And its a lot more socially acceptable than most other amateur endeavors in chemistry..
I credit two things for my ability to cook. First is my mom, who not only shared a wealth of Korean cooking methods, but also took specific effort to learn more common American meals so that she could integrate her knowledge. Most of my cooking knowledge comes directly from her, but I can’t exactly help you learn more by suggesting you find a mom or dad who is great at cooking. 😉 If you are lucky enough to have a parent around who cooks well, be sure to take some time and spend it with them in the kitchen! There’s a reason these traditions are worth carrying on – and that is that they taste delicious! Oh yeah, there are probably some great emotional and sentimental reasons in there too, but I’m trying to stick to the food and the chemistry today.
The second great influence on my cooking is the few chemistry classes I’ve taken throughout the years, up to an undergraduate level. Because really, when you break it down, the things you do in the kitchen aren’t all that different than what one might do in a chemistry lab. Heat some liquid, stir some reagents, the ingredients themselves may not be identical but they do share some important characteristics.
For example, acids and bases mix to create water and salt. So if you’re adding acidic and basic ingredients to the same dish, extra salt might be just too much!
And speaking of salt, the reason why you add a pinch to a pot of water before boiling it is that because the extra ions of Na and Cl will allow the water to reach a higher heat before boiling. So not only is the boiling point of water dependent on atmospheric temperature, its also a function of how many electrolytes are dissolved in the liquid!
Of course, oil and water don’t mix too well – but they can both attach to fiberous plant pieces and create a consistent paste or thick soup. Now remember, the smaller you cut up your veggies the more surface area they have. And surface area is the primary factor in how many bonds a particular number of atoms can forge.
In fact, most organic compounds will partially dissolve in either water or oil (or both!) so we use oil to liquefy eggs (mayonaise) and we use water to extract delicious from coffee beans and tea leaves. If something doesn’t want to dissolve in either of those and you insist on liquefying it, be sure to remember alcohol and acids like vinegar are needed.
And obviously, we can’t forget the chemistry of gluten that is at once desired for its ability to trap oxygen and rise to a fluffy bread and simultaneously reviled by those of us with an incompatible immune system.
Whether its the way heat transfers or how starches can be converted to sugar in the right heating conditions, there are a million little lessons we can learn from applying classroom chemistry to the household kitchen. There are of course, other ways you can apply chemistry as a hobby. But most of those involve explosions and toxic solvents that are kind of frowned upon in this age of security and paranoia!