Can an understanding of the science behind food make you a better chef? Will a knowledge of the binding powers of milk proteins make for a better grilled cheese? The Kitchen As Laboratory, published by Columbia University Press, is a new collection of essays focusing on the chemistry behind many favorite foods and a few that only a mad scientist with a freeze dryer and access to a cabinet of chemicals could create.
The book is equal parts food journalism and recipe guide. Each essay includes a recipe and much of the science is explained in the chapter whether it’s the crispness of fried fish or more advanced techniques like making fruit caviar. Even moussaka is looked at as a series of chemical reactions from the chopping and browning of onions to the creation of béchamel sauce. The humble chocolate chip cookie gets two chapters to dissect its quotidian charms including one by Aki Kamozawa & H. Alexander Talbot of the popular Ideas in Food blog that involves vacuum sealing cookie dough.
If you’ve never considered the chemistry behind the foods you eat or pondered how science can make food better, this series of essays offers much to ponder. Cooking is an easy way to examine complex chemical reactions in a way that is more understandable to the non-scientist. Nearly ever chapter brings a fresh revelation even for those versed in terms such as the Maillard reaction, the chemical that leads to the browning of foods. Chapters on foam unravel the mysteries in Champagne, beer, whipped cream and meringue. You’ll gain new respect for the barista’s ability to coax milk into foam for your cappuccino.
The secret sauce in the book is the collection of writers chosen to contribute. It is a true think tank on the food/chemistry connection featuring many noted chefs, food writers, scientists and other experts from around the world. The experimental, lab-like slant in most chapters inspires the reader to experiment with wilder fare such as savory ice cream or exotic ketchups. It’s all about the possibilities of what foods can be and the hidden mysteries in the foods we eat every day.