October 19, 2012

By Raleigh-Elizabeth.

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I even flatter myself a pretty decent cook. The kind of cook who knows her way around a spice rack and has a masterful knowledge of the ingredients she uses. The kind who mixes common sense with a rare genius that will one day be discovered and I’ll star in my own Food Network show. The kind that, minus a blatant refusal to acknowledge reality, figures she can at least tell you what ingredient she cooks with most.

I wouldn’t tell you water.

It turns out that I’m also the kind of cook who is blissfully unaware of most of what’s going on chemically in her kitchen. Forget the garlic, the butter, the spices. There is only one ingredient that matters: water. It’s the one we’re cooking with all the time — and in heavy doses. Lettuce is 95% water. A fresh carrot is 90%. And, surprising me the most, a pork loin is 60% water! Apparently, all cooking boils down to water. We’re either freezing it into a solid, boiling it into a gas, or manipulating it as a liquid.

I’ve been taking my water for granted. Especially my tap water. Where we live, the water is hard — chock full of minerals — and I was surprised to learn that affects everything I do. I couldn’t figure out why my dread beans won’t soften and my boiled veggies seem tough. Duh: the water! The minerals in the tap water are too busy reinforcing veggie cell walls (and toughening them up) to get down to the business of cooking. Suddenly, I wish I paid more attention in chemistry class.

Do you think about science when you cook? Or am I the only one naively browning my garlic and butter without a thought of what my tap water is doing?

Beautiful water by Brittney Borowski.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jimmy October 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

My in-laws unintentionally led to thinking more about the “science” behind cooking. My father-in-law is a skilled carpenter by hobby. The things he makes are nothing short of works of art, and he’s mastered details down to building his own tools (including a 180 degree computerized router – I can’t even fathom building that). My mother-in-law is a serious home chef, and has turned me on to a lot of amazing cooking methods, ingredients, cook books, etc. She is incredible, and I love eating what she makes.

I happen to share both these passions with them. But to my father-in-law, cooking is “chick stuff” and I have to assume my easy transitioning between the two must be perplexing. He sees the world quite starkly divided between women and men in terms of thinking, hobbies, etc. It drives me nuts (not to mention how that annoys my wife). (Note: otherwise I really love the guy – I think he’ll come around eventually on this, he’s too smart not to).

But that got me to thinking about the real differences between the two crafts. Are they really different? Do they really require different types of “brains” to appreciate or understand. Thinking about it from a matter of science, the theory breaks down quickly. Both require measuring, ingredients and materials, both have you manipulating those materials with tools, binding them, cutting them, heating them, altering them permanently. Small changes change the final products significantly. And both, without a touch of artistic inspiration, can be completely underwhelming. A chair is just a chair, until it isn’t anymore thanks to small touches here and there. Then it might be art.

Thinking about that science of the kitchen has improved my cooking by helping me see patterns in recipes and methods.


2 raleigh-elizabeth October 19, 2012 at 8:42 am

I have to tell you – I’m the one who improvises in the kitchen (“ehhh, this’ll work probably!”) but my husband is a by-the-book measurer. He’s absolutely obsessed with the science behind cooking. I’m obsessed with not eating all of my ingredients during the cooking process. But thank you for sharing this story – I think I’m really going to invest some energy in learning more about the chemistry of food!


3 Christy@SweetandSavoring October 19, 2012 at 8:41 am

What a good point! I love water and do love being able to drink it right from the tap, but I don’t really think about it much when I’m cooking.

I *am* taking chemistry right now in school, and I’m wondering how much it’ll help me in the kitchen :) I suppose I think about science in terms of temperature (my oven does not heat properly, always have to add 20 degrees to whatever recipe says) and measurements.


4 raleigh-elizabeth October 19, 2012 at 8:44 am

Please, send me the cliffs notes version of what you learn! My oven doesn’t heat properly at all either – and the internal thermometer doesn’t do much to help, really. It just says HEY YOUR OVEN IS STILL BROKEN ON THE LEFT SIDE and by the way it refuses to heat up in general. So that science, yes, me too. But I had no idea about how much TAP water makes a difference… you know? Whowouldathunk?


5 A Box Cake October 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

Chemistry? With cooking? Man-oh-man do I ever have a lot to learn. So I look forward to lots of comments and good solid direction. To get a valid gauge of my “sub-novice” chef status, lemme ‘splain:

I was 25 before I learned that a Duncan Hines box-of-cake-ingredients does not yield a “homemade” cake. Yep, in my parents’ home, a “box cake” was a cake that the local bakery put in a box for us to carry home. “Homemade” included Duncan Hines cakes and made-from-scratch cakes. Well, we didn’t make the latter. Ever. Ever ever.

So for the first time, at age 22 and living in my very own apartment, I decided to push-my-chef-envelope. Of course I turned for assistance to my favorite grocery store clerks and asked, “Where do I find the scratch?” Their response: deer-in-head-lights.

Then I realized how ambiguous my question was. So I rephrased, “What aisle is the scratch in?” More deer-in-head-lights.

Undaunted I tried again (cause these good souls had already taught me the difference between cinnamon and cardamon), “I’m going to make my first cake-from-scratch. Where do I find the scratch?” You can imagine the response.

To this day, when I walk into that grocery store, guess what I’m met with? Yup, you got it. Peels-of-laughter (the feet-kicking-in-air kind of laughter). And I’m decades beyond age 25; ergo, I’m infamous among that grocery store’s many generations of grocery clerks.

Hmmm, did I say “sub-novice”? Guess that would represent an inflated view of my culinary skills. So what’s the correct term? ‘Cuz I’m sure it’s more derisive than sub-novice.


6 raleigh-elizabeth October 19, 2012 at 9:44 am

This story makes me really happy. You must love getting to tell this again and again! I was laughing out loud. Thank you for sharing! And you know: A Duncan Hines box cake should totally count as scratch. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel EVERY time : )


7 Lisa October 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

That was a great story!


8 raleigh-elizabeth October 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm

thanks, Lisa! What do you cook with that you haven’t been thinking about? Anything? I have to admit, this makes me feel like such a negligent chef!


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