Are Chefs Chemists? The Answer Might Surprise You

Many experimental Chefs are beginning to blur the lines between chemistry and cooking.
Christopher McFadden

Chemistry is everywhere, especially in the kitchen. But are we, or indeed professional chefs, practicing chemistry when we rustle up a meal?

The answer, as it turns out, might surprise you. Or not, as the case may be.

How Chemistry is important in our daily life?

Quite simply, Chemistry is all around us all the time. Many things in your life, including your own body, are dependent on, or the products of, Chemistry.

For example, when you eat something vital chemical reactions take place in your stomach to digest and assimilate foodstuffs. When you have a wash or wash up anything, the process relies on emulsifiers to surround dirt and grime in order to remove it. 

Whenever you get ill, you rely on drugs to help you recover. These all rely on the science of Chemistry to help numb pain or kill pathogens in your body.

And, most importantly for this article, Chemistry is foundational to the art of cooking. When you cook something you are altering the very basic chemical structure of ingredients to produce a palatable and delicious meal. 

Not to mention make it digestible and kill microorganisms that might be lurking within it. When making sauces or making bread, you are literally conducting basic (well complex with regards to organic ingredients) chemistry.

So you see, in our own way, each and every one of us is chemist, from a certain point of view — sort of. 

chef chemistry lab
Source: FDA/Wikimedia Commons

Is a chef a scientist?

From a certain point of view they are. But, unlike trained and experienced chemists, they may not understand exactly why.

Whilst there are some celebrity chefs who specialize in infusing actual chemistry principles into cooking, most practice a form of it without really knowing about it.

But there is a growing trend in the industry for better awareness and use of science in the cooking process. This is either directly by using things like liquid nitrogen for cooking, or more subtly by trying to better understand the cooking process.

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But it works both ways. Scientists in recent decades have also turned their attention to the cooking process.

Their studies have been able to debunk some long-held beliefs around cooking. For example, it has been discovered that searing meat does not actually seal in juices. 

But high heat exposure does induce chemical reactions that make cooked meat tastier to humans (or have we just evolved that way?).

In fact, the discipline of food science arose during the 20th century in an attempt by food companies to improve their foodstuff shelf lives whilst remaining palatable and safe to eat.  

The long list of ingredients on a frozen dinner represents the work of food scientists in ensuring shelf life and approximating the taste of fresh-cooked food.

Whilst many chef's would shy away from using similar ingredients in their foods years ago, some experimental chefs like Heston Blumenthal have been experimenting with them in recent years.  

In this sense, these kinds of chefs are beginning to slowly but surely merge food science, cooking, and chemistry-proper.

What is the role of chemistry in the kitchen?

Just like everything in daily life, you can't escape Chemistry, even in the kitchen. When you cook you are practicing a form of Chemistry, albeit in total ignorance. 

You boil water all the time, add salt, mix things like salad dressings, and effectively constantly undertake chemical reactions during the process. But with a little more knowledge of what is actually going on, you can use it to make some truly incredible dishes.

For example, to control the amount of salt you use its useful to understand something about saltiness. As it turns out, the temperature of a foodstuff actually affects humans ability to sense salt.

The hotter it is the less you are able to discern the amount of salt present. It is best, in this case, to wait for it to cool down a little before adding salt. 

The inverse is true for sweetness by the way. 

Another interesting science-based food tip is about fish. You are likely to have noticed that it tends to start to smell bad very quickly, even when chilled. 

This is because fish tend to live in relatively cold temperatures during life. Their natural processes during life aren't affected that much by being chilled (unless frozen of course). 

They also tend to have high levels of a chemical that breaks down into trimethylamine (TMA) that smells like ammonia. You can get around this by soaking the fish in milk or using lemon juice to bind to and draw out the chemical from the flesh!

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