science in the kitchen

Science Has a Place in the Kitchen

Read Time: 4 minutes

Everyone says that cooking is an art, and while you can make some pretty beautiful dishes, there’s more than art behind those tasty treats. Whether you enjoy cooking or tend to burn water, it doesn’t change the fact that everyone needs to eat. What most people don’t realize is that there’s more to cooking than just adding heat — it’s all about science. Let’s take a look at the science behind your favorite snacks, and where you can find science in the kitchen.

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Scientific Instruments

When you think of scientific instruments, what comes to mind? Chances are, you’re now thinking of test tubes, Bunsen burners and lab coats — and you’re not wrong.

Now, look in your kitchen. Do you see bowls, spoons, measuring cups, meat thermometers and silicone pans? Congratulations, you’ve found your scientific instruments.

Anyone who’s ever tried to bake a cake without measuring cups knows how important the science of measurement is to baking and cooking. If you’re off by a teaspoon in either direction, it could mean the difference between a tasty treat and an inedible mess. A teaspoon of pepper, for example, can add a fantastic level of flavor to a roast. A tablespoon of the same can make it inedible.

Temperature — Cold

I scream, you scream, we all scream for frozen treats — and get disappointed when a high-quality steak gets freezer burned. Why do cold temperatures ruin some foods but keep others perfect?

It’s all about the water inside the individual cells in the food. Have you ever left a soda in the freezer, only to have it explode once it was frozen solid? This phenomenon is due to the fact that water expands when it is frozen. (It’s also what causes roads and sidewalks to crack when the weather gets cold.)

With meat, freezing causes the water molecules inside the meat’s cells to expand and damage the cells. When you pair that with oxygen in the freezer — from using cheap Ziploc bags or not removing all the oxygen from the bag before you store it — you get freezer burn.

This same temperature gradient helps to create some of the tastiest treats, though. Ice cream, for example, is a frozen mixture of milk, cream, eggs and flavoring. When you put ice cream inside a regular freezer, the same thing happens as with the steak — the water molecules expand. If you make homemade ice cream and freeze it slowly, it can sometimes be grainy because of those large frozen water molecules.

This process is why ice cream made with liquid nitrogen is probably the creamiest ice cream that you’ll ever taste — the molecules are flash frozen before they get a chance to expand, creating a super creamy consistency that can’t be matched by any other freezing method.

Temperature — Heat

Now we get down to the nuts and bolts of cooking — heat. Traditionally, to cook food, you have to apply some form of heat to it, but how do you know what type of heat works best for what foods, and what kind of pots, pans and other instruments you should be cooking in?

Most cooking dishes are made of one of three materials — metal, glass or food grade silicone. Metal dishes can be made of aluminum, stainless steel, copper or cast iron, each with its own pros and cons.

Food grade silicone rubber cooking dishes have become more popular in recent years. They’re flexible, resistant to both heat and cold, durable and flame retardant, and they transfer heat more evenly than other options. Unlike plastics and rubbers used in cooking implements in the past, these are naturally bacteria and mold resistant, making them easier to clean and maintain.

When you’re applying heat, you have a number of things to consider other than your dish or pan of choice. What type of food are you cooking, and what is the desired outcome? Cooking meat for a long period at a low heat leaves you with tender, delicious food, but you wouldn’t want to do that to an expensive steak or a chicken breast. High heat can lock in juices and flavors, but cooking a piece of meat at high heat also risks burning the exterior while the interior is still cold.

There are a variety of different ways to add heat to something:

  • Poaching Cooking your food in heated water
  • Sous Vide Cooking in heated water, but your food is secured in a vacuum-sealed bag
  • Sautee Cooking in a small amount of oil over medium or high heat
  • Frying Cooking your food in large amounts of oil, usually over high heat
  • Roasting Cooking in a heated oven. Oil/liquid is optional, and use will depend on the type of dish you’re cooking
  • Broiling Cooking at high temperatures directly beneath the upper element in your oven

We’re probably missing a few here, but our list gives you the basic idea. Look into new cooking techniques to see how you can apply thermal science to your recipes!

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This article offers just the basics of cooking science — we haven’t even gotten into fun stuff like molecular gastronomy yet! No matter what you’re cooking, take some time to think about the science behind it. You might be surprised how much science in the kitchen you’re actually doing.

What kitchen science will you whip up next? Let us know in the comments below! 

Category: Everyday Science

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.