culinary reactions

Book review: Culinary reactions (Simon Quellen Field)

Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry Of Cooking is a book for the scientists who love cooking or the cooks who love science. If you are neither of those, you might find this book frustrating. Consider yourself warned.

The author

Simon Quellen Field is the CEO of Kinetic MicroScience, a company that designs and sells science toys.

The book

Culinary Reactions is an exploration of food and cooking from a scientific point of view. Throughout the book, there are chemical lessons, recipes and some nutrition-related topics.

I listened to the audiobook because that’s my preferred medium these days but keep in mind the following:

  • The audiobook is not narrated by the author, which can be a turn-down for some people
  • If you want to attempt the recipes, you will have to write them down
  • The printed book contains useful tables and diagrams that might make some topics easier to understand

In the intro, the author highlights the fact that all cooking, even in its simplest form, involves chemical (and physical) transformations. He then talks about his use of liquid nitrogen to make ice cream and makes you wonder what sort of recipes are in this book.

The chapters

Chapter 1: Measuring and weighing

The takeaway from this chapter is that accurate measuring is not necessary most of the time. The author also talks about a “simple” way of estimating calories in a dish, but I pretty much prefer to use an app for that. Finally, there is a brief explanation about how insulin works and why you might want to consider eating low carb.

Chapter 2: Foams

A lot of foods we eat are foams. This chapter covers everything from protein foams (e.g. meringue, bread) to gelatin and sugar foams. There’s also explanations on hydrophilic vs hydrophobic amino acids, the chemical reactions behind fizzy drinks and ionic bonds. There’s a recipe for whipped creamsicle topping using a dessert whipper, food colouring and Xantham gum.

Chapter 3: Emulsions

This chapter covers density, emulsifying agents, hydrogen bonds, polar molecules and stabilisers. For the lay readers, it teaches how to make Hollandaise.

Chapter 4: Colloids, gels and suspensions

Say what? Colloids and suspensions are probably not words you hear often in the culinary world but you do encounter them frequently in real life. A colloid is a mixture where one substance is evenly dispersed in another. A gel behaves like a solid even though it’s a liquid. Gelling agents are used in the food industry and homes alike, and include agar, carrageenan and pectin. All of those occur naturally and are used in thins like vegan jelly, non-dairy milks and jam. The featured recipe is called “cherry dream cheese”, complete with instructions on how to wax it.

Chapter 5: Oils and fats

This topic is probably the most familiar for most people. The chapter starts with the physical properties of fats and oils. Then it explains how energy is obtained from food at the chemical level and why fats contain more energy (i.e. calories/kilojoules) from fats than from carbohydrates. It covers the main types of fats, including omega-6s omega-3s and trans fats, and their health implications.

Chapter 6: Solutions

This chapter deals with saturation points and the effect of temperature in solutions. Practical tips include how to make clear ice.

Chapter 7: Crystallisation

Most of us think of crystals as they relate to food just only when talking about sugar. However, crystals are important in the texture and melting point of ice cream and chocolate. The recipe this time is vanilla ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

Chapter 8: Protein chemistry

This chapter deals with amino acids, peptide bonds, tertiary structures, denaturation, enzymes and the like. Real life applications include egg white foams, glutamate (as in MSG) and cheese. There is a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey, which involves hydrogen peroxide.

Chapter 9: Biology

The biology section is dedicated to the microorganisms that produce or modify our food. Thanks to them we have yoghurt, bread, cheese, beer, wine, etc. The chapter also explains different types of preservation through different ways of controlling microorganism growth: salting, drying and sterilising through heat, smoke, alcohol, etc. The featured recipe is not for eating but just for fun: how to extract DNA from pumpkin.

Chapter 10: Scaling recipes up and down

This is a technical chapter, useful for those recipes where simply multiplying amounts of ingredients doesn’t work. It has to do with surface to volume ratios because things like cooking vessel size and material, heat flow rates and gravity have an impact. There are some useful tips on what to do if, for example, the pan is not the right size.

Chapter 11: Heating

Heating is involved in browning reactions (e.g. Maillard), protein denaturation, volume reduction and drying. It also can produce carcinogens, such as heterocyclic amines, acrylamides. It can also produce colour and nutrient changes in a positive or negative way.

Chapter 12: Acids and bases

This chapter kicks off with a basic explanation of what are acids and bases, and then goes into more advanced topics such as strong vs weak acids. Other topics include the effect of acid and heat on sugars, the effect of acid on proteins, cooking with acids and bases and effect on colour and taste. The recipe is lemonade with chameleon eggs, the little caviar-like morsels made from sodium alginate, made to change colour by changing the pH of the fluid.

Chapter 13: Oxidation and reduction

Another Chemistry 101 chapter. We are familiar with the oxidation reactions in food, such as the browning of apples and avocados when exposed to air (there are tips on how to prevent this), oxidation of the ethanol in wine to produce vinegar, rancidity of oils and fats. There is a chemistry lesson on oxygen bonds, orbitals and electrons, and a brief discussion on antioxidants.

Chapter 14: Boiling, freezing and pressure

The final chapter deals with the effect of pressure (and thus, altitude) on boiling/freezing points and baked products. It also talks about pressure cookers, canning and making ice cream.

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