Culinary Chemistry Update

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category:
Posted May 4, 2011 at 2:32pm

It has been really great making blog posts during this semester. I have thoroughly enjoyed it! However, this semester is coming to a close and so is our blog project. I would like to be able to say that I will continue to post new things, but that may not be the case. I hope that I do get the chance to write some more because I love food, but if I don’t then I guess this is goodbye. Thanks for reading! But just remember to keep up the cooking and chemistry!

   ~~ Laura

How Taste Works: From Taste Buds to the Brain

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , , ,

Posted May 4, 2011 at 2:10pm
Food is one of the things that I enjoy immensely. Everything just tastes so different from everything else. So how exactly does that work? How can bananas taste so differently than a steak? And how can the brain distinguish between the two?

The tongue is covered with taste buds, and these allow us to sense the different tastes in food when we eat them. These taste buds are chemoreceptors, which are sensory receptors that detect certain chemical stimuli in the environment and convert it into a useable form within the body. This means they translate the chemical signals that food produce when in contact with the taste buds into an electrical signal that can be sent though the body. These electrical signals are called action potentials, and they travel to the brain through the nervous system. When the signal gets to the brain it is identified by the brain and a certain sensation is experienced.

There are five different distinct tastes that the taste buds detect: salty, sweet,  bitter, sour, and savory. When food enters the mouth, saliva breaks the food down into ions and other chemical molecules that then enter the pores of the taste buds. Each of these tastes is sensed by the taste buds a little bit differently, based on what molecules the food is broken down into.

Salty and sour tastes are sensed through ion channels that are triggered by ions, or electronically charged particles, that are found in salty or sweet foods. Salty foods contain the ion sodium chloride (NaCl), which is commonly called table salt. This molecule is composed of two ions: the positively charged sodium ion and the negatively charged chlorine ion. When the ions are being sensed, the sodium ion triggers the ion channels in the taste buds, which changes the electrical charge of the taste bud cells, causing an action potential. For sour foods, which contain acids, the positively charged hydrogen ions cause the action potential within the taste buds.

Bitter, sweet, and savory foods are sensed through G-protein coupled receptors, which are a more sophisticated mechanism than the ion channels, and one that is not well understood.  Compounds within bitter and sweet foods trigger G-protein coupled receptors to release a messenger protein, gustducin, which triggers molecules to close potassium ion channels, creating an action potential. Sensing savory foods is similar, though it is triggered by the amino acid L-glutamate.

Once the action potential has been created and a signal has been sent through the nervous system, the signal is transferred between nerve cells until the signal reaches the brain where the signal is translated into a taste. The process from ingesting food to having a sensory experience from that food is very fast, happening within a couple of milliseconds, which is good because there are lots of delicious foods out there to try. And the tongue contains an average of 10,000 taste buds that get replaced every two days. That’s a lot of taste buds! Now it’s time to get busy using some!

Water: The Fluid of Life (And Osmosis and Diffusion)

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , , ,

Posted May 3, 2011 at 11:57pm

Water is such an amazing molecule that has many unique features. Without water, life would cease to exist on this planet since life depends on it. Water also has amazing capabilities in the kitchen too. It has great heat transfer properties used when cooking something in boiling water, such as boiling eggs, or when cooling something off with cold water, such as cooling pasta. It is also good for dissolving substances, such as sugar, and for re-hydrating dehydrated foods.

There are two main properties of water that are taken into account in the kitchen: diffusion and osmosis.

Diffusion is the movement of molecules from high areas of concentrations to areas of low concentrations by the random motion of molecules until an equilibrium state has been reached. A good example is the spread of dye within water without being stirred. The random motion of both the water and dye molecules helps the mixture to come to an equilibrium state where the water and the dye are thoroughly mixed.

Osmosis is the diffusive movement of water across a selectively-permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration in order to establish an equilibrium of solute to water ratio on both sides of the membrane. A good example is submerging a wilted piece of lettuce in fresh water. The inside of the lettuce leaf has a higher concentration of solute than the water it’s submerged in, so the water diffuses into the leaf in order to equalize the solute concentrations both inside the lettuce leaf and in the water. This essentially causes the wilted piece of lettuce to become rigid again.

The following video is a good example of both diffusion and osmosis. It shows both of the examples that I used above: the diffusion of dye in water, and the osmosis of water into a wilted lettuce leaf.

