Kitchen Mysteries

A cook is a chemist. All manner of wizardry and wondrous reactions occur in the oven and the mixing bowl. One takes such things for granted until a curious onlooker asks, "So why do you use shortening and not liquid oil to make a flaky pie crust?"

Why indeed does bread dough become elastic when you knead it, or broccoli stay greener when boiled in salted water, or fudge have to be brought to a certain temperature on the candy thermometer?

Or take baking soda. How did people bake bran muffins before the invention of sodium bicarbonate in the 1830s? This humble combination of carbon dioxide and soda ash is one of the miracle substances of the modern home. Besides cooking with it, a person can use it to brush teeth, clean contact lenses, scrub sinks, and sprinkle it in shoes. (Personally, my favorite baking soda phenomenon occurs when you lick out the cornbread batter bowl and the batter bubbles and sizzles on your tongue.)

Take another major food chemistry invention of the 1800s-oleomargarine. Because it was so much cheaper than dairy butter, and touted as being low in cholesterol, margarine became a staple food in American homes. Today, 96 percent of U.S. households use non-dairy table spreads. However, butter consumption is on the rise again as new reports say the hydrogenating process that makes oil solid at room temperature may render margarine unhealthy. Some newspaper articles this past Christmas noted that quite a few consumers are returning to butter because it performs better in cooking and baking.

Now consider the microwave. How does it actually work? Somehow, its premise that little waves excite water molecules until they heat up and thus warm up the surrounding food calls attention to the whole question of how regular cooking cooks food.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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