The Thermochemical Joy of Cooking

Discussion in 'Good Eats' started by Bengal B, Jun 1, 2004.

  1. Bengal B

    Bengal B Founding Member

    Sep 5, 2002
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    "What, are you blind?" TV chef Alton Brown deadpans into the camera. Whoosh! On cue, a Venetian blind drops down in front of him. Brown is whipping up a lemon meringue pie for Good Eats, his weekly romp in the kitchen for the Food Network, and the prop is supposed to help aspiring bakers visualize chemical reactions they can't actually see.

    "Let's just say for a moment that this is a microscopic cross-section of our pie crust in the oven," says Brown, reaching around to run his hand along the closed slats. "By the time the layers of fat start to melt, the protein structure formed by the flour and water needs to be set. That way, when the fat melts, it'll look like this," he says, twisting the rod to open the blind. Brown grabs hold of two slats in the middle and wiggles them up and down. "These are the nice flakes in our flaky crust. If the fats melt before the protein sets, we'll have a real mess on our hands. Ten minutes in the refrigerator will keep that from happening."

    Protein structure? Microscopic cross-section? It sounds more like a half-baked high-school science lesson than a half-hour cooking show about pie. Who is this geek? And why doesn't he tuck in his shirt?

    Brown, 41, is a culinary hacker, the poster boy for a movement that's coming to a boil in kitchens across America. The essence: Cooking is a science, not an art, informed by chemistry, physics, and biology. "Everything in food is science," Brown says. "The only subjective part is when you eat it."

    He brings this philosophy - along with some tasty recipes and a few bad puns - to TV audiences every day. Good Eats averages 425,000 viewers per episode. While food science has a following within the industry, Brown is bringing it to the public, says Shirley Corriher, a frequent guest on the show and the author of CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. "He does very thorough research. He has a sense of fun and hokiness, and he's a really good teacher."

    Think of Good Eats as a cross between Julia Child's Kitchen Wisdom and MacGyver. It's the only TV cooking program that goes inside appliances (the crew rigs "ovencams" and "fridgecams"); regularly riffs on pop culture (the "Man Food Show" episode rejected a romantic breakfast in bed in favor of corn dogs and basket burgers); shuns single-purpose kitchen gadgets (fire extinguishers excepted); and deploys props assembled in the garage (like a giant squid tentacle with suction cups from a bath mat). For Brown, it's all about making food - and science - fun. "Even people who don't actually cook can enjoy the show."

    Brown's hyperrational approach defies conventional wisdom about food preparation. Cooks typically regard their culinary traditions as gospel, whether they learned them at the Sorbonne or from their great aunt Sibby. Tampering with recipes only leads to trouble. Never mind that a few carefully conducted experiments can expose many common practices as myths. Take, for instance, the seminal Joy of Cooking's claim that boiling green beans in salted water is the best method for retaining their bright color. Or Emeril Lagasse's recent on-air assertion that browning a pork tenderloin keeps most of its juices inside. From a scientific perspective, both are wrongheaded. Sodium chloride won't keep beans green, but using bottled water instead of the hard, calcium-loaded tap variety can. Searing meat causes it to lose moisture, though when the pig proteins hit a hot pan the resulting Maillard reaction will ensure your entrée looks and tastes good.

    "Culinary tradition is not always based on fact," Brown explains, sipping from a cup of "really bad coffee" at the Good Eats studio at 7 on a Monday morning. "Sometimes it's based on history, on habits that come out of a time when kitchens were fueled by charcoal."

    Not that there's anything wrong with charcoal. In one episode of Good Eats, Brown throws three skirt steaks right onto the hot coals - after casting aside the grill and doing some "ash management" with a blow dryer. The goal: Cook the steaks quickly with direct heat and prevent the soot-causing flare-ups that burn meat when dripping fat travels through air onto the coals. No oxygen, no flames. Other crude but practical hacks in his repertoire include quick-drying herbs by placing them between household air filters strapped to a box fan with Bungee cords, and baking pizza using a ceramic floor tile as a makeshift stone. His latest workaround: converting a stainless-steel mixing bowl into a grill cover by drilling a hole in its bottom and inserting a thermometer. "If I've got a bunch of stuff on the grill, including something that cooks slower, say, a half chicken, I just put the bowl over it like a lid," Brown explains. "That way, the rest of the food stays uncovered, so that I can turn it frequently, and the thermometer lets me know how high the heat is under the bowl."