Cheesecake: The Key to the Perfect Dessert

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted April 25, 2011 at 10:55pm

Perhaps the dessert that I am best known for making is the cheesecake. I started making cheesecakes for family events a few years ago, and they have become legendary in my family. Along the way I have picked up a few tips about making cheesecakes and have started coming up with my own recipes and flavor combinations.

Most common cheesecake recipes have a common list of ingredients: a crust, cream cheese, sugar, eggs and vanilla. The differences between cheesecakes come mainly from flavorings. Some recipes call for other ingredients like sour cream or ricotta cheese, and some recipes use other types of cheeses too. I prefer to stick with cream cheese, although I will sometimes add sour cream or ricotta cheese on occasion to make the cheesecake a little bit fluffier. Personally, I’m not a big fan of adding ricotta to cheesecakes since I think it makes the texture a little grainy.

The key to a good cheesecake is to not over-beat the batter. With cheesecakes, unlike with traditional cakes, you don’t want to have too much air in the batter. Air in the batter will cause the cake to swell in the middle while in the oven and then deflate once it is cooled, leaving a depression in the middle of the cake. There are a few ways to ensure that over-mixing doesn’t occur. First, make sure off of the ingredients are at room temperature. Also, only set the mixer to medium or slow speed rather than high and only mix until the batter is just well blended. Eggs should always be added one at a time and the batter should be mixed after each addition.

Now I’m not all that big on how my cheesecakes look; I’m more interested in how they taste. But if you’re worried about presentation, here are a few tips to make a perfect looking cheesecake. Bake the cheesecake at a lower temperature to prevent cracking because a gentle cooking process will not cause drastic changes to the chemistry of the batter. Also, cool the cake slowly as well. To prevent cracking as the cake cools, run a thin knife around the edge of the pan to loosen it from the sides immediately after it is done baking.

There are also three different baking methods when it comes to cheesecakes. The first is the traditional method where the cheesecake is baked at moderate temperature (300-325°F) until the edges are set and the middle is still jiggly. Another method is the New York method which involves baking the cake at 500°F for 15 minutes and then decreasing the temperature to 200°F for an hour, after which the oven is turned off and the cake is cooked in the oven with the door open. The final method is the water bath method where the bottom of the cheesecake pan is coated in aluminum foil and placed in a larger pan with boiling water that covers about an inch of the base of the cheesecake pan. These pans are then placed in the oven and the cheesecake is baked as in the traditional method.

Personally, I have only ever used the traditional method, but most of my cheesecakes do have cracks that appear on the top of the cake. If you wish to make a pretty cheesecake, I hear that the water bath method is very good for this. I usually never have the patience or equipment to do the water bath method, and I’m more concerned with the taste than the appearance.

The movie below is a movie that was made with our chapter (Mu Pi) of Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity for our Regional Conference in 2010. It’s pretty silly and mostly a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with science other than we are a bunch of engineering student eating cheesecake. Anyways, I made the cheesecake featured in this video.

Salt and Its Effects on Boiling and Freezing

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , ,

Posted April 18, 2011 at 10:59 PM

Have you ever wondered why some people throw salt into their boiling water when they are cooking pasta or vegetables? The answer to this is very simple: salt causes a phenomena called boiling point elevation to occur when it is added to water.

So what does this mean? Well, the salt causes the temperature at which the water boils to increase, meaning that the water is hotter when it is boiling with the salt than it is without it.

Essentially what happens when salt is added to boiling water is that the molecules of salt interact with the water molecules, causing the water molecules to not change phase from liquid to gas, which is what happens when water boils, until a higher temperature has been reached and the interactions between the salt and water molecules can be overcome.

Salt also has an effect on the freezing point of water as well. This effect is called the freezing point depression. This means that the temperature at which water normally freezes at is lower when salt is added than without the salt. This phenomena is often taken into account when making ice cream in some household ice cream makers. This is also why people often throw salt out onto frozen sidewalks in the winter.

Once again the salt molecules interact with the water molecules, causing the restriction of water molecules from making a phase change from liquid to solid, which occurs when water freezes, until the solution has reached a lower temperature and the interactions between the salt and water molecules are overcome.

