Smart food: Cook better with a little science

20161110_inq_fd1science10zd_1200
At Muhlenberg College, Keri Colabroy (right) teaches chemistry and biology in her class "The Science of Cooking." She has written a book by the same title.

Want to soften the bitterness of the kale in your salad? Or learn the secret to perfect piecrust? Or how to bake the most tender crumb in a loaf of bread?

If you understand the science behind the recipe, you'll have a much better chance for success. Turns out, that principle also works in reverse.

On Muhlenberg College's campus in Allentown, some students are learning to make caramel, not in a culinary program, but in a science class. Keri Colabroy, an associate professor of chemistry and biology, has been offering "The Science of Cooking" since 2012, with the lab portion convening in the kitchen. There, the students learn the molecular composition of different fats, the chemical reasons eggs harden as they cook, and how the protein content in flour affects the bread you bake with it.

Now, she's written a textbook, The Science of Cooking, to make science more palatable for students who fear chemistry and biology. "Chemistry is learnable by anybody, but when we present it the way we usually do in an academic environment, it's abstract," says Colabroy. "It's like trying to teach a child to write in a language they don't speak."

For years now, science has been creeping into home kitchens. The audience that loved Alton Brown's Good Eats glommed onto Kenji Lopez-Alt's online column The Food Lab when it launched in 2009. Over the summer, America's Test Kitchen - the company behind the public television show of the same name, Cook's Illustrated, and Cook's Country magazines - launched a new website: CooksScience.com. And now there's an ambitious cookbook to match, Cook's Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients.

Of course, some home cooks have been focused on science in the kitchen for many years. Harold McGee's seminal On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen was first published in 1984. America's Test Kitchen has been digging into kitchen science in subtler ways for more than two decades. In Cook's Science, editors plumbed the subject more fully.

The book looks at 50 everyday ingredients and explores how to bring out their maximum flavor through smart techniques and the power of science.

For example, in the kale chapter, the editors wanted to learn why the vegetable could be so bitter and what could be done to mute that flavor. They learned the bitterness came from a compound that forms when you chop or damage the cells in the leaves. This compound rinses off under running water, leaving a milder-tasting green. "It's a simple matter of changing the order of operations: chop, then wash for a less bitter salad," says Molly Birnbaum, who coedited Cook's Science with Dan Souza.

During the bread-baking session in Colabroy's class, students learn to tweak any bread recipe to get the texture they prefer. "A high-protein flour, like bread flour," she says, "will give you a chewier, stronger loaf."

Cook's Science champions the idea of bringing the scientific method into your kitchen in order to make these kinds of discoveries. "Our time in the kitchen is a place to explore questions," says Birnbaum, "so we can come up with answers people can trust."

The charter issue of Milk Street, a magazine focused on modern cooking and global flavors, not science, still has a few choice references to molecules and protein networks. That information is there to let readers know the solid and specific reasons for the recipe steps that may seem too fussy at first glance.

"Home cooks often want to take shortcuts or make substitutions," says Christopher Kimball, formerly of America's Test Kitchen and publisher of Milk Street.

If a recipe's techniques go unexplained, improvisation may ruin a dinner. But home cooks tend to respect the authority of science.

"When people understand, or at least kind of understand, they will be more likely to do it the right way," he says.

Piecrust is famously vexing because, to achieve tenderness, you need to limit gluten, which forms when flour meets water. But a pastry made with minimal water can be crumbly and difficult to roll out. A recipe in Milk Street solves this problem by incorporating a slurry of water and cornstarch into the recipe's other ingredients. This prevents the water from interacting with the flour directly and makes an easy-to-handle dough that yields a tender crust.

Cook's Science is a good bit wonkier and more technical than Milk Street, but the editors share the goal of science leading to success in the kitchen. "So much of what we're doing here is looking into the problems of the average home cook, and solving them," says Birnbaum. "This kind of science is for everyone."

At Muhlenberg, Colabroy's favorite part of the course is when students present their final project - a dish they've made that shows off a scientific principle. "I've had butternut squash ravioli that rivals anything you've had in a restaurant," she says. These are liberal arts student who will graduate with at least one practical life skill.

Dan Souza and Molly Birnbaum, editors of Cook's Science: How to Unlock Flavor in 50 of Our Favorite Ingredients will appear at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1905 Locust St.