    Unconventional methods like these make the science of Good Eats easy to grasp - and have earned Brown a reputation as a bit of an eccentric. What other chef writes a script in which he gets punched in the head by Boxing Nun puppets named Tender and Flaky, as they fight over whether the two textural qualities can coexist in one pie crust? His fans eat it up. "Alton is my guru," writes one poster to the "news for nerds" Web site "He has completely transformed my cooking from 'hunt and peck' approaches to an understanding of the processes."

    So it's a little jarring when Brown confesses that growing up, he was "the worst science student." Eager to work behind the camera, he enrolled in writing and directing classes at the University of Georgia. Cooking was just a hobby. But when Brown grew frustrated with recipes and TV shows that gave lots of instructions but little in the way of explanation, he developed the concept for Good Eats.

    "Most people in cooking school are interested in how. 'How do I make this? How do I make that?'" Brown says. He's more concerned with why. Why should I beat egg whites in a copper bowl? Because the egg and metal molecules bond to form copper-conalbumin, creating greater stability and ultimately more volume. Driven by his curiosity and supported by his wife, DeAnna, Brown applied to cooking school in 1994. The pair abandoned their careers in Atlanta shooting TV commercials - diapers, radial tires - and headed for the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. By the time they returned to Georgia in 1997, Brown knew enough about food to turn his ideas into two pilots of Good Eats. The first episode aired in July 1999, a few months before the couple's daughter, Zoey, was born. More good news followed. His first cookbook, I'm Just Here for the Food, won a prestigious James Beard award in 2003; his second, Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen, was nominated this year. His third, a baking guide tentatively titled I'm Just Here for More Food, is due in September.

    While Brown's geek approach to cooking may be unique on TV, he's hardly the first foodie to dabble in science. In the late 1700s, Benjamin Thompson, aka Count Rumford, repurposed tombstones from a Long Island graveyard to build an enclosed camp stove. His invention had the dubious distinction of producing bread crusts that bore the names of the deceased, but it revolutionized ovens (and kept cooks from getting singed). Rumford went on to help found the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Two centuries later, Oxford's Nicholas Kurti demonstrated the physics of cooking with microwaves by preparing a "reverse" baked Alaska: The dessert was hot inside and frozen outside. Kurti's work inspired others to experiment. Perhaps the most adventurous follower is Heston Blumenthal, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant the Fat Duck in Bray-Berkshire, England, who began developing new flavors, textures, and cooking tools (like injection needles) for his patrons. He believes everyone can benefit from the down-to-earth principles science offers cooking. "There are chemical and physical reactions when we cook," Blumenthal says. "If you understand just a few of them, the kitchen becomes a friendlier place."

    Whoever coined the expression "easy as pie" never tried to bake a lemon meringue one. Though there are few ingredients, putting them together successfully can be deceptively difficult. Blame it on the protein molecules. "A meringue is really nothing but a foam," Brown says to the camera as a giant plastic protein molecule is lowered onto his head. "And what is a foam after all, but a big collection of bubbles? And what's a bubble? It's basically a very flimsy little latticework of proteins draped with water." He yanks a cord and the model disappears. "We add sugar to this structure, which strengthens it. But things can, and do, go wrong."

    Brown crouches behind a piece of lemon meringue pie the size of a chaise lounge. The camera zooms in on the meringue, made of cotton batting and dotted with assorted foam balls painted brown. "Mmm-hmmm." The focus shifts to Brown, whose eye is being distorted by a large magnifying glass. "Just as I suspected - beading. This is what happens when sugar-saturated water oozes up to the surface and sets in open air. Probably means we've got trouble downstairs, too."

    He lifts the cotton batting to reveal a swatch of blue fabric. "Oh, yes. Look at that layer of water." He tugs the material to straighten it. "Well, let's just pretend it's water - it's a model, OK? This is the same moisture we had up there, but this is even worse because it means that the meringue layer and the custard layer will never stay bonded." The solution: Pour the lemon custard into the pie shell while it's piping hot, so it cooks the bottom of the meringue while the oven cooks the top. Voilà, perfect pie - if, of course, you handled the proteins in the custard and the crust appropriately, too.

    After all, the more you understand science, Brown says, the better cook you are. On camera, he brags about his own handiwork. Foisting his fork into the meringue for a bite, he says, "Mmmm, now that's real pie."

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