior of the steak. Unfortunately, this idea is merely a myth touted by countless cooking shows. Searing has actually been shown as resulting in greater moisture loss when compared to other forms of cooking. But you wouldn’t want to eat a boiled steak would you? Although searing doesn’t lock in the juices, it does contribute something essential to good food: flavor. The high heat of searing allows for two reactions to take place: caramelizaton (the oxidation of sugar) and the Maillard reaction (which is an interaction between amino acids and sugar). The most obvious part of this reaction is the creation of a beautiful brown crust. Not so obvious is the by-product of this process: the creation of new flavor compounds. The creation of these compounds is the main reason for searing.

At its core “The Science of Cooking” begs one simple question: Why? By applying the scientific method to cooking, we are learning not only what makes food taste good, but how can we make food taste better. Take for example the breakfast staple scrambled eggs. A no brainer. Mix them up, throw them in a pan, cook as fast as possible. The result is a dry, gray, cakey mess of coiled proteins. Now tweak the process slightly: mix up the eggs, throw them in a pan, cook on lowest heat possible. A gentle heat will result in smaller curd formation in the eggs. Smaller curds mean a creamier scrambled egg, and a creamier scrambled egg is a better one.

Every student in the class kept a blog of all their culinary “experiments.” This chronicled our many successes… but also our failures. Some of the class tried making yogurt. The process is pretty simple: warm some milk, add a spoonful of yogurt, and keep warm for 4-7 hours. The bacteria ferment the milk giving it the tang and curds found in yogurt, at least that’s what supposed to happen. In practice, the process turns out to be more finicky than it seems. The end result was more like yogurt flavored milk than actual yogurt. Here is where the scientific method comes in, if the experiment didn’t go according to plan, simply re-do it and tweak one of the variables. By attempting multiple trials, we can gain insight into what went wrong with the process (it turns out the milk wasn’t kept at a warm enough temperature).

The culinary world is deeply rooted in art, in creativity. Science is not at odds with art, or with food. Science is merely a different lens from which we may look at food. By looking though this lens we can not only better appreciate our world’s culinary traditions, but also innovate and move those traditions forward.

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