However, the temperature differences in boiling and freezing of water with salt are not equivalent on both ends. The freezing point depression is greater than the boiling point elevation. Water normally boils at 100°C, but with the addition of salt the boiling point of water increases based on the concentration of salt added to the water (about a 0.17°C increase for every teaspoon of salt added to a quart of water). On the other hand, water normally freezes at 0°C, but when salt is added it freezes at -18°C.

For such as small and common molecule, salt sure does have a lot of power in the kitchen, and not just for flavoring.

Kitchen Essentials Part 4: The Secret of Perfect Cookies – Cookie Scoops

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , ,

Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:08 PM

This week, as part of our assignment, we were instructed to make a 2 minute video to post on our blog. Here is the one that I filmed with the help of my three roommates.

I know the idea of a cookie scoop as a necessary piece of equipment in the kitchen seems kind of silly, and it probably is to those of you who don’t do much baking like I do. For those of us who are more pastry chef or baker than cook, a cookie scoop is a pretty nifty piece of equipment. It not only makes the cookies the same size so all of the cookies cook the same amount, it also makes the cookies look really nice and pretty. Of course the secret to cooking excellent cookies is to not over-bake them, but the cookie scoop helps.

The cookie scoop also helps by decreasing the time it takes to make cookies. Rather than have to deal with two spoons to make uneven cookie dough balls where the cookie dough sticks to the spoons or comes off in an oddly shaped blob, the cookie scoop is fast, efficient and makes perfectly round pieces of dough. And since the pieces of dough are pretty much the same size, the rate of heat transfer into each of the pieces of dough to cook it is exactly the same. The area of heat transfer for both conduction and convection are exactly the same for each piece of dough, meaning the cookies come out with the exact same amount of doneness.

Now with these perfect cookies all you need is a big glass of milk to go along with it!

Kitchen Essentials Part 3: Time Saving Slow Cookers

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , ,

Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:33 PM

One of my favorite pieces of technology that I use in the kitchen is my slow cooker, also commonly referred to as a crock pot. Since some of my classes tend to run late into the night, I find that once I get home I don’t want to prepare myself food. With my slow cooker, I can simply throw something into the slow cooker earlier in the day, set it to low and let it cook for the rest of the day while I’m away at class or work. It is such a modern miracle much like the microwave is.

So how exactly does a slow cooker cook something so slowly? Here is what I found.
A slow cooker has three components: an outer casing, an inner container, and a lid. The outer casing is metal and contains low-wattage heating coils. These coils are surrounded by the outer casing. The inner container, also called a crock, is usually made of glazed ceramic and fits into the metal outer casing. Some crocks can be removed from the outer casing, while others are permanently attached. The lid is domed and fits tightly onto the crock.

When the slow cooker is turned on, heat is produced in the outer casing via the heating coils. This heat is then transferred to the crock by means of convection (see my previous post for more information on this). The heat that was transferred to the crock heats up the liquid in the slow cooker, causing the contents in the slow cooker to simmer at a low temperature for several hours until everything is cooked thoroughly.

When food is put into the slow cooker and it is sealed and turned on, any moisture added to the slow cooker or moisture that naturally exists within the foods in the cooker becomes steam as the cooker is heated. The food in the slow cooker releases moisture in the form of steam, the condensation from which collects and acts like a baster.

As steam is released during the cooking process, the lid traps it, and as it condenses, it creates a vacuum seal between the lid and the rim of the crock, which ensures that all of the moisture remains in the slow cooker. This essentially adds moisture to the food while aiding in the cooking process. The lid is the key component of the slow cooker that allows it to cook food the way it does. Without the lid, the moisture would simply boil off and the food would burn.

Most slow cookers have three heat setting on them: low, high and off. Some cookers have a warm setting just to keep the food warm. Some advanced programmable cookers will automatically switch to the warm setting once the food is thoroughly cooked to keep the food at the proper temperature.

Now the picture is not of my cat. I just thought it was an amusing picture and wanted to share it with you all. 

Kitchen Essentials Part 2: Ovens - Masters of Convection

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , ,
Posted April 4, 2011 at 8:14 PM

One major appliance that every kitchen should have, and which most kitchens already have, is an oven. Everything from breakfast to lunch to deserts and main entrees as well as snacks and hors d'oeuvre can be prepared with the use of an oven.

So how exactly does the oven work to cook food? The answer is convection, and some conduction as well. Inside of electrical ovens there should be two sets of heating elements, one on the top and one on the bottom. The bottom is used for baking while the top is used for broiling. If the oven is a gas oven, there will only be one burner at the bottom of the oven, and there will be a separate broiling compartment under the main oven compartment.

