The Chemistry of Cooking

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Some chefs equate cooking with art. They thrill at creating visual, aromatic and tasteful dishes. They excel at fashioning appealing designs for baked goods, for hors d’oeuvres, for the crackers that come with the soup and sometimes even for parts of the main dish.

Other cooks concentrate more on the health benefits of the food that they are cooking. These cooks want diners to “eat up,” so that as they eat, they will take in all of the nutrients that lie within the foods on their plate. Traditionally, such cooks like to pile foods onto the plate, seemingly oblivious to present-day concerns about the dangers of obesity.

A third and probably much smaller group of cooking enthusiasts finds in cooking the opportunity to learn some simple chemistry. I count myself among this third group. I am not really much of a cook, but I appreciate the fact that everything I cook is undergoing some sort of chemical change.

My college course in organic chemistry first brought to my attention the strong connection between cooking and chemistry. Our professor had just spoken to us about proteins, and about how they could be denatured, thus loosing their former characteristics. He then mentioned that every time one of his female students boiled an egg, she was actually denaturing a protein.

The kitchen can quickly and easily become a wonderful laboratory. Some kitchen chemistry can be performed without doing any cooking at all. Take, for example, the pouring of a drink into a glass that contains ice. This will eventually produce the formation of water drops on the outside of the glass. In this way, the “cook” can see clearly that the same chemical can exist in more than one form. Here on earth, the cook deals with all three forms of the chemical known as water.

The good cook understands how to work with the properties of water, using those properties to aid the cooking of the food that the cook hopes to prepare. Adding salt to water hastens the speed with which the water boils. Warm water will, as any cook knows, hold more salt than cold water. Excess salt in water, not a goal sought by any cook, will increase the number of objects that can be floated on top of that water. 

If a cook adds enough salt to a bowl of water, then even a boiled egg will float on the surface. Some of today’s present day conveniences for cooks are really wonderful chemical inventions. If you have little time for cooking, and if you depend instead on combinations that have improved on the original TV dinners, then you may have used one of those trays are supposed to work in either a microwave or a conventional oven.

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Those trays are made from a chemical that did not exist when the microwave oven first experienced widespread usage. Those trays allow members of the public, with little time to cook, the benefit of a product from a dedicated chemist.