And Eat It, Too: In Defense Of Kitchen Ignorance

Says one killjoy in today's New York Times, "Cooking is chemistry, and the only way to know for sure is to employ the scientific method." Um, no thanks. Pass the butter.

Some of us love to cook and hate mixing it up with the math-tinged boringness that is "food science." We might follow Cooks' Illustrated meticulous recipes, but studiously avoid the dry sidebars explaining the whys and wherefores of leavening. A piece in today's Times critiques this kind of mindless order-following, as the author, Kenneth Chang, takes to the kitchen with kill-joy food scientist Shirley Corriher, for whom I've always cherished a deeply unjust animosity.

Cookbooks bark out instructions like boot camp orders — Add oil to pasta water! Salt the eggplant! Brown meat to seal in juices! — and legions of home cooks obediently follow them. I wondered how many of these truisms had a scientific underpinning and how many were but myths. Browning meat, for instance, does not seal in juices. The char adds flavor, though.

Corriher watches as the author cooks, and demystifies beans, grilled shrimp, and braised Brussels sprouts.

A duck leg basted with a soy sauce-rice wine-garlic-ginger-honey sauce provided another lesson in browning.
In addition to adding sweetness, the honey helped brown the duck skin, taking advantage of chemical reactions described by Louis-Camille Maillard a century ago. In the Maillard reaction, at high temperatures, fructose and glucose in the honey reacts with amino acids in the duck, producing a variety of new molecules that add flavor and color.

The anti-scientist might tell herself that if generations of peasant-women can cook without knowing this sort of mumbo-jumbo — using instead instinct, experience, sight and touch — surely we can do without it, too. If something tastes good, we think defensively, it tastes good: who cares why? Of course, if we are honest we know full well the real issue is the panic brought on by the memory of staring blankly at high school's impenetrable chemistry formulas and the horror that was mandatory college science courses. For my part, I was intimidated, I was afraid, and so, like a Medieval ignoramus, I preferred to see Galileo executed than face the realities of a brave new scientific world.

The point of the article, is, ultimately, that the two schools of thought need not really be in conflict. Chang discovers that his mother's "folk wisdom" — adding sugar to a stir-fry out of habit and tradition, for example — is based upon sound principles of food science. Because, as we are meant to see, there is no point to the science if it doesn't result in good-tasting food, and no point to the "folk wisdom" if it's not founded on a chemistry that makes ingredients respond in expected ways. It's all in the way you look at it: food scientist Harold McGee might see that a honey-braised turkey has browned up well because of a Maillard reaction, where a "cook" will just see a luscious skin. The proof of the pudding, as a man once said, is in the eating. And there is something to be said for having grasped the fundamentals of chemistry without every cracking a book.

At The Stove, A Dash Of Science, A Pinch Of Folklore [New York Times]