Better Thanksgiving through Chemistry

Some holidays are religious, some are patriotic but let’s be honest, Thanksgiving is all about the food. So tomorrow, as we wait impatiently for ma, or grandma, to perform that wonderful miracle in the kitchen maybe we should all take a moment to think about chemistry, that’s right chemistry.

Cooking is really just practical organic chemistry after all. Consider the changes your turkey will go through as the heat of your oven makes it so delicious. The muscle proteins will coagulate making them easier to digest, the carbohydrates in the skin will caramelize making it nice and crispy while the lipids will liquefy making everything wonderfully moist.

Heat is also important in preparing our vegetables, breaking down the tough cellulose cell walls. If you boil your potatoes don’t forget to salt the water, and not just for taste. Salt also raises the boiling temperature of water and is simply a good catalyst speeding up many chemical reaction.

Besides heating there are other important cooking techniques as well. Consider making a nice vinaigrette for your salad. Now we all know that oil and water don’t mix but if you employ mechanical agitation, shake them or stir with a whisk, you can produce thousands of little oil bubbles suspended in the vinegar. This is called an emulsion and here’s a little secret, add a teaspoon of mustard before you shake. The proteins in the mustard dissolve in the vinegar but can hook onto one of those oil drops helping to keep the emulsion from separating. The mustard also adds a lot of flavor.

Perhaps the most complex chemistry performed in the kitchen involves yeast. Yeast are living cells of a fungal organism and their metabolism is as complex as any creatures but we humans use then basically for two purposes. When added to a mixture of carbohydrates and lipids, flour and butter, the yeast will produce carbon dioxide bubbles making the bread dough rise. The other use is to produce alcohol from simple sugars giving us the nice glass of Riesling I plan on having with my turkey.

Yes, a delicious meal is really just better living through chemistry. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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