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.
One explanation I saw (in an article reporting that the microwave oven is the most under-utilized appliance in the household, and basically is a glorified coffee warmer to most owners) pointed out that because of its tie to water molecules, the microwave rarely gets hotter than 212 degrees fahrenheit, the temperature at which water turns to steam. In contrast, conventional ovens easily can exceed 400 degrees. At those higher temperatures sugars caramelize, and proteins and carbohydrates break down and recombine to create complex flavors. A microwave oven just can't duplicate that kind of chemistry. (Although some would add that lower temperatures preserve more nutrients.)
A final tidbit to ponder while we're on the subject of the kitchen underworld would be the action that occurs on your cutting board. A most unexpected claim was made several years ago that wood cutting boards are actually more sanitary than plastic ones (despite food handlers requirements to the contrary). In this particular University of Wisconsin-Madison experiment, bacteria were shown to thrive on plastic cutting boards, while after an exposure of only three minutes on a wood surface, 99.9 percent of the bacteria disappeared. The mechanism remains unknown, but somehow natural wood has an anti-bacterial effect. (Soap, hot water, maybe even some bleach would still be a good idea if you cut raw meat on your cutting board, however.)
In conclusion, if you thought the kitchen was a gentle and somewhat boring place to be, think again. Fierce battles, vicious controversies, deep mysteries, new discoveries, and risky experiments are ordinary fare in that most hallowed place. Proceed there with caution.
All this talk of soda, margarine, and caramelizing reminds me of a recipe I haven't made in a while. I will put it here for you to try also:
Oven Caramel Corn
8-10 cups popped corn (perhaps popped in a microwave?)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. salt (unless you're using already salted leftover popcorn)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Heat oven to 200 degrees. In a saucepan heat sugar, butter, corn syrup, and salt, stirring occasionally until bubbling around edges. Continue cooking over medium heat for five minutes.
Remove from heat. Stir in soda until foamy. Pour on popped corn. Stir until corn is well-coated. Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.