Science: The Missing Ingredient in the So-Called Art of Cooking

Every chef should be a scientist too.

How so?

Cooking changes the chemical and structure of food. Therefore, understanding these changes would help a lot when perched in front of the stove, whisk or wooden spoon in hand.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve watched more episodes of the popular American TV program, “Chopped,” than I care to divulge. And time after time, I see contestants demonstrating a lack of knowledge of basic science as applied to cooking. Granted, these brave strivers battle against time, 20 minutes for an appetizer and 30 for an entrée or dessert.

Nevertheless … .

As a baseline, consider the following cooking methods: Smoking, salting, drying, pickling, braising, roasting, frying, boiling, grilling, baking. Within each method lie many steps and techniques that transform various foods – better known as “ingredients” – into entirely different entities. In other words, chemical reactions occur every second during the cooking process.

Or nearly so.

The work of nineteenth-century scientists such as Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) revealed the chemical secrets of many foodstuffs. And in 1912, Louis-Camille Maillard (1878-1936) pondered what happens when food browns (non-enzymatic), now known as the Maillard Reaction. But these experts did little to apply this knowledge to what actually happens in the pot. Surprisingly, the premier U.S. cooking school – the Culinary Institute of America – appears not to include a course in its associate degree curriculum solely dedicated to the science of food.

In today’s avalanche of culinary media, writers rarely mention the effects of science on cooking. Unless you’re reading something from the Modernist Cuisine impresario, Nathan Myhrvold,  or “pioneering” popular food science authors, Harold McGee and  Shirley Corriher, most of the time you’ll discover recipes with no explanations for WHY certain techniques are used. And worst of all, if the recipe doesn’t work, it may be because the writer didn’t understand that certain aspects of the combination of ingredients.  It has nothing to do with the cook on the other end.

Modern pundits owe a deep debt to home economists/food scientists such as Helen Charley, whose Food Science served as a standard college text for decades. McGee lists Charley’s book in his On Food and Cooking (2004) on page 821 in “Comprehensive Writings on Food Chemistry, Microbiology, Botany, Physiology.”

Take bread baking as an example of science and cooking, not that any “Chopped” chef would dare bake bread in 30 minutes. Bread is indeed one big science experiment, with all the vagaries of nature and the shaky hand of the cook.

Stir the yeast, and it bubbles up, mimicking the soft breath of a sleeping baby.  Mix the dough, and it clumps together, rough patches here and there, reminiscent of rough pavement. Knead the dough, and it turns as soft as a baby’s downy cheek. Bake the dough, and it glows golden in the fiery oven heat, perfect Maillard Browning in action.

Baking bread is thus pure science. Too much heat in the initial proofing and the yeast dies. Too little kneading and gluten strands lie there, as flabby as a couch potato’s muscles. Too prolonged a baking and the sought-after Maillard Browning metamorphosizes into a bitter burnt crust.

Take, too, another simple example, the perplexing interactions of acid and raw vegetables.

Add acid – say, lemon juice, vinegar, tomato purée, yogurt – to a pan containing uncooked vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, and no matter how long the cooking time, the vegetables remain exceedingly chewy. It all has to do with the structure of the cell walls and chemical bonds. Attempting to speed up cooking without a pre-boil or thoroughly sautéeing/sweating onions and then pouring on the acid is a sure recipe for failure.

So shouldn’t every chef be a scientist too? And cookbook writer, too, for that matter.

Resources for more information on science and cooking:

Science and Cooking (a series of videos from Harvard University)

For a brief history of food science, see A Century of Food Science 

For information about home economics archival material , see the Mann Library at Cornell University’s “Hearth” page

For an outline of the history of home economics, see History of Home Economics: Ellen Swallow Richards

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Credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2015 C. Bertelsen