So you swear you hate chemistry. Do you like to cook? I hate to break it to you like this, but if you cook, you’re a chemist – you’re using controlled reactions to shift raw materials into new chemical forms. The new forms just happen to smell and taste good. Unless, of course, you burn them by mistake.
A few tasty chemical reactions are the focus of Hervé This’ new book, Building A Meal: From Molecular Gastronomy to Culinary Constructivism (Columbia University Press 2009, translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise). This is a physical chemist and an early pioneer of molecular gastronomy. He’s written about food and chemistry before in the encyclopedic Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor (also from Columbia University Press), but Building A Meal is a more intimate introduction to the ideas behind molecular gastronomy. This book is certainly less likely to intimidate – instead of presenting a cascade of different reactions, it examines the chemistry underlying a simple, classic menu, from appetizer to dessert. And if the end of the book falls into a muddle of philosophy about cooking, its careful explanation of how to make a perfect hard boiled egg (the key is to pay attention to the temperatures at which white and yolk coagulate) more than makes up for it.
Now I’m off to the kitchen to try the book’s instructions for a whipped chocolate emulsion. Because everything – including chemistry – is better with chocolate.