Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Chemistry of Cooking: An Unscientific Approach

A Wednesday in the kitchen can play out relatively uneventfully, unless you set out early to learn a whole new language. At 9:30am today, I am already up, fed, and sitting at a bar with several wine glasses in hand.
Just as she did a week ago for her tutorial on white wines, wine guru Cindy Wulf is walking us through a workshop on the best reds on our restaurant's menu. This is part of Geddes's initiative to get the waitstaff--and his chefs--to understand the ways our wine menu pairs with our dishes, and to appreciate and promote the consumption of those wines. Cindy's right there with him when she says that when she sees "people eating their foods without a bottle of wine, I just want to walk over to them  and ask, 'Are you even tasting your food?'" The bleary-eyed lot of us laugh, but she's got a valuable scientific lesson to teach us: that when we take a sip of wine, the acids and tannins interacting on tongues scrape our palates clean, preparing us to experience all the subtle nuances in our carefully prepared food. I take copious notes.
She takes us through eleven different bottles (thankfully spit buckets are on hand), passing us glasses of their essential scents and undertones (cups of fruits, spices, and special notes like chocolate, mushroom, and coffee beans) and asking us what we can detect in our little sips.
We poke our noses like hummingbirds into our glasses, take deep inhales, and swish around little mouthfuls to see whether the wine feels heavy or light, velvety or silky on our tongues. I learn that I prefer the Willamette Valley pinot noir's earthy, spicy flavors, which make it ideal for our charcuterie plate, and that I go nuts over the buttery finish of the merlot from Sonoma County.
Cindy also exposes the great nerdy in-joke behind the celebration and condemnation of pinots and merlots in Alexander Payne's great wine comedy Sideways--the character played by Paul Giamatti says he adores Pinot Noirs above all other wines, in part because they're very difficult and finicky to coax into existence, but that they produce flavors of unparalleled complexity and beauty. He also utterly condemns Merlots, railing against them before his major dinner date, saying "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" This did enormous damage to the Merlot market in the United States, but the great irony is that the character's favorite wine, the wine he resists opening until the end of the movie, is a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. "The joke in this," Cindy explains, "is that Miles doesn't want to accept and appreciate his own qualities, because he's aspiring to be like this super-sensitive exclusively-available Pinot it's basically a story about self-loathing, in the guise of a hugely nerdy wine joke."

The science of the wine tasting leaves me wildly excited about all the crazy things that can happen in the chemical interactions in the glass, on the plate, and in the mouth. Apparently a lower yield of grapes of the vine means a greater concentration of flavor in each grape; Cabernet Sauvignons are almost always blends with other varietals (because of their high tannins and acidity) except in the soil of the Napa Valley, and they taste more like citrus to women and more like vanilla and apple pie to men; Syrahs smell "like a pig on fire in a blackberry bush," carrying notes of bacon fat, berries, and spicy hot wood. One should never serve Cabernets with oysters, because the tannins of the wine will mix with the iodine salts of the seafood and make them taste metallic--apparently that rule about only serving white wine with seafood isn't just good behavior, it's also good chemical sense.

Good chemical sense becomes the modus operandi of the day. Our biggest project in the kitchen for tonight's dinner is to whip up two new batches of icy treats--a fresh batch of chocolate ice cream (to replace what we exhausted yesterday), and a new flavor of sorbet, kiwi, to replace the plum on our menu. Annie's recipe for chocolate ice cream will come with a few modifications--she wants to infuse the flavor of cardamom into the ice cream, and she strips the eggs from the recipe, to make it less of a custard. I've made ice cream before--in a tiny 2-person ice cream maker, with mixed to disappointing results--and I don't know what's been going wrong. But as Annie walks me through the process--first infusing the whole milk and sugar with the cardamom seeds and cocoa powder, and bringing the whole pot to a boil before pouring it over chunks of semisweet chocolate--I can see just what a difference it makes to know the interactions of temperature and texture when putting together a recipe.