The heat from the burner at the bottom of the oven transfers throughout the interior oven by means of convection. Convection is where heat transfers through a fluid, in this case air, by means of diffusion. And since heat rises, the top of the oven is hotter than the bottom, but typically the oven is approximately the same temperature throughout. This means that any food in the oven is cooked pretty much evenly on all sides. Conduction comes into play when the heat from convection is transferred to the pan or other object that the food is touching directly (See my previous post for more information on conduction).

Regardless of the type of oven, the temperature is controlled by a thermostat which is set at a particular temperature for the particular baking needs. How the thermostat works is identical to that of how the thermostat for a furnace works: the temperature, in this case that of the interior of the oven, is measured, and if the temperature drops below the set temperature the oven turns on and heats the interior up again, and once the temperature reaches the set temperature the oven turns off the heating element.

I typically use an electric oven, since that is all I have ever had the chance of working with, but I would really like to be able to see which I prefer based entirely on experience.

Kitchen Essentials Part 1: Pots and Pans of Conduction

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: , , ,
Posted March 29, 2011 at 12:39 AM
One of the major pieces of equipment that any cook uses are pots and pans. There is large debate about which type of material makes the best pan, and each material has both its advantages and disadvantages. However, for the most part, the material doesn’t matter so much as whether the material does what it is supposed to: conduction.

Conduction plays a major role in preparing any foods on the stove top or in any situation where heat is added to any vessel. Conduction is the process where heat is transferred from one object to another through direct physical contact. An example in the kitchen would be when you are heating a pot of water on the stove. The heat from the burner is transferred to heat the water by the water directly contacting the surface of the pot. How well a certain material conducts heat depends on it thermal conductivity, which is a numerical coefficient that relates how well a material conducts thermal energy. The larger the value of thermal conductivity, the better that material conducts heat.

This is where the different types of material come into play. Copper is the best conductor among the materials that pots and pans are made out of, but these types of pans can be very expensive. The next best is aluminum. The material that, on its own, is the worst conductor of heat is stainless steel.

The following video is an excellent source of information on the different types of materials that pots and pans are made out of and what sorts of applications they are best used for. The video is rather long (~10 minutes), but the information is really good. The lady who is in the video is Rita Heikenfeld, and she does a wonderful job. She does get off topic a couple of times, but on a whole she does a fantastic job.

Food Allergies Part 2: The Gluten-Free Takeover

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:59 PM
It seems like in almost every supermarket that you go to now have a certain section devoted to gluten-free products. Much like dairy allergies, wheat allergies are becoming more prevalent among people.

So much like with diary, wheat allergies occur when the body produces antibodies that react in the presence of a particular wheat protein. The most common occurrence of wheat allergies occurs in young children, but most children outgrow the allergy between the ages of 3 and 5. The allergy is not very common in adolescents and adults. However, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity, while not considered an actual food allergy, is more common among adults. A person can have both celiac disease and wheat allergies.

Celiac disease is a digestive condition that is triggered by the intake of gluten, a protein component of wheat. When a person who suffers from celiac disease consumes gluten, they experience an immune reaction that causes damage to inner surface of the small intestine that causes the body to not be able to absorb certain nutrients. Celiac disease has a wide range of symptoms, and sometimes it is hard to diagnose the condition because the symptoms mimic the symptoms of another digestive ailment. Some symptoms are very serious and life-threatening. Doctors are unsure of the cause of the disease, but they have found that if someone in your family was diagnosed with it, you have a greater chance of having the disease.

So what can be done about wheat allergies and celiac disease? The best advise is to avoid anything that has wheat, and particularly gluten, in it. As I noted above, most supermarkets today have whole sections devoted to gluten-free products. My mother is slightly celiac in addition to having dairy allergies, so having gluten-free and dairy-free foods is not new to me. Knowing that I too may have or develop celiac disease makes me conscious about the foods that I eat. It is really helpful that the food industry is aware of the growing problem and willing to make alternatives for the people with these allergies.

Food Allergies Part 1: The Curse of the Dairy Allergy

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted March 9, 2011 at 2:46 AM
Whenever my family goes out to dinner at a restaurant, my mother usually has to ask the waiter, “Is there any dairy in this?” She, like many others, of course has dairy allergies. It seems to be a growing affliction among many adults these days.

