Culinary as a Science: Common questions answered

The kitchen is a lab in disguise, with the science involved in everything from the physics of boiling water to the chemical reaction that takes place when frying food in hot oil.

Of course, if your interest in the culinary field is new, you may wonder if culinary is a science and if you need to know science to be able to cook, or if culinary is a science, how can it be an art?

With our son interested in a culinary career, I was also curious about some of these questions. I researched and will share my findings with you in this article. Let’s start with the following:

Is cooking a science?

There are many scientific principles at work in the process of cooking. Chemical reactions occur when heat is applied to food to prepare it for eating, and these cause changes in the flavour, aroma, colour, texture and nutritional content of food.

Cooking, the science involved in it and being a chef are related. A chef can’t be influential without a solid grasp of the scientific principles of cooking to transform cooking ingredients into a quality food product.

For anyone interested in a culinary career, it is thus vital to better understand the relationship between science and cooking.

The relationship between science and cooking.

Some of the common questions asked about science and cooking are:

What science is cooking?

Cooking is the science of applying heat to food. The skilled chef controls and manipulates this application of heat to get the desired outcome in the taste, aroma, texture and look of food in preparing it for eating.

Is culinary an art or a science?

Culinary is a blend of art and science. The culinary artist knows the desired effect they want to create in the taste, aroma, texture and looks of a dish and what cooking principles, heat, and chemical processes would best be used to achieve it.

The artist in the culinarian is expressed in their creativity in combining various ingredients to create new food flavours.

As artists, culinarians are always looking for new ways to extend the limits of culinary boundaries by experimenting with new food innovations and techniques.

Molecular gastronomy, for example, uses innovative tricks with food to give customers a great dining experience.

Do chefs need to know science?

While chefs don’t need to be degreed scientists, they must know the science of cooking, the structural elements of food, how heat transfer alters these and which cooking processes to use to create the desired chemical reactions in food for the taste, smell, texture and physical appearance they want.

8 Reasons why chefs must know science.

For the skilled chef, science becomes a tool they use to create quality food.  To become proficient in using science as a tool in cooking, a chef must know the basics of how science relates to food and cooking.

To achieve this and become an excellent professional, a chef must know the science of cooking for the following reasons:

1. To use the scientific traits of food to create good food.

There are many examples where an understanding of the scientific properties of food and how this food reacts with heat aids a skilled chef in producing quality food.

The knowledge that salt, for example, is best absorbed in hot rather than cold food helps you know that the best time to season food with salt is at the beginning rather than at the end of the cooking process.

This way, the food is evenly seasoned as the heat in the cooking process allows for the absorption of the salt into the food rather than only being coated with salt.

2. To apply the effects of heat transfer on food.

To be a skilled chef, you need to know the different components in food, like protein, carbohydrates, and fats or how the nutrients in food behave when heated or combined with other ingredients.

For example, the reaction when the carbohydrates in starches and sugars are exposed to heat is called caramelisation.

Suppose a chef wants to create the browning effect of sauteed vegetables. In that case, they know the vegetables must caramelise or, when cooking spaghetti, the pasta must cook until the gelatinisation process has been achieved, where the starch in the strands of spaghetti has absorbed enough water to gelatinise.

3. To control and manipulate the cooking process.

A chef must know the effects of heat on food and how to manage the heat applied to food to create the desired result.

The difference in doneness of a piece of rare, medium or well-done steak has all to do with the length of cooking time determined by the interior temperature of the meat.

The culinarian creates three different types of steak by monitoring the cooking time and internal temperature of tender meats like steak.

4. To ensure food safety.

Cooking food to the right temperature ensures that the bacteria like salmonella and E.coli living in food like meat are destroyed, making it fit for human consumption without undue health risks.

In cattle, the harmful bacteria are in the gut rather than the muscle used in steak. Hence an excellent hot sear on both sides of a steak is enough to get rid of any bacteria on the surface.

In the case of ground beef burgers, a chef knows these must be cooked through as any bacteria on the surface of the meat will be woven into the entire burger.

5. To add to their authority as a chef.

If you want to be an excellent culinary artist, you will have an advantage in your career by growing your scientific knowledge, making you an authority in your field.

As an example, knowing that when you whisk egg white, you are mixing air in or packing bubbles, and this process turns liquid egg white into a solid, give you a self-assuredness as a culinary expert because you know precisely why you are performing an action and the cooking process that takes place to achieve your goal.

Another example is when you are deep frying. It’s common knowledge that the oil is ready for deep frying when a sample of food is dropped in, and bubbles are visible on the surface of the oil.

What’s not common knowledge is that the bubbles formed are not because the oil has reached boiling point but come from the moisture released off the surface of the food.

6. To help you create food hacks.

Knowing science helps you understand what to do to achieve something and why you are doing it.

A simple example is preventing sliced apples from browning because of an enzyme in apples that reacts with oxygen. To prevent this is to block the browning effect with an acid like lemon juice which deactivates the enzyme causing the browning effect.

To perform hacks like this, you need to know the scientific properties of food.

7. To help you improve food taste.

One example is understanding how the science behind deep frying can affect the taste of food.

When a chef knows the scientific properties of the different oils, they are more likely to choose the best oil for frying as the wrong one can cause the smoke from the oil rather than be released into the air, to be released into the food and alter the taste of the food being deep fried.

Different oils have different types of fat molecules and nutritional properties. Each is different in how they break down and affect the flavour of food. The taste of the food is impacted by the smoke point that oil reaches, which varies based on the kind of oil.

Chemicals are released at this time as gases, and while some enter the atmosphere as smoke, others are absorbed into the food and alter its taste, especially with oils with a lower smoke point where more of these gases are absorbed into the food.

As a result, when deep frying, chefs use oil with a high smoke point.

8. To help you create healthier food.

Knowing, for example, that vegetables are best prepared by steaming them to preserve their nutrients helps you create healthier and more nutritional food.

Understanding the relationship between food and the science involved in cooking empowers a chef with the knowledge to make the best decisions to create the dishes they want and do so with excellence.

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