This post was written with ideas from “The Complete Book of Knife Skills” by Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan. There are various publications that discuss many key points to help the aspiring cook or foodie master the skills a good chef possesses. Today, we are going to dive deeper into understanding The Science of Cooking.
Cooking can be defined as “the manipulation of food for the purpose of rendering it suitable for consumption.” Generally speaking, we would assume this would relate to ensuring the food is safe to eat. We also hope that once the ingredients have been mixed together the end result would be something delicious! However, The Science of Cooking includes much more than just mixing ingredients together. In fact, a recipe is only a guide to the final destination and we need to understand how the ingredients affect each other, why certain ingredients may react differently, and how too much or too little of an ingredient could positively or negatively affect a recipe. This requires a much more in depth understanding of essential hard and social sciences.
At this point you may be wondering how we use our knowledge in each of these areas to improve and further develop our understanding of cooking. Let’s dive in:
Chemistry: Chefs rely on chemical reactions to get food to taste delicious as well as to look great! When a Chef prepares certain foods a particular way, such as meat, it will develop a crispy brown exterior. This example is because of a chemical reaction called the Maillard Reaction. When sugars and proteins present in the meat combine, it causes the food to brown. This can either improve the taste of food or make it unappealing.
Anatomy: Understanding the anatomy of an animal allows a Chef to be able to easily and quickly take it apart while being able to determine both the tough and tender cuts of an animal.
Mathematics: A strong understanding of basic mathematics is a vital skill of a good Chef, as even the simplest recipes require fundamental math skills. We must know how to measure ingredients accurately and understand how altering an ingredient will change the measurements of the remaining ingredients.
Biology: Understanding biology helps Chef’s to recognize and prevent various types of bacteria and viruses that may infect your food. In addition, understanding biology helps us to understand why veal bones make better stock rather than beef bones.
Physics: It is quite possible to cook without understanding physics – if you always want to follow a recipe exactly or never deviate from the traditional way of cooking. However, if you want to do something different and color outside the lines then an understanding of physics is important. For example, with just a basic knowledge of physics, we can understand the momentum of food while cooking and the way it moves in a pan.
Geography: Cuisines around the world vary drastically, both in preparation and the taste of the end result. For example, even a small dish of cabbage can be prepared and consumed very differently around the world. In North America, cabbage is often prepared into a coleslaw salad, which can be sweet. In Germany, more sour Sauerkraut is preferred and in Korea a hot Kimchi is preferred where cabbage is prepared with a hot Chili pepper sauce.
History: If we study why certain appetites prefer certain flavors we can understand where dishes have come from. Chefs can learn why chili peppers are more common in the Asian culture or why bread is more widely consumed in the West.
Sociology: This science helps Chefs understand what people around the world prefer in their diets. For example, in North America people eat a lot more bread and mild foods. In Asia, they eat spicier foods and often mix many foods together. In some countries, diets are influence more by vegetables than meats or certain kinds of meats over others.
Realizing how the sciences affect the way we think about food, prepare and cook it and understanding why it is important to know this are the keys to culinary success! Overtime, the understanding of the sciences will become very natural and we may not consciously think of how our actions are changing the outcome of the meal. However, once these skills are acquired they are with us forever and will improve our mastery of cooking and taste!