Mad Food Science

Chemistry + Cupcakes

Applesauce with molasses + cinnamon

Molasses

Molasses has a bit of a reputation for being an “old person” food. Sayings like “slower than molasses in January” tend to conjure up images of cantankerous old codgers shaking their canes at the young children to “get off my lawn” while they complain about how a loaf of bread used to be a nickel.

It makes sense, then, that blackstrap molasses dates back to about 1875 when it was mentioned as part of the sentence for two criminals who violated a municipal law:

"A fine in a certain amount, or else imprisonment for a certain number of hours with bread, water and molasses of the black-strap variety for pablum until they again breathed the pure air of heaven."

A little flowery for my tastes, but OK.

Molasses “of the black-strap variety,” like sweet delicious rum, starts off as sugar cane juice. It’s boiled and the sugar is extracted 3 times to get to the dark, gloopy (that’s a technical term) syrup that we’re familiar with. So with all that water and sugar gone, what’s left in there?

VITAMINS! Molasses is an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. One tablespoon will get you 20% of your recommended daily intake. In fact, it leads a dual life as both a food product and a health supplement.

What else? Well, not much. No protein. No fibre. Almost no fat. Pretty much just vitamins, carbohydrates (to give it its rich colour and complex flavour), sugars and water.

However, the interesting thing about molasses is all the other things you can do with it besides stuffing it down your gullet. For example:

  • Industrial rust removing
  • Fermenting ethanol biofuel
  • Adding to livestock feeds (cows need vitamins, too!)
  • Helping get rid of chlorinated hydrocarbons (bad molecules)
  • Making de-icer, yeast, citric acid, beer or mortar for brickwork
  • Promoting microbes in your garden soil

Delicious, nutritious and oddly multipurpose. There’s practically nothing molasses isn’t good for. NOW, GET OFF MY LAWN!

Banana chocolate chip sandwich cookies + Nutella cream cheese filling

Potassium

Bananas are good for any number of things: feeding monkeys, filling out your pocket when you’re happy to see someone, and disposing of pesky tailgaters in Mario Kart to name just a few.

However, generally speaking, I’d say bananas are the poster fruit for their content of potassium, an essential mineral that we’d die without. But why is potassium so important? What does it do, and what happens when it’s not around to do it?

To answer the first question, we’re going (as it seems we so often do) all the way back to high school science class. Bring on the baggy jeans and frosted tips!

Your body is about 0.2% potassium by mass, making it the third most abundant mineral in your body after calcium and phosphorus. Elemental potassium is a soft, silvery-white metal that’s highly reactive with water (a scientific euphemism for “explodes when they’re mixed”) like its cousin sodium, and burns with a lilac-coloured flame (fancy!)

Potassium is so very important to our ongoing lives because its positive ions (technically called “cations,” and noted as K+) are needed to generate action potentials in every neuron in your body. Whoah. OK, so let’s break down all that fancy talk:

1. Potassium doesn’t exist in your body as a flaming purple metal. As fabulous as that would be, it would probably sting. It mostly exists dissolved into the various fluids of your body (we humans are juicy creatures) as free-floating potassium ions that have a positive charge. Hence the K+.

2. Neurons (or nerve cells) run throughout your entire body from your brain to your toes and control, like, everything. Obviously super important. But neurons are just the “wires” that carry the “signals” around your body. What are those signals?

3. The signals carried by your neurons are called action potentials. And those action potentials are (in a manner of speaking) made of potassium (and sodium). That’s because neurons have lots of sodium on the outside and lots of potassium on the inside. And every signal – every blink or thought or step or fart – is the result of those ions flip-flopping from one side to the other through a series of special channels and pumps in the cell membrane. This creates an electrical charge that moves down the neuron.

So, without potassium your whole body would be in a bit of a pickle. It’d be like trying to Instagram an obviously super important photo of your dinner, but without any internet access. The horror.

It makes sense, then, that a serious lack of potassium (called hypokalemia) would give you some serious problems. They include muscle weakness, paralysis of your bowels and lungs, and the loss of regulation of your heart. So, yeah. You’d die.

The good news story here is that there’s enough potassium in most fruits, vegetables meats and fish that as long as you eat like a normal person you’ll be perfectly fine. But just to be safe, why not enjoy a delicious banana, or avocado or even some pistachios. Better safe than bowel paralysis, I always say.

Crunch bars

Crunch bars

(Source: bonappetit.com)

Pretzels

With one notable exception (Cool Ranch Doritos), I’m not much of a chip person anymore. They’re greasy, and the artificial powdered flavours don’t do it for me. But pretzels? Oh, man.

