Chemistry really is cooking

Following on from our chemists’ gravy recipe and the Yorkshire pudding instructions we mentioned, I thought I’d mention a few of the well known chefs and others out there who know that chemistry is cooking and that cooking is all about chemistry.

American science writer Harold McGee writes about the chemistry, techniques and history of food and cooking and has written two seminal books on kitchen science. His first book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen was first published in 1984. A revised second edition was published in a decade later.

McGee was recently in the news for his views on so-called pink pepper, which is a rather trendy, but pointless, and probably toxic plant extract related to poison ivy.

McGee also got a recent namecheck in Wired in an explanation as to why hardboiled eggs seem to be getting harder to peel. The cure is to raise the pH of the boiling water. A more alkaline environment reduces the stickiness between shell and membrane (so avoid vinegar and add sodium bicarbonate instead). There is one side effect though, the alkaline conditions boost the sulfurous smell of eggs, presumably by assisting the release of sulfur compounds from the cysteine in the egg proteins.

McGee has written widely for Nature, Health, The New York Times, the World Book Encyclopedia, The Art of Eating, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, and Physics Today and has also lectured on kitchen chemistry at cookery schools, universities, The Oxford Symposia on Food, the Denver Natural History Museum and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

McGee’s science-based approach to cooking has been embraced and popularized by chefs and authors such as Heston Blumenthal, Alton Brown, Shirley Corriher, Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Russ Parsons. Then there’s Raymond Blanc who also covers the chemistry of cooking in his books and an old TV show.