When it comes to making the perfect meal, it might be better to toss aside the recipe books and haul out high school science texts. “Cooking is a very scientific process,” explains Chef James Briscione, director of culinary development for the Institute of Culinary Education. “The more you know about the science of cooking, the more it informs the decisions you make in the kitchen.”
Wondering how chemistry impacts cooking? Consider these examples: The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that causes meat to brown. At high temperatures, the oxidation of sugars causes caramelization. And foams like meringue are made because beating adds air to the proteins, creating new structures. Even the caked-on food in a pan has a scientific explanation: Food gets stuck when chemical bonds form between the food and the metal.
Recipes are perhaps the simplest examples of the connection between science and cooking: The instructions are akin to following the scientific method.
Science may also explain why some recipes don’t work out, according to J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of the food site Serious Eats and author of The Food Lab (W.W. Norton).
Grandma’s roast chicken recipe, which could include instructions to roast a chicken at 400 degrees for 60 minutes, might have worked when chickens weighed two-and-a-half pounds with lean breasts; but a chicken at double the weight with a meaty breast would be undercooked using that recipe.
“These time and temperature suggestions are imprecise,” notes López-Alt. “You need to use a more scientific measurement—the internal temperature of the meat—to improve the understanding of how to cook.”
Recipe for Science Success
Preparing a great meal does not require night school classes to learn (or relearn) the interactions between heat, energy and molecules. The science-backed trick to cooking well: Pay attention.
“When you buy a new toaster, it won’t be calibrated like the old one. The bread burns on [setting] four and it’s too light on two but set it on three and it’s just right,” says López-Alt. “To figure that out, you made mental notes, paid attention and changed the approach until you got the desired result; that’s science.”
In the lab and in the kitchen, experimentation is essential. Entire test kitchens are devoted to experimentation: For each recipe that makes it to the back of food packaging, a restaurant menu or the Thanksgiving issue of a magazine, countless versions were tried, tasted and discarded.
“You need to be willing to experiment—and willing to fail—to test and understand the results,” notes Briscione. “Each time, take an analytical approach, asking, ‘What am I trying to do? What elements need to come together to make it happen? Why didn’t it work?’ and then try again.”
It might seem constraining to consider chemical reactions before braising meat or whipping egg whites but understanding the science can actually provide a lot of freedom in the kitchen.
“Science can help you understand why you are doing something or what happened when something didn’t work out the way you expected,” explains Julie Yu, PhD, senior scientist at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco where exhibits like “Pairings: Cultivating a Taste for Science through Food” explore the connection between science and cooking. “It can move you from following rules in a recipe book to intentionally doing something with food to attain a certain result.
“It also helps to know the purpose of each ingredient when you run out of something and are looking for a substitution,” Yu adds.
Science can even help predict perfect food pairings.
The Institute of Culinary Education partnered with IBM to see how Watson, the supercomputer that competed on the game show “Jeopardy,” could apply his scientific knowledge in the kitchen. As Chef Watson, the computer used a database of chemical components in foods and identified those with shared chemical compounds to suggest food pairings.
Briscione notes that we consider some favorite foods delicious because the ingredients have shared chemical compounds, including pizza ingredients like baked wheat, tomatoes and cheese. Some of the pairings Chef Watson suggested were more unusual.
Based on their shared chemical compounds, Watson suggested pairing chili peppers and pureed bananas; Briscione used the ingredients to create hot sauce. The computer also flagged cherries and olives as a perfect pairing and Briscione agrees the results were delicious.
Briscione wouldn’t have tried these pairings on his own. The results gave him new ideas about cooking.
“I was skeptical [because] I didn’t think I’d see new combinations that tasted good; I thought it had all been done,” he admits. “It’s led to some great discoveries and showed me that a computer could use scientific data to expand how we think of ingredients. It revealed connections between foods that we never would have imagined.”
Cooking Up Connections
Science also shows that preparing home-cooked meals offers health benefits.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that those who frequently cooked at home ate more nutritious foods and consumed fewer calories than those who cooked less; a 2012 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that people who cook up to five times per week were 47% more likely to still be alive after 10 years compared with those who cooked less often.
A renewed interest in cooking, which López-Alt attributes to a generation that grew up in a “cooking vacuum,” when working parents provided meals from restaurants instead of the kitchen, has led to a desire to understand the science behind preparing nutritious and delicious foods.
“Food science is extra popular,” he notes. “There is a generation of people who are coming to cooking with no experience; science is helping them understand how things work.”
Books such as The Food Lab and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking help provide the basics. IBM used its data to create an interactive website, IBMChefWatson.com, to encourage home cooks to play with science-based ingredient pairings; the partnership between IBM and Institute of Culinary Education also led to the publication of the book Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson (Sourcebooks).
And Nathan Myhrvold, founder of The Cooking Lab and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, gave the link between cooking and science a big boost when in 2011 he released the six-volume, 2,438-page Modernist Cuisine (The Cooking Lab), costing $600. He made the contents more accessible to the average home cook a year later by releasing Modernist Cuisine at Home, at a more affordable $100.
“You don’t have to be a science whiz,” Briscione says. “There is a lot of information that can help you understand the science of cooking.”
And, according to Yu, the effort is worthwhile. “Science is helping us understand all recipes and foods better as we learn more about our food sources, develop new cooking techniques and gain more knowledge about our health,” she says. “These are things that people may have stumbled upon before but applying science allows us to intentionally create the outcomes that we seek.”