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“C” is for chemisty

Science you didn’t know you were doing

Image credit: pasukara76 (out of town), Flickr

In a time-lapse video, it looks like a monster coming alive.  For a moment, it sits there innocuously.  Then it pulsates.  Ripples move across its surface.  It begins to bulge outwards, bursting with weird boils.  In mere seconds, it triples in volume, its color darkens ominously, and its surface hardens into an alien topography of peaks and craters.  Then, the kitchen timer dings.  Your cookie is ready.

What happened inside that oven?

Don’t let the sugar and spice deceive you, for the baker is a mad scientist.  In an act of aproned alchemy, she uses her oven to transform one substance into another.  As her sugary creation heats up, the chemical compounds in the dough undergo a series of reactions that change them into different ones.

When the dough reaches 92° Fahrenheit, the butter melts, causing the dough to start spreading out.  As it melts, it releases trapped water, and as the cookie gets hotter, the water expands into steam.  It pushes against the dough from the inside, trying to escape through the cookie walls like Ridley Scott’s chestbursting alien.

When the temperature reaches 136°, it’s too hot for any salmonella that may have been squirming around in the eggs. They die off.  You’ll live to test your fate with the raw dough from your next batch.

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Check out this video profile by me and fellow science writer Ritchie King.  We talked to Dave Breeden, who makes wine in upstate New York at Sheldrake Point winery.  Dave’s quite a character, and he has interesting views on whether winemaking is an art or a science.

Dave Breeden discusses the art and science of winemaking from Scienceline on Vimeo.

If you liked what you saw, you may also want to read my profile of Dave.  He’s quirky and interesting, and he also gave me wine while I interviewed him!

The bottle as beaker

by Stephanie Warren

Dave Breeden pops a ripe cabernet sauvignon grape into his mouth. A look of complete absorption fills his face as he chews. “It’s sweet,” he says. “The seeds are crunchy and ripe. There’s nothing green, no bell pepper flavors.” He looks up from the vines, pleased. “These are ready to go.” On this windblown, brightly sunny October day, it’s time to harvest the grapes. Then they’re off to the crusher-destemmer, the fermenter, the barrel, the bottle, and at long last, the glass. Breeden will watch over them through each step of the process, sniffing, swirling, sipping and spitting what starts out as a muddle of sugars, acids, and other chemical compounds and eventually becomes that magical beverage humans have revered for nearly seven thousand years: wine.

Breeden, 46, is the head vintner at Sheldrake Point Winery in the Finger Lakes area of New York state. He is an endearing mix of bohemian and geek: tall and lanky, he sports glasses and a long graying ponytail, a navy button-up and several silver rings. The rings emphasize his exceptionally long fingers, which he uses to punctuate his every passionate sentence. They fly around him in a blur: now stabbing the air as he denigrates the overripe, jammy flavors of California cabernet sauvignons, now twisted tightly together as talks with a sort of sheepish pride about Sheldrake’s numerous awards.

…read more.

Test Tube Kitchen is a place for cooks who want to learn more.  If you’ve ever wondered things like:

  • Why does all baking seem to take place at 350°?
  • Why exactly am I supposed to let meat rest after cooking?
  • Is there a foolproof way to make sure my pie crust is flaky?

Then you’ve come to the right place.  At Test Tube Kitchen, I’ll put cooking questions to the test.  I’ll see what science has to say about how to make the perfect hardboiled egg or golden, airy souffle.

Cooking is chemistry, after all.  And hopefully, learning about the science behind what’s going on in our ovens, refrigerators, and frying pans will make us better cooks.  So come along with me as I bust myths, ask the hard questions, and create a frightening number of dirty dishes.  It’ll be fun!