Book Review: Cooking as Chemistry

tea bag

Questions about tea are answered in Hervé This's latest book.

Hervé This. Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, translated by Jody Gladding, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.  220 pp.

This is Hervé This’s second book to be translated from French and published by the Arts and Traditions of the Table series edited by Albert Sonnenfeld (for full disclosure, my own book Salt, Grain of Life appeared in the same series). The series consists of 39 segments, each devoted to the science behind an aspect of cooking.

The tone of voice of Dr. This’s Kitchen Mysteries is unmistakably similar to Michael Faraday’s in his Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in the early and mid-19th century. There are worse examples to set for oneself. But is Dr. This’s popularization as successful as Faraday’s discourse on the flame of a candle? Specifically, does it convey equally fine chemistry from seemingly mundane examples?

One would imagine a 21st-century Faraday describing to us, for instance, a cup of cocoa: relating its Amerindian origins; illuminating the possibly addictive chemical components that contribute to its aroma; detailing the ingredients and crystallization process of cocoa butter; explaining why the addition of cocoa powder affects sound velocity in water or milk; giving the reason for foam on cocoa’s surface; telling why hot cocoa carries more antioxidants than cold.

Dr. This does not discuss cocoa, but tea is one of his topics. He poses and answers four questions about tea: how long should it steep, should milk be added to the cup before or after the tea, why does lemon juice discolor tea, and how does one avoid spilling the tea when pouring it. On the infusion process, the author is noncommittal, stating only that one should avoid extracting too much of the bitter and astringent tannins. On adding milk, he explains very clearly that milk proteins sequester the tannins as long as they are not denatured by the heat; one ought thus to add hot tea to cold milk. Lemon acidity affects dye molecules in the tea that regulate pH. And, while he does not answer the fourth query, he does explain the physical source of the problem.

The tea example is a good illustration of Dr. This’s method of going back and forth between the kitchen and the lab bench to account for conventional kitchen wisdom. Unsurprisingly, he often concludes that the latter—what is taken as truth in the kitchen—is rarely based in fact. Dr. This takes the easy road of debunking conventional wisdom. There are more arduous tasks. After all, science is based on empirical evidence, and trial and error, and thus by its very nature is the enemy of both common sense and conventional wisdom. In other words, this book may lack a sense of wonder.

Kitchen Mysteries rides on the current fashion for so-called “molecular gastronomy.” Some of the leading chefs, chief among them the Catalan wizard Ferran Adriá of the restaurant El Bulli in northeastern Spain, experiment in their kitchens as if they were laboratories. In the United States, Grant Achatz, of the Alinea restaurant in Chicago, received the 2008 America’s Best Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation. Achatz, recently profiled in the New Yorker, has done much to define this movement, which devises dishes with novel textures and flavors from gels, polyelectrolytes, and other materials from the field known only yesteryear as colloidal chemistry.

How does this book read? It lacks fluidity. My recommendation is to sample a bit at a time and to savor one section before ingesting another. Also, the translation is awkward. How can a sauce “walk a thin line?” (p. 114). Or why write, “If lemon juice or vinegar are heated in the presence of amylose and amylopectin chains, they break down these chains into shorter ones that bind less well with water,” (29 words, p. 125) when the identical meaning is conveyed by “amylose and amylopectin chains break under hot lemon juice or vinegar. The ensuing shorter chains bind water less well” (19 words).

But the book remains captivating for its subject matter. Cooking is part of our daily life. Cuisine is an enchanting part of our leisure time. Dr. This’s book offers expert explanations that give the reader a better understanding of both cooking and cuisine. As such, it is enticing.

Pierre Laszlo, an emeritus professor of chemistry, enjoys a second career as a science writer. His latest book is Citrus: A History.