Allergies to dairy are cause by three components of milk: the casein proteins, whey proteins, or lactose sugar. The lactose usually is involved with an intolerance while the proteins are usually the source of a true allergy.

So what is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?

An allergy is when something is ingested and the body recognizes it as foreign, which then causes the release of antibodies. This can cause the body to release histamines which give off the typical indicators of an allergic reaction. Intolerance on the other hand is when there is no enzyme present in the body to break down the food. In the case of milk, intolerance occurs when the body does not produce the enzyme, lactase, needed to break down the lactose sugar. This results in the presence of lactose in the intestines which can lead to gas, bloating, and stomach cramps.

Lactose intolerance is said to affect 30% of Americans, and is the most common food intolerance in the country. Unlike most allergies, lactose intolerance is something that can develop later in life. This is because the body stops making enough lactase as we get older.

My mother is one of the people that are allergic to the proteins in milk, and that trait seems to be a trait that runs in my family. While I seem to have less of an allergy than most of my family, I still try not to ingest as much dairy as I used to when I was younger. I always loved, and still do, drinking milk, but recently I have cut back on the amount of milk that I drink. However, I still partake of many other forms of dairy such as cheeses, and of course one of my favorite culinary confections is cheesecake, so I doubt I will ever be able to give up dairy entirely because it is just too delicious to resist.

There are many other non-dairy beverages available to consumers these days because of the increasing amounts of dairy allergies. Some of these alternatives include soy milk, rice milk, and almond milk. I particularly enjoy almond milk as a milk replacement. My favorite of the many brands is Silk PureAlmond™ Dark Chocolate almond milk. I think it tastes just like chocolate milk, plus it has more calcium than a glass of milk and it has antioxidants (according to its label). They even make dairy-free ice cream too, and it too tastes just like regular ice cream. You can't even tell the difference.
So while the number of people with some sort of dairy allergy or intolerance increases each year, the food industry is attempting to accommodate the people that have these afflictions with non-dairy alternatives. How delicious an alternative these are remains to be seen because sometimes there just isn’t an alternative to dairy.

Cookies: From Gooey to Chewy

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted March 7, 2011 at 11:42 PM

This past weekend I spent a good portion of my time baking cookies and brownies for a bake sale, and as I was baking things, I noticed a trend among the things that I baked. The final product, the cookie, always seemed to be much larger in size than the dough that I put into the oven. So that got me to thinking. What makes a cookie a cookie? And how does a gooey blob turn into a delicious, chewy confection?

There are certain leavening agents found in any cookie recipe out there. Most of the time it is either baking soda, or baking powder, and in some cases both. So what do these ingredients do? They form carbon dioxide gas once they are placed in the batter. And as the cookie cooks, the creation of this gas forms air bubbles in the dough, causing it to rise and spread, and giving it its characteristic cookie look.

The spreading of the cookie is also helped along by the melting of the fats, such as butter, margarine, or shortening. As the dough heats up in the oven, the fats melt and cause the dough to spread. And as the dough heats up, the water found in these fats evaporates, which causes the dough to stop spreading once all the moisture from the fats have evaporated.

And what makes a cookie chewy as opposed to crispy? It’s a combination of many of the ingredients. The type of sugar used is one such example. Brown sugar has more moisture than regular granulated sugar, so more brown sugar in the dough will make softer cookies. Another tip is to bake the cookies on light colored cookie sheets, or on parchment paper.

I tend to bake my cookies for a little bit shorter time than what the recipe calls for, and I sometimes turn down the heat in the oven by about 25 degrees too, depending on the oven that I use. One of the tricks that I have learned over the years to deal with crisp cookies is to put a piece of bread in with them. Doing so will make crispy cookies soft again in much the same way that a piece of bread will make hard brown sugar soft again.

No matter whether your cookies turn out crispy or chewy, they will undoubtedly taste delicious just the same. And just remember, one minute makes all the difference between a perfect cookie and an over-done cookie.

Microwaves Part 2: How Safe Are They Really?

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:41 AM
A few posts back I talked about microwaves and their impact on food preparation. I mainly touched on how they have changed everyday life since they were released. I had many comments on the safety aspect of microwaves, so after a little bit of looking around for some facts, I decided to dedicate another post directly to answering those comments.

