Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Salt and Battery

That sounds terribly painful and violent, doesn't it? But I promise you, I really am going to talk about food in this post.

To be quite picky about it, I'll tell you about the book I just finished reading: What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke.

Like one of my other favorites, How to Read a French Fry, this book takes many basic (and not-so-basic) questions about different ingredients and cooking techniques and offers scientific explanations for why things are. Wolke is a retired chemistry professor, so he knows his stuff.

And even with fairly dry and straightforward facts, Wolke knows how to make the subjects appealing and easily understood for non-science majors and beginning cooks. A number of the topics intrigued and delighted me, and some of the facts I simply have to share with you:

--What's the difference between sea salt and regular table salt? Wolke goes into a long and scientifically sound explanation, but it comes down to how the salt is mined or dried and then refined, leaving table salt with very regular uniform grains and sea salt with irregularly shaped crystals that dissolve more quickly and give a sudden burst of saltiness when you taste it.

--How do you clarify butter? (Slowly. Oh, you wanted details? Read the book!)

--Why does the aluminum foil covering lasagna get pinholes in it? This is my favorite one! If you use a non-aluminum metal pan (usually stainless steel) for your lasagna, and the aluminum foil you use to cover the pan touches the tomato sauce (an acid), you are essentially creating a weak battery that draws atoms from the aluminum, thus leaving holes. (Again, my explanation is greatly simplified and possibly slightly inaccurate... but isn't that cool?)

--Does all the alcohol in a dish cook out? No. But depending on the dish, the length of cooking time, the techniques, the size of pan, the rotation of the earth (OK, maybe not that), the amount of alcohol that evaporates can vary. Still, it doesn't all cook out, so take that into consideration when you cook for teetotaling guests.

There are many, many more fascinating bits of information in this book, and if you're as much of a cooking geek as I am, I highly recommend you read this. Wolke adds recipes, in case that helps to persuade you.

As for me... I'm getting hungry for some lasagna and a glass of wine.


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