You don’t need to know the exact science of what makes a great grilled cheese sandwich to enjoy one. (It has to do with the milk’s net negative charge in cheese-making and flowing protein molecules.) But knowing some of the how and why behind cooking appeals to the geek in us, and can inform our cooking.
In “The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food and Cooking,” (Columbia, $29.95), editors Cesar Vega, Job Ubbink and Erik van der Linden observe that science in the form of new techniques and ingredients is increasingly invading the kitchen.
For a proper understanding of those techniques, the essays (written with a gee-isn’t-this-cool attitude) aim to take a step back, explaining why food behaves the way it does during preparation. Here are three fun things we learned:
• Why the ice cream doesn’t melt in a baked Alaska: It’s all about heat transference. The meringue coating the outside is an inefficient conductor of heat; so is the cake base. Together, they insulate enough so that the ice cream melts only slightly (just 6 percent!), despite the high temperature.
• Adding a little baking soda will brown onions faster. The baking soda, a weak base, makes the onions less acidic, which speeds up the browning, called the Maillard reaction. Just a pinch, though. Too much and the onions become wet and mushy. Other ways to speed browning: adding protein or sugars (an egg wash or sugar water on baked goods), increasing temperature, using less water.
• Why lemon juice prevents browning. Chopping a vegetable or fruit sets up a protective reaction. Enzymes combine with phenolic compounds to produce an “antimicrobial defense line” to protect damaged cell walls, resulting in browning. To stop that, render the enzymes inactive. Lemon juice (and other acids, such as vinegar) does that, as do heat (blanching) and salt (brining).