My mother has always told me that cooking food in plastic containers in the microwave isn’t healthy or safe because the plastics can leach chemicals into the foods they are touching, so I decided to look into the science and research behind this. According to some organizations, some plastic containers are fine to use for cooking in the microwave. Those types of containers that are safe for use in the microwave will be labeled with a microwave-safe icon or have the words “microwave safe” printed on them. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that manufacturers test the products and only those that pass the FDA’s standards will be marked as microwave safe. Some things to avoid putting in the microwave include take-out containers, yogurt or cottage cheese type containers, plastic storage bags, and water bottles. Plastic wraps are fine as long as they don’t touch the food since they can melt if they do. Now what about Styrofoam? That too depends on whether or not it was manufactured for microwave use or not. It too should be labeled. If ever in doubt, avoid using plastic containers in the microwave altogether and instead use glass or ceramic.

So what about the food itself? Does cooking food in the microwave alter the nutrition of that food? The FDA claims that microwaving food does not reduce or change the nutritional value of that food any more than other conventional types of cooking. In fact, they think that microwaving could possibly have less effects on the nutrition of foods than other methods since foods are typically cooked in a shorter period of time than with other methods. Others argue that too much is still unknown about the effects of microwaves on food, and still others claim that the vitamins and minerals in foods are severely decreased. It is possible that we might never know the answer to these questions.

Now whether or not the microwaves change the nutritional values of food is not as important as what sort of nutritional values the food had in the first place. In this day and age most foods that come prepackaged for preparation in the microwave are highly processed before they even get near a microwave oven. One of the biggest concerns is the abundance of processed foods in most American’s diets, especially the frozen meals that are so readily available in supermarkets. They are quick and easy meals, and many of them are advertised as being a healthy choice, but some of them can be misleading. A major concern is the calories in a single meal, which can be too few for most adults. Other concerns include the sodium and trans fat content and the presence of sweeteners and preservatives.

And what about the possible radiation that is omitted from the microwave itself? Are there any health risks simply by standing next to or looking into a microwave? My mother also used to tell me that it wasn’t safe for me to be constantly looking in on my food while it was cooking. The FDA has done much research on the effects of prolonged exposure to microwaves and have determined that exposure to high levels of microwaves can be very harmful. Less is known about the effects of low levels of microwave exposure. The only reason that a person should be exposed to high levels of microwaves is if there is something wrong with the microwave unit itself such as if the hinges, latches or seals are damaged. The FDA states that in order to ensure the safety of anyone using a microwave unit, the manufacturer’s instruction manual with its operating procedures should be followed.

While microwaves are a convenient part of life that most of us take for granted, we should take a bit of time to consider the possible effects that the machine can have on our health both directly and indirectly. My father had a friend who used to say, “If it didn’t grow in nature the way you found it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” I try to stick by this saying as best that I can, but I’m not perfect and even I take the easy way out and search the freezer for a frozen meal once in a while.

Cheese: From Cows to Your Kitchen

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:44 PM

Have you ever wondered how you get cheese from the milk that is produced from cows? One is a liquid while the other is a solid. There are differences in tastes too! So how does it work? I did a little bit of research to find out.

To begin the transformation from milk into cheese, an enzyme called rennet is introduced to milk, which cases the protein component of milk to coagulate which allows for the separation of  the solid from the liquid component. The solids are the curds and the liquid is called whey.

When you have loosely packed curds suspended in whey and other liquids, the resulting product is cottage cheese. To get other types of cheeses the curds are drained and pressed together to separate out the whey and water. As they are pressed, the curds begin to firm up into fresh cheese or farmer’s cheese. These types of cheeses include cream cheese and ricotta cheese.

For harder types of cheeses, the curds are usually added to a mold. At this point in time the cheese can be flavored using a number of different types of flavorings including brines, wines, spices and herbs. The cheese is then allowed to age to develop its flavor. Since most cheeses are acidic, most harmful bacteria are killed while allowing the mold that gives the cheese its flavor to live. The mold in the cheese can often be concentrated in certain parts of the cheese. Swiss cheese is one such type of cheese where this occurs. In the areas where there are mold, carbon dioxide gas is produced, which causes the unique look of Swiss cheese.

This video shows how to make a type of homemade soft cheese similar to ricotta or cream cheese that can be easily spread on crackers or bread. The video is a bit long, but it really shows the details needed to make cheese.

