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In Praise of Kitchen Chemists

In Praise of Kitchen Chemists

Food preparation is a science as well as an art.

With the much greater attention paid to the culinary arts in recent years, it is easy to forget that cooking is science as well as an art. Cooking is, after all, the use of chemical and physical principles to combine and transform ingredients in ways that change their properties and composition.

In that sense, the preparation of a cream reduction sauce requires a strict scientific process just as the creation of steel does. The ingredients must be pure, measured carefully, added in the right order and adhere to a clearly defined process.

Heat, the great transformer, must be managed meticulously, not only in terms of absolute temperature but also in terms of the speed and method of heat transfer into and out of ingredients.

Let me hasten to say that I'd always trust my dinner to a chef long before I'd consider the physicist. At the same time, a scientific understanding of what is happening at the molecular level can only enhance the chef's mastery of his or her art.

The term “molecular gastronomy” was proposed in 1988 by two European scientists, Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This, who sought to bring the food and scientific worlds together in workshops. Today, the movement has inspired a new generation of chefs who have introduced techniques and tools from the lab (read, blowtorches, lasers and liquid nitrogen) to the kitchen.

Whether you believe these latter techniques have advanced the culinary arts, or tend to side with those who say such methods smack of faddish sensationalism, it is hard to argue with the idea that a better understanding of what happens to food at the chemical and physical level during preparation can improve one's execution of the process.

In the onsite world, dietitians have been the food scientists of record for most of the last century, although their focus has largely been on nutrition. What I find most interesting is that today, three trends — a growing interest in the culinary arts, in the science of food preparation and in nutrition — are converging. And just as directors have found it important to become more knowledgeable about culinary and nutrition issues, many will also find it useful to learn more about kitchen science.

The recognized “bible” in this field is the classic book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, written by Harold McGee and first published in 1984 and revised in 2004.

If you've ever wondered why it is best to fold rather than stir egg white foam into a soufflé preparation, why the addition of salt and baking soda to soaking water will speed up bean cooking times, or how dispersions, emulsions and suspensions relate to the challenge of achieving sauce consistency, this is the book for you.

On Food and Cooking approaches its subject matter by way of 15 “large topic” chapters (e.g. Sauces, Cooking Methods, the Four Basic Food Molecules, etc.).Within these, it delves into an infinitely diverse mix of historical, geographical and physical detail. Indeed, McGee leaves so little unanswered or unaddressed that this book is destined to remain the classic treatment of its type.

That level of detail can be somewhat intimidating to those who would prefer their kitchen science in smaller and more digestible portions. If you are in that group, or just prefer a lighter and more entertaining writing style, you might prefer The Science of Good Food: The Ultimate Reference on How Cooking Works, a new book written by David Joachim, Andrew Schloss and Philip Handel, Ph.D., and published by Robert Rose Press.

The Science of Good Food is organized more like an illustrated and cross-referenced dictionary. “Canning” is covered in a page and half, for example. Its entry describes the process, how it works, offers a sidebar on botulism and its prevention, and includes several highlighted “Fast Facts” for those who enjoy them. There are similar entries for Caffeine, Capsicum, Gluten, Pastry, and so on, more than 1,600 entries in all.

Both books have a place on the knowledgeable foodservice director's bookshelf, and both could also provide the material for a series of educational themed events.

As McGee concludes in his introduction to On Food and Cooking, “Food is an infinitely rich subject, and there's always something about it to understand better, something new to discover, a fresh source of interest, ideas, and delight.”

Now — back to the laboratory!

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