I've never been much of a science geek. (Even now, I can picture Nick laughing at home, chemist that he is, saying "That's an understatement.) Any argument you can make to me about why technology is, or why a process has to go in a certain order, will be followed up by a bleary-eyed "Why?" and an argument about the need for highly specific rules. But cooking is the only kind of chemistry I've ever totally embraced--maybe it's because the results are so much more fun to observe, or maybe because I'm just that much more motivated to get the formulas right. (If only I'd graduated a year later from high school, there would've been a course called "Chemistry of Cooking" that could've filled my science requirement and set me on my culinary path much earlier.) Lately I've been pouring over the pages of Herve This's Kitchen Mysteries, a book Nick gave me as a Christmas present, for clues that will not just help me cook better, but also help me understand when things go wrong. I'm still perplexed when my cobbler biscuits puff up unevenly (with layers flaking and puffing up more on the right than the left), but learning that's a sign that butter hasn't been incorporated consistently through the dough (when baked, chunks of butter will produce pockets of air and moisture--great when you're making croissants, not so good when you're making pie or tart dough). When you squeeze lemon juice over a sliced avocado, the citric acid slows the breakdown of the enzyme that causes the fruit to turn brown. When you blend butter into the final minutes of a sauce, knowing as "mounting the sauce", you make sure that the presence of the glossy, shiny flavors of the fat and salt remain of the sauce's smell, taste, and mouthfeel.

Just as we have to combine bleach with cold water, rather than hot, to keep it as a sterilizing cleaning agent, so too do you need to structure your cooking process in the right way to keep it effective. Annie has to add the cardamom into the heating milk, rather than at the end of the process when she stirs in the cold cream, because the flavor will more easily infuse into a hot liquid than cold, and bind to the fat in the hot milk in a more pronounced way. And when she pours the prepared liquid into the ice cream machine, she has to be careful to watch both the icing and mixing functions, alternating "so it doesn't get too icy, and doesn't get too much air-whipped into it." If she lets the container get too cold, it may start to incorporate ice crystals; if she lets it whip too long, it may start to get chunky, like butter. It's all about keeping the liquid at the perfect temperature and aeration until it reaches a smooth, creamy consistency.

The same thing is true when we have to whip up the kiwi sorbet--instead of blending the sugar and water into a simple syrup (as people often do when making sorbets), she has Wally puree the fresh fruit, add sugar, and then slowly pour in water until it reaches the ideal level of sweetness. This, she says, "is to keep it from getting too sweet, so that what you taste is the freshness of the fruit, not the sugar." She also has him add just a touch of vodka to the mix, so that it doesn't produce too many ice crystals in the churning process--a genius touch, when you think about how many times your perfect container of sorbet might have huge chunks of ice crystals (i.e. the "protective ice") growing on top. (Annie also notes that this is a perfect way to make sure that frozen baked desserts don't freeze completely. For example, if you're slipping a piece of cake into the freezer that you'd like to enjoy later without defrosting, you can gently paint it with a water-and-vodka mixture. The vodka will keep it from freezing to the core.)

As we're cleaning up later in the night, I see Angela place an enormous pot of veal stock on the stove. This, she explains, will bubble all night, just barely simmering, so it can reduce to a demi-glace, a spoon-coating sauce infused with the thick, rich flavors of the veal but with the liquid content reduced by half. I imagine that there is a technical term for how high the heat needs to be to maintain this balance over the next 14 hours, i.e. a slow boil or a gentle simmer. "Just barely bubbling--farts in a bathtub," Angela says. I wonder if it was a master chef that coined this term, but when I take a look into the pot I see that, yes, this is exactly what she was describing.

Through the last three weeks I've been attempting to steep myself in a lifetime of cooking education: I'm trying to understand the physics of sawing a knife down the curves of a grapefruit, the reasons for tearing rather than slicing salad greens, and the difference that a soil based in clay versus limestone can make on the flavor of a fine wine. But even with all the chemical interactions in play, sometimes even the most sophisticated cooking methods can be described with bodily humor. No matter what the terms may be, understanding the reasoning behind the steps of a recipe are doing a lot more than just making me a better cookbook editor--they're making me a better, more deliberate, and far more informed cook.
As I sip my end-of-day glass of Chris's wine of the night--an excellent Côtes du Rhône from an area just near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best place for the wine in the Rhône wine region--I'm finding nuances in the flavor I never have before. I can detect the blackberry and the currants, the tangy acidity washing up the sides of my tongue, and the corduroy softness of the liquid on my palate. I'm also savoring it as a complement to my family meal salad, tangy with a few chunks of roasted hazelnuts and blue cheese. There's complexity here at the molecular level, and I can't decide whether I'm supposed to analyze it, articulate it, or just enjoy it.

P.S. One of the main ingredients of a great recipe is the diners, and those diners who rave about the meal afterwards are the best customers you could hope for. It's only though a community of supporters and readers that you can get as far as you have with telling a not only do I have to thank you, the readers who are sticking with these reports from the front of the line, but also to @TKReviews, @mrsfridaynext, @FaithBlackGirl, @wathiranganga, and @fignaz for tweeting out links to this blog. Every day you entertain and enlighten me with your Tweets, and by sharing my stuff, you give me a chance to help out all of your super-enlightened followers as well. I'm lucky to have your support...

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