This is a really funny video that has really nothing to do with making cheese other than it involves a cow. The first time I saw it I laughed for a good five minutes afterwards, and I just felt like sharing with the rest of you too!

No matter how cheeses are made, they sure are mighty tasty! Who knew mold could taste so good?

Oils: The Differences Between Unsaturated Fats

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,

Posted February 9, 2011 at 3:58 PM
I’m sure many of you readers wonder why you use canola or vegetable oil in baking but not olive oil. What are the real differences between the different types of cooking oils?

There are many different types of oils used in cooking, the most common of which are canola oil, olive oil, safflower oils, sunflower oil, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil. Each of the different types of oils is used for different cooking methods and at different cooking temperatures.

Oils like safflower, sunflower and flax seed oil are mostly used at lower temperatures or used in cold applications such as in salad dressings. Canola oil and olive oil can be used at higher temperatures. Canola oil is often chosen over olive oil in baking due to its more mild taste. Olive oil can often have a very strong flavor which is more suited to cooking and grilling than to baking. However, most any type of oil can be used in baking applications, but most are not since they are either more costly than canola oil or they give an undesirable flavor to the baked goods.

Coconut oil is one of the only types of oil that has a very extensive range of cooking temperatures and uses. It has a very mild flavor, which allows it to be used in both cooking and baking. However, its use is often limited since the oil solidifies at room temperature whereas other types of oils remain liquid.

It is very important to choose the proper oil when cooking at high temperatures  (above 400°F). An oil that is perfectly safe and harmless at room temperature can become unhealthy when cooked at high temperatures. When oils are cooked at high temperatures, their chemical structure begins to break down, and the oil experiences changes in its characteristics, which can cause it to be less healthy than it was prior to being heated. If you are cooking with oils it is recommended that you don’t turn the heat up to more than medium-high (325°F).

I use a variety of oils when I cook, and the type of oil I use depends on what I am doing. If I am sautéing some vegetables such as mushrooms or onions, I typically use the coconut oil since it can be safely used at higher temperatures. If I am making a marinade or a sauce, I typically use olive oil since it has a wonderful flavor. I might also use vegetable or canola oil for this as well if I don’t want the strong flavor of the olive oil. However, most of the time I use vegetable or canola oil only when baking. I personally don’t like the flavor that olive oil gives to my baked goods.

GMOs: What are the True Risks?

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 2, 2011 at 3:50 PM

While reading Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age for class last week, my interest was piqued when genetically modified organisms were repeatedly brought up throughout my reading. Several questions were raised by the author on the topic such as: Is it safe? How safe? How safe is safe enough? Who decides what counts as safe? All of these questions, as well as many others, are very valid ones that we all should ask ourselves when it comes to genetically modified organisms.

What exactly are genetically modified organisms? GMOs are crop plants that are created using biotechnology to produce more produce for animal and human consumption. Several characteristics of the plant can be changed with this biotechnology that allow for greater produce to be produced, greater resistance to pests, diseases, and cold, and greater tolerance to drought-like conditions. Scientists view these changes and some others as beneficial to both humans and animals.

However, there are lots of people who see these changes as harmful to the environment and a potential risk to the humans and animals that consume these products. Some worry that introducing these modified plants into the wild will have a significant impact on other native plants. Another worry is that the modified plants will have an adverse effect on humans and animals.

The government has strict regulations on what is acceptable for public consumption, and GMOs are not exempt from this. Any GMOs are subject to meet governmental regulations, but what those regulations are is still an uncertainty. Certain types of produce, such as corn, are treated the same whether they are GMOs or natural crops while other types of crops are not.

Whenever I am faced with the option between a food that is genetically modified and one that isn’t, I usually pick the food that has not been modified. While I do know that in some cases I have no choice in the matter, I still prefer what is provided by nature to what is genetically altered by humans. Nature I trust, but humans are, well, human, and they make mistakes. There is also the issue that most food products don’t specify where ingredients came from or labels on foods don’t mention whether or not the product has GMOs in it. I guess the most important thing to do if you worry about such things like I do is to check the labels on whatever you buy.

Microwaves: A Modern Miracle for Busy Cooks

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted January 30, 2011 at 10:07 PM

I have always wondered how microwave ovens work. I’m sure many of you all have as well. How exactly does a frozen meal become steaming hot after cooking in a microwave for only five minutes when it would normally take hours for it to even that at room temperature? Why does the microwave not work when there is metal in it?