Crunchy vehicles for salt (that don’t leave residue on my hands, because one is usually poking at my iPad) are at the pinnacle of my snacking pantheon. They come in hard and soft varieties, but what they both have in common is a gorgeous, rich brown exterior speckled with delicious salt. How do they get that perfect colour, texture and flavour? Science!

Pretzel dough is a basic yeast-leavened dough. Easy to make. Nothing special. The magic happens after the pretzel knot is made, and it’s dipped in a solution of lye before it’s baked.

Lye is a powerful alkaline (basic, the opposite of acidic) chemical that’s usually used in soap making and drain unclogging. Undiluted, it’s highly corrosive. Think “skeleton hand” warning symbol. But there are weak alkalis, like baking soda, used in lots of food preparation where chemical reaction with other ingredients is an important part of the process.

In the case of pretzels, the 3% alkali solution on the exterior of the pretzel speeds up the Maillard Reaction, leading to really extensive dark brown colouring. It does this by helping to pull the hydrogen atom off of the amino acid molecule, leaving it primed and ready to hook up with a sugar molecule. It’s like booze. It’s liquid courage for glycosylamines.

Confused by all the sexy talk?

Check out my last post on the Maillard Reaction to get all the gossi on who’s hooking up with whom.

Raspberry dulce de leche shortbread tart + toasted almonds

The Maillard Reaction

Not to be confused with anything to do with a mallard, the Maillard reaction is a chemical process that causes “nonenzymatic browning” of food. The crispy darkening of bread in your toaster, the delicious crust on a seared steak, the full-bodied roast of your coffee and obviously silky sweet dulce de leche – all examples of the Maillard reaction at work.

First described in 1912 by a French scientist (obviously named Maillard), the actual chemical process wasn’t figured out until 1953 by an American chemist named John Hodge, and he still didn’t get his name on it. What a rip off.

So, in your food there are sugars and there are amino acids (amongst other things, but we’re only concerned with these two for the purposes of this discussion). They’re all floating around together, going about their business. But then it starts to get a little warm. Then it starts to get hot all up in there. And before you know it, your sugars are hooking up with your amino acids.

No judgment. We’ve all been there.

In the sugar, a carbon and oxygen are holding onto each other with two hands.
In the amino acid, a nitrogen is holding onto two hydrogens, one in each hand.
Carbon and nitrogen throw their hands in the air like they just don’t care, and then fall into each other’s embrace. This links the sugar to the amino acid, making something we call a glycosylamine. In the process, oxygen (scorned by carbon) and the hydrogen twins (scorned by nitrogen) find solace in a water molecule three-way.

I’m using the term “glycosylamine” because, depending on the food, it could be any sugar linked to any amino acid. It’s the differences in these two starting molecules that creates the great range and complexity of flavours that result from the Maillard reaction.

Our glycosylamine then goes through a series of chemical rearrangements (think of it like the chemical Kama Sutra) that result in the creation of polymers (long chain molecules) that give the brown colour and delicious flavour we’re looking for.

Outside of food, scientists have somewhat-recently found that the Maillard reaction may be involved in some human diseases, including diabetic retinopathy (the damage to the eyes experienced by people with poorly-controlled diabetes).

So, that’s the Maillard reaction. Stay tuned for future posts, where we explore caramelization (a different form nonenzymatic browning – yum!) and enzymatic browning (not as yum).

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

It was two year ago that I started this little blog, with big dreams of sharing my love of science and baking with the world. Naturally, I assumed that by this point I’d have my book deal, my movie and my line of bakeware. At the very least, a show on Food Network. I mean, if Shit My Dad Says managed it …

For a while – a long while, in fact – this blog was a blast. I found new recipes and new ingredients; a few of you even suggested one or two. I tried to take interesting pictures of food, sometimes just with my iPhone. And with very few exceptions, I cranked out a recipe and a (fairly long) post per week.

Slowly, inexorably, it became work.
And I said to myself, “F that S. I’ve already got a job!”

It didn’t help that I felt like I’d “run out” of ingredients to talk about, and it really didn’t help that I was insistent on sticking rigidly to my premise: one recipe, one ingredient, one post. So I kind of just stopped. Apparently, for a year.

All this to say (in my typical long-winded fashion) that I’ve decided to stop being stopped. I’ve also decided to loosen up a bit on my premise. And how often I post.

But don’t worry! This will still be the sassy and delicious (just like me) blog you love. I’m just giving myself permission to have a bit more fun with it.

After all, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Unicorn poop