What cooking chemistry should I know?
June 23, 2014 9:08 AM   Subscribe

What are basic pieces of kitchen science that would be helpful for me to know? I'm most interested in baking but cooking is okay too. Things like the effect of salt or liquid on a recipe or whether I want my bread dough to rise in a dry or humid area and why would be really great. I'm okay at following recipes but I'd absolutely love to know why different ingredients and combinations have different effects and how I can use that to my advantage.

Specific types of things that would be great:

The difference between using melted and hard butter (besides the fact that there's so much less when it's melted)
What does salt do besides add taste?
Anything about starch or gluten

My end goal here is to be able to tweak recipes to make things come out exactly the way I want them, for example, if I want cookies thin instead of thick or my bread puffy instead of dense. Really any information or resources you have would be really awesome. Thank you!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Cookwise by Shirley Corriher may be a good start.

A lot of it is experimentation, though. For instance, the "best" cookie recipe by Serious Eats walks you through all his variations in recipe and the results.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:11 AM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

From what I've heard, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking might have what you're looking for.

(I don't actually have the book, but I keep meaning to buy it.)
posted by ernielundquist at 9:17 AM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Alton Brown talks about these kinds of things in his TV series "Good Eats", which is now on YouTube.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:20 AM on June 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

The classic text on this is On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. You might like Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter too (full disclosure, he's a friend). And the suggestions above are also great.

If you're not looking for a comprehensive text, though, my advice is to just Google. There are so many resources out there, and the ones you find will lead you to others. Also, you'll get multiple answers, which can be helpful in sorting what is true and what's not. Sometimes the information in books isn't reliable.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:21 AM on June 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think that Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is still the gold standard, and as a bonus, it's really interesting.

In my experience, a lot of it really does come down to experience and practice, though. When I worked as a bread baker, for instance, I got to know the different kinds of doughs for the various breads I was making and how they would react to a colder/hotter/more or less humid environment, and it was by touch.
posted by rtha at 9:22 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a HUGE fan of Alton Brown. He really explains stuff, and the costumes don't hurt. The cookbook is, I'm Just Here for the Food, and the show is Good Eats (you can download on-line or watch on Cooking channel.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on June 23, 2014

absolutely "On Food and Cooking", and also "Modernist Cuisine". Both go well into detail explaining ingredients and interactions.
posted by alchemist at 9:39 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

In addition to McGee's book, I enjoyed Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work.

And while it's more applied science, I learned more about "how to use" salt, water and acid from Ruhlman's Twenty than from any other text.
posted by foggy out there now at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Serious Eats' Food Lab and Ask the Food Lab are helpful for getting to the bottom of random why/how questions related to cooking.

A couple examples of their expertise: The Road to Better Risotto, How to Make the Best Fajitas, and especially their guide on how to make the best chocolate chip cookies -- there's a whole section on how changing various things about your butter (less/more, melted/creamed, etc.). It's very extensively researched, and a great tool for exploring how temperature, time, and ingredients can affect your baking. There's a ton of information on various methods and ratios to use to get the exact results you're looking for.

Cooking for Engineers and Your Mother Was a Chemist: Science in the Kitchen are great analytically-minded online resources, and I can personally attest to the awesomeness of the aforementioned Cooking for Geeks and The Science of Good Cooking if you're looking for hard copy books.

Also, just off the top of my head -- in addition to adding flavor, salt helps make dough more elastic by assisting in the development of gluten. It draws water out of stuff, too, and dries out the surface of whatever you're salting, which will ensure better browning as it cooks. I brine my tofu with kosher salt on both sides of each slice before grilling or frying, and add a pinch of salt to sauteeing vegetables (especially onions) to help them soften up and release their liquids more quickly. Salt also serves as a natural preservative.
posted by divined by radio at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Salt is necessary in bread. The effects of various ingredients on chocolate chip cookies. Mix baking powder or baking soda with milk to see the reaction - that's how chemical leavening works.
posted by theora55 at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2014

The cookbook is, I'm Just Here for the Food

Make sure you get the second edition - the first one was a little buggy, particularly with regard to ingredient quantities.
posted by zamboni at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The baking soda/powder difference is interesting - this Serious Eats writeup is good. Basically baking soda is just alkaline & needs an acidic ingredient in the recipe to work (like buttermilk or molasses); baking powder has acid included with the soda & they react together when they get moist.