I found the answer to these questions and many more on how stuff works and eHow. Regardless, of how it works, the microwave has significantly changed the face of home cooking since it was first introduced into homes in 1967. Food can now be cooked within a few minutes rather than hours in a conventional oven. It has brought about a whole new category of food, microwaveable meals and snacks, that would not have been produced without the technology to cook it. Society has adapted to the needs of its consumers.

Many people in this day and age don’t really know how to really cook. All they really know is how to put something in the microwave, hit a button or two, and have the technology do all the work. This is why I take great pleasure in cooking homemade meals from scratch. Granted, I too use the microwave on occasion, but I do still know how to cook my own meals using more conventional methods too. Now I’m not saying it is a bad thing that people don’t or can’t cook; I’m just commenting on how technology changes the face of every day life.

This video shows an experiment that has been conducted by many people. I first saw this video in one of my classes as a fun video related to a chemical process or concept. I don’t know all of the science behind it, but the video is pretty entertaining. Please DO NOT do this at home as it is extremely dangerous, but do enjoy.

Caramel: A delicious science experiment!

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted January 26, 2011 at 10:45 PM

Have you ever wondered how caramel is made? Or how you can turn simple table sugar into a gooey treat? Well, the process is actually quite simple, but there is much more going on than meets the eye.

Caramel begins with the heating of table sugar (sucrose) until the sugar turns from a white color to a golden brown color. This process is called caramelization. Sucrose has a double ring structure composed of one five-membered ring bonded to a six-membered ring. When the molecule is heated, water is released in a process called dehydration and the molecule breaks into two new sugars: glucose and fructose. As the mixture continues to heat, these new molecules react with each other and form hundreds of new ring structure compounds called aromatics, which results in a range of flavors.

There are two different types of caramelization of sugar: wet and dry. Wet involves sugar being dissolved in water and heated. As the water evaporates as the mixture is heated, the solution becomes supersaturated with sugar, which will cause the sugar to want to re-crystallize. It is very important that at this point that the mixture not be stirred or contaminated since doing so would result in the mixture quickly solidifying. On the other hand, in the dry process the sugar is heated by itself until it liquefies, which is possible because sugar is partially made up of water. This method is much more difficult since the sugar has to be heated slowly in order to melt the sugar rather than burn it, and often times special equipment is needed to create caramel this way. The most common method is the wet method.

There are many different stages that the caramelizing sugar solution goes through as it is being heated. These different stages are typically characterized by the solution’s reaction when dropped into cold water. The progression from one stage to another occurs when the temperature has exceeded the general temperature range for the current stage, upon which time the solution takes on the characteristics of the new stage. These stages progress only in one direction, meaning that progression from one stage to another is irreversible.

Following the caramelization of the sugar mixture, cream and/or butter is often added to give the caramel its creamy texture. The fat found in both cream and butter causes the molecules of sugar to be suspended in a gel-like matrix that is semi-solid. The greater the amount of fat in the mixture the softer the caramel. For harder caramel, less fat is added in order to have the mixture maintain its shape relatively easy.

The process used to get to the end product is a very simple one despite all the chemical reactions that are occurring throughout the entire process, the end result is always worth the effort. Now it is time for our mouth's to have a party with a piece of this gooey confection!

Welcome to Culinary Chemistry!

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category:
Posted January 25, 2011 at 1:29 AM

Hello and welcome to Culinary Chemistry!

These posts are aimed at providing insight into the chemistry, science and technology behind both the food itself and the tools used within the kitchen. My intention is to examine an aspect of culinary art on a nearly daily basis and to detail the science that is involved with each aspect. As am aspiring biochemical engineer, I am well versed in the language of science and food, and will hopefully be able to shed some light on the subject.

In addition to the science, I will be sharing delicious recipes that I have found in my culinary adventures over the past few years. In many cases, I will be modifying these recipes as needed to make clarifications on instructions and methods so that the recipes are easier to understand. Over the course of this blog, I will strive to seek the answers to many of the commonly wondered about topics, as well as many topics that many people may not have even wondered about.

Feel free to comment on any posts. I welcome requests about topics or questions that you would like explained or answered. Please, however, keep your comments civil. Unruly comments will be deleted.