Chemist in the kitchen

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If you want to know more about how food additives tie in with the chemistry that goes on in the kitchen, a downloadable booklet entitled ‘In the mix’ is accessible from the home page, or from the image on this page.

Chemicals have always been welcome in the kitchen: sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid etc.

Every cook is a chemist. The first chemical laboratories, back in the Middle Ages, were glorified kitchens, and many chemical processes derive from techniques of cooking. The vital technique of distillation was perfected in the course of man’s search for intoxicating drinks. And far from being dehumanizing, such chemical processes have an ancient magic and glamour, as the great Italian writer Primo Levi pointed out (he was also a chemist):-

Distilling is beautiful.

‘First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to invisible (vapour) invisible, and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is obtained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.’

Every kitchen contains a battery of chemical reagents, each with their specific chemical purpose; e.g. sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid, sodium chloride; and also substances, such as milk and eggs, that are not usually thought of as chemicals but which actually miracle reagents that chemists would still be incapable of creating if they didn’t already exist.

In many cases, ingredients that sound like chemicals are derived from natural products: lecithin from soya is similar to egg lecithin, acetic acid comes from vinegar, Vitamin C is the active ingredient of lemon juice, and so on. The principle of using additives is something that every cook, high or low, uses every time they prepare a meal. To understand the processes of making sauces, meringues, bread and cakes, of marinading, tenderising and caramelising is to become a food chemist, and it greatly enhances the pleasure of cooking to see it from a chemical point of view. Cooking is chemistry in action, with the added benefit that you can eat the results.

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