It's not baking, but I think making very basic fresh cheeses is great for giving you that chemistry sense of "oh, these ingredients I am cooking with are substances that are made out of other substances." Seeing how milk will curdle in specific ways in specific combinations of heat, ph, and rennet is quite interesting.
posted by yarrow at 10:36 AM on June 23, 2014

The Science of Good Cooking
posted by ostranenie at 11:16 AM on June 23, 2014

Butter tips:

Butter is something like 20% water by weight, can't one for one substitute with solid fats for this reason.

In pastry, solid fats coat the flour particles; you get little distinct balls of fat+flour that turn into flakes when baked. Liquid fats result in a uniform mixture, no flakey layers. That's why you've got to keep pastry as cold as possible while you're working with it, if the fats melt you lose your flakes.

You might try watching America's test kitchen or subscribing to cook's illustrated as well --- I think they have a couple of baking cookbooks, too --- they're all about technique, and for every one of their recipes they extensively describe the effect they were looking for, the steps they tried to get there, and what did or didn't work. Sometimes I think they get too fiddly for marginal improvement, but if you want to pick up some tips on how to achieve different outcomes, they're a great resource.
posted by Diablevert at 11:29 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipes really work, and she explains why pretty well--sometimes you have to read the back of the book before the recipe. Her website is also helpful. I really like the Cake Bible and the Pie Bible.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:37 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Cook's Illustrated is an excellent place to start -- it's produced by the America's Test Kitchen group and has a lot of really good information about the science behind cooking, with detailed explanations of what happens when you use different ingredients and methods. The subscription is totally worth the money, but they also have a print magazine you can buy.

If you are baking, leaning about how gluten works is key, even if you are doing gluten free cooking, because those characteristics are what you are trying to replicate with other ingredients.
posted by ananci at 12:06 PM on June 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for these suggestions, everyone! Much appreciated.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 3:29 PM on June 23, 2014

FoodSim is a brand-specific, ingredient conversion calculator. It's particularly helpful for bread bakers.

Want to know exactly how much Bob's Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten to add to your generic AP flour to bring the protein up to King Arthur Sir Lancelot flour levels? Use the Mixed Mass Percentage Calculator.

How many grams of honey is equal to 1/4 cup of light corn syrup and other Mass->Volume Volume->Mass conversions? Use Mass-Volume Conversion Calculator.

It's really cool!
posted by Room 641-A at 4:06 PM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My three choices, all mentioned already. 'On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen' by Harold McGee. Cook's Illustrated, for their articles that accompany the recipe. Serious Eats when they get all explainy.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:41 PM on June 24, 2014

Seconding Ratio and Nthing McGee. For baking, here's a summary of the baking ratios in one page.
posted by benzenedream at 11:35 PM on June 24, 2014

"On Food And Cooking" is a really unbelievably useful resource. I bought it as a reference book, and ended up spending an entire weekend just reading to cover-to-cover, because the chemistry and biology behind food is so fascinating. I never really knew how baking powder worked, or how it differed from baking soda; after perusing that chapter, it has made me much more mindful of acidity and moisture ratios when I'm baking, so that I feel much more comfortable improvising. I always liked baking, but was sort of intimidated by the specificity of what cake or cookie recipes demanded, because it felt sort of like a cargo cult. Figuring out what makes the leavening process work, or what eggs and gluten do, was a revelation.
posted by Mayor West at 9:44 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

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