Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Chemistry and Cooking

"Chemistry is just like cooking, except you can't lick the spoon!"

By training I'm a chemist, though what I do in the lab is far what most people imagine when they think of a chemist. When I say I'm a chemist, I'm sure most people imagine the mad scientist surrounded by glassware, odd colored liquids, and smoking test tubes (come to think of it, this is how I imagine organic chemists!). But the chemistry I do doesn't involve any of those things. I don't wear a lab coat, gloves, or safety goggles (though I do wear laser glasses). I haven't even synthesized anything in a lab in over 3 years. I think part of me misses that, which is why I find it very relaxing to cook. 

I don't like to follow a recipe, though. I cook in the style of "a dash of this" and "a pinch of that". If my wife really likes something I've cooked she knows to enjoy the moment because she'll never have that exact dish again. That's not to say my wife doesn't like my cooking, she just knows that every meal will be different. 

Usually when I'm cooking my mind turns to chemistry. In particular I've been thinking of the Maillard reaction. Though you may not have heard it of it before, I'm sure you've seen it. Just take a look at this amazing piece of chicken I fried up tonight: 

Ok, so maybe I wrote this as an excuse to post this picture. At least I haven't added a filter or something...

The browning on the outside of the chicken is due to the Maillard reaction, which happens when amino acids react with sugar in the presence of heat. You'll see it in toast, roasted coffee, maple syrup, caramels, and much more. From that list I'm sure you'll agree that the reaction can create a wide variety of taste. Understanding and utilizing the reaction is the basis of the food industry.

The following paragraph is written by a physical chemist. Like I said I haven't done "real" chemistry in years.

The process occurs in three stages. First, the carbonyl group of a sugar reacts with an amino acid to produce water and glycosylamine. Then, the glycosylamine pushes a hydrogen around (which is my simplistic - and wrong - way of describing an Amadori rearrangement, but I'll admit it I had to look that up) to produce a variety of aminoketones. In the final step a host of other products are produced depending on the pH, the temperature, and amino acids involved. These different products are why the Maillard reaction creates such a wide variety of tastes.

So my question to other chemists that read this is - do you enjoy cooking? For you synthetic chemists, does it feel too much like work to be enjoyable? Let me know in the comments!