Sunday 5 December 2010

The Scientific Method

I admit it: I am a science geek. Although, most people who know me well are already quite aware of this - and have put up with listened to my ramblings about polymer synthesis or the elegance of a Diels-Alder reaction or the role of proteases in the autoimmune pathogenesis of celiac disease. (There I go again. Oh dear.)

That's why I'm surprised that until recently, I had never heard of the "foodie" movement called molecular gastronomy**. Or, for that matter, even given much thought to molecules when I was in the kitchen. Despite building an academic foundation in chemistry, I kept cooking the way I always had done: by look, taste, and feel, with a generous spoonful of convention. (Convention also frequently borders on superstition; how many of you were taught that salting a pot of water would make it boil at a hotter temperature? Turns out that for this to be true, you would need to add an incredible amount of salt - nowhere near what is used in cooking!)

I just finished my first quarter of formally studying food chemistry, though, and had some revelations about baking. Suddenly understanding why some breads turn out well when just minor changes can make them fail. Realising that I can figure out how to deliberately plan the chemical properties of dough. It's so exciting to come up with a completely new recipe, without figuratively crossing my fingers as I decide how much of each flour to add to the bowl. 

Unfortunately I haven't had nearly as many opportunities to apply these things as I would have liked, not to mention time to post any of the things I have made... 
I'm one quarter away from finishing college, and I'm interning as a chemistry tutor as well. It's a rigorous combination! 

I have had time for a few "science experiments" in the kitchen, though. The stuff in that picture up there, for instance: malted buckwheat. The process of malting activates the seeds' own enzymes to break down large molecules - like starches and proteins - into small ones, including an array of sugars and aromatic compounds. It adds a really wonderful flavour to bread! Very nutty and, well, malty. The process is a bit fussy, but actually it's not difficult. You can find detailed instructions on many home-brewing websites, but the basics are:

- soak the grains for about 36 hours, rinsing and replacing the water every 8 hours or so
- drain them into a strainer / mesh colander
- put them in a cool dark place for a couple of days, again rinsing every 8 hours - until the little rootlike sprouts are about double the length of a grain, and then
- spread them out on a baking sheet and dry them in a low oven. 

That's it! Once the grains are dry you can raise the temperature to roast them (just don't put them in a hot oven without drying them first, you don't want to steam/boil them). Now you can grind them up and add to flour! 

It's not much of a recipe, but now I have a month-long break before next quarter begins, so I'll post some "real" recipes very soon, I promise. Including a recipe for kneadable bread, with no xanthan or guar gum. I'm serious. Yay science!

**This term has accumulated many meanings in recent years. The original intent, though, is just what the words imply: studying food molecules and their interactions, and applying that knowledge to the way we cook and adjust recipes. A great book is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. The author's website has some neat information too.

No comments:

Post a Comment