Friday, September 17, 2010

The Science of Food

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and think of a scientist, what image would pop into your head? An Einsteinesque creature in a lab coat, bent over a lab bench filled with petri-dishes and bunsen burners? Or something maybe a little more exotic (and less stereotypical) like an astronaut at the International Space Station? Or how about your Aunt Betty in her apron, with rolling pin in one hand and flour canister in the other?

Well, probably not that last one. But yes, your Aunt Betty was a scientist of sorts (how do you make a pie crust flakey?). And every time you cook or bake in your kitchen, you are engaged in a type of science.

I'm not talking about formal food science (which is an applied science drawing from microbiology, biochemistry, and chemical engineering... and, I assume, zoology and botany). Aunt Betty's science is an informal food science. But if you are interested in kicking it up a notch, it is possible to bring the science into your kitchen in a more deliberate, conscious way (and possibly improve your cooking at the same time!).

Food and cooking and eating and digesting and all that stuff are great ways for families to dip their collective toes into some hands-on, practical, real-life, honest-to-goodness science.

The classic primer on the subject is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

From "A classic tome of gastronomic science and lore, On Food and Cooking delivers an erudite discussion of table ingredients and their interactions with our bodies. Following the historical, literary, scientific and practical treatment of foodstuffs from dairy to meat to vegetables, McGee explains the nature of digestion and hunger before tackling basic ingredient components, cooking methods and utensils. He explains what happens when food spoils, why eggs are so nutritious and how alcohol makes us drunk. As fascinating as it is comprehensive, this is as practical, interesting and necessary for the cook as for the scholar."

There are more and more food science books (for the layman) coming out on the market.

This 2010 cookbook, Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food, looks quite interesting. He even tells you how to make your own ice cream using liquid nitrogen (there's a demo video on the site). From the product description:
More than just a cookbook, Cooking for Geeks applies your curiosity to discovery, inspiration, and invention in the kitchen. Why is medium-rare steak so popular? Why do we bake some things at 350 F/175 C and others at 375 F/190 C? And how quickly does a pizza cook if we overclock an oven to 1,000 F/540 C? Author and cooking geek Jeff Potter provides the answers and offers a unique take on recipes -- from the sweet (a "mean" chocolate chip cookie) to the savory (duck confit sugo). This book is an excellent and intriguing resource for anyone who wants to experiment with cooking, even if you don't consider yourself a geek. Initialize your kitchen and calibrate your tools. Learn about the important reactions in cooking, such as protein denaturation, Maillard reactions, and caramelization, and how they impact the foods we cook. Play with your food using hydrocolloids and sous vide cooking. Gain firsthand insights from interviews with researchers, food scientists, knife experts, chefs, writers, and more, including author Harold McGee, TV personality Adam Savage, chemist Hervé This, and xkcd.

There are also food experiment books for kids (lots of them). I have not looked at these myself, so do read the reviews for them before you invest.

The Science Chef: 100 Fun Food Experiments and Recipes for Kids

Science Experiments You Can Eat

Amazing Kitchen Chemistry Projects You Can Make Yourself

Also, the A to Z Home's Cool website has a section on Food Chemistry with links to different food related projects (some are just experiments using food ingredients, but that's okay, too).

So, eat, drink, and be scientists!