Thursday, October 26, 2006

Science of Cooking talk report

Well that was rather a treat. The New York Academy of Sciences has a new series(*) of public lectures on the Science of Food, and I went to see the first event tonight. Shirley Corriher was the guest this evening. She's a chef with a chemistry background, she's written a couple of books on the science of cooking (CookWise from 1997 won a Beard award; BakeWise is not yet available), she's been a guest star on Good Eats, and she's a complete character. An unstoppable talker with a Southern accent, she talked without notes or a break for nearly an hour about the science of food in an enthusiastic, clear, and entertaining manner.

She started out by talking about her background and an early lesson she learned. When younger, after quitting chemistry as a profession, she took a job as a cook at a boys boarding school. Her first educational mistake was trying to fry eggs by breaking them into a cold pan then heating the pan. If you do that, the proteins in the eggs soak into tiny fissures in the cold metal and then literally cook into the pan as you increase the temperature. If instead you drop the eggs into a hot pan, they cook (specifically the proteins denature and link up) before they soak in and don't stick as much.

Her talk was rambling, a series of amusing anecdotes and cooking chemistry lessons that hopped from one topic to another. Here, from my notes, are some other particularly interesting or amusing things she said...
  • Sugar makes wine taste bad; sour makes wine taste mild; salt makes wine taste smooth and kills bitterness. If you ordered the fish and the person who ordered the steak got a Cabernet for the table, to prevent the strong flavor of the wine from clashing with your dinner, eat a bite of something with lemon and salt on it before taking a sip.
  • On average, meats lose 30% of their moisture during cooking. If you brine the meat (1 c salt per gallon water) it loses only 15%. If you cook it sous vide, you lose almost none.
  • Dried beans would fall apart if you cooked them for a really long time. Sugar and calcium both prevent a substance in the beans from dissolving and keep the beans intact. Molasses has both sugar and calcium, which is why molasses lets you cook baked beans forever without them turning to mush.
  • The pastry chef for the White House used a technique where strawberries are quickly boiled in a strong sugar solution before being incorporated into a shortcake. The sugar (by the same process as above) prevents the berries from turning to mush when they're cooked. Bill Clinton ate half of one of these shortcakes one night when he was "dining alone."
  • The metabolic byproducts of asparagus smell very bad to some people but not to other people. To those who smell the byproducts, the term "asparagus pee" makes sense. To me, it doesn't.
  • Acid makes most vegetables turn brown when cooked (by changing the chlorophyll's structure). So don't cook green veggies in a vinaigrette. Roasting asparagus under a broiler works great. Use lemon zest instead of lemon juice to flavor vegetables.
  • Acid also prevents potatoes from cooking. So don't cook potatoes in a vinaigrette either. Or with tomatoes, which are pretty acidic.
  • On the other hand, Dutched cocoa powder is alkaline, and prevents eggs from setting in baked goods. If you're baking with eggs and cocoa, use normal cocoa.
Whew! And then we got hors d'ouvres in the lobby. Speaking of the lobby, the NYaS just moved from their old location on the Upper East Side to the 40th floor of the brand-spankin'-new 7 World Trade Center. (I blogged about the building in April.) The building is amazing. The views to the East (Woolworth Building) and North (the rest of Manhattan) from the NYaS's offices are completely spectacular. The lobby is gorgeous and modern. The elevators are a technological marvel. You type in the floor you want to go to before you enter the elevator, and it tells you which elevator to take so that it can optimize travel. And the interior of the elevators with frosted glass covering mirrors, and intelligent display screens are fantastic. I'm telling you, it's worth a visit just for the elevators.

(*) The other events are on the Science of Wine, the Science of Beer (both with tastings), the Science of Taste (hosted by Hervé This!) and the Science of Cheese.

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At 12:59 PM, Blogger Annie said...

HOLY CRAP How did I not know about this? Great in-depth review. See you at the next one...

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Don said...

Wow! Very informative. I don't get the "asparagus pee" comment, but I think boiling strawberries in strong sugar is a very celver idea.


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