The Science Behind Great Tasting Dishes
It may seem intimidating at first, but knowing the chemistry behind what’s actually happening in your kitchen simplifies the cooking process and helps make traditional dishes a sensation! Cooking is chemistry, and every time you walk into the kitchen, you like many food scientists, are walking into a laboratory limited only by imagination. People say cooking is an art, and for some that may well be true, but for most of us the science behind creating extraordinary dishes is easier to grasp and repeat over and over again. Understanding the science of food will help you improve the final product and have a little fun during the process. If you’re not a “science person,” relax because here is your solution!
I tell my students at George Mason University that cooking is food science, so study hard! Here are eight basic principles that will help you improve your favorite dishes.
1. Master cooking methods. Practice really does provide consistency. Learn the differences in wet cooking methods like boiling, braising, poaching, steaming or stewing and dry cooking methods like baking, broiling, frying, grilling or roasting. By understanding how flavors develop under different conditions and temperatures you will be more likely to produce a tasty dish.
2. Stop “guestimating” and use measuring tools. If you aren’t convinced science has a place in the kitchen, take a look around… Specific recipe instructions, ingredients, measurements, all designed to allow you to replicate an outcome! They key is to pay attention, invest in good measuring utensils and cookware, and pay attention to temperature. Over time you will begin to understand how much of what adds a specific flavor to your creations, and whether you like them or not. For example, I love spicy and many times when a recipe calls for a certain amount of crushed red pepper, I’ll double it!
3. High heat cultivates and brings out flavors, but low heat prevents overcooking. If you aren’t familiar with the common food science term “Maillard browning,” it is the process by which seared meats, baked goods, roasted coffee, caramel color
4. Hot food keeps cooking, and resting heat maximizes juiciness. Even after you remove a food from direct het, its internal temperature will continue to rise for a short period of time. You should expect this to happen in meats, and for vegetables it’s smart to stop the cooking process with an ice bath to preserve their texture.
5. Use a dab of mayo or an egg yolk to tame tricky emulsions. Emulsions are a combination of water-based and oil-based ingredients. Salad dressings, creams, and many sauces are good examples of emulsions, but getting them to cooperate can sometimes be challenging. Adding mayo, an emulsion already stabilized by the lecithin in egg yolks or a raw egg yolk to your creation works like a charm.
6. Sauté spices in hot oil to open up their flavors. Most flavor compounds in spices are fat-soluble. Sautéing them in oil alongside onions or garlic will unlock these flavors. This works particularly well when activating capsacinoids (i.e., the compounds that provide the heat) in red pepper flakes. Never add spices to a water-soluble food. Add the food to your sautéed spices.
7. Don’t ditch the salt! This is particularly important when marinating meats. Salt tenderizes meat and helps it take on the flavor of the marinade. Acidic ingredients (e.g., vinegar, Italian dressing, etc.) tend to break down the outer layer of the meat and can cause it to become mushy.
8. Write down everything. Think of this as your lab notebook from college. The more details you capture, the more likely your perfect dish will be to replicate!