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
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).
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?
As you can imagine, I was quite tempted to blog about unicorns this week. Being both magical and delicious, unicorn is the perfect ingredient for any dish. However, the one that I acquired (seriously, you can find anything at St. Lawrence Market!) somehow managed to escape in the night, and all it left behind was a handful of magical rainbow turds.
I don’t know what it is, but there is just something more fun about making coloured things vs. non-coloured things. It’s the (not-so-inner) child in me. But what is food colouring? And where does it come from? And how long will my tongue be purple?
Food colouring can be either natural or artificial. The natural ones can come from all sorts of different plants, and even animals or insects. Basically, anything that can stain can be a food colouring. Beets, algae, tumeric, caramel – all natural sources of colour. And that’s fine and good, if you’re a dowdy pioneer woman who wants a pretty purple sun dress to impress the burly stable boy. But real men prefer chemicals.
Blue #1 (E133) is made of aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum (sounds appetizing, right?), and gives the brilliant blue colour you see in “blue raspberry” products: candy, popsicles and whatnot. Only about 5% of it is absorbed by your body on its way through, so the other 95% will usually lead to blueish-green stools (yes, I’m going to be adult about this and call them “stools”). Strangely, Blue #1 can also cause an allergic reaction in people with moderate asthma.
On the positive side, the chemical structure of Blue #1 is similar to another compound (OxATP) that blocks nerve damage following spinal injury – but without toxic side effects. A study from 2009 demonstrated that rats that had Blue #1 injected into their injured spines showed improved recovery.
Red #40 (E129) was originally made from coal tar, but is now made from petroleum like it’s blue cousin (I guess that’s a step up?). It’s not very popular in Europe, where it’s either not recommended for children or outright banned, but in the USA it’s used for all sorts of food, cosmetics and drugs. Red #40 has had a scandalous life, with various studies linking it to a rise in ADHD in children (hence the banning), but since correlation does not equal causation, it stays in use in many places throughout the world because compared to other red colourings it’s not that bad. I doubt that brings much comfort to any of you parents.
Yellow #5 (E102), or tartrazine, is a lemon yellow dye from the same chemical family as Red #40. Similarly, its been linked to hyperactive disorders in children like ADHD, and like its blue cousin its been linked to allergic reactions. Many manufacturers are now trying to steer towards easily-produced natural yellow food dyes, like beta carotene, to avoid both the bad reactions and the bad press. Speaking of bad press, during the 90s, Yellow #5 was rumoured to be associated with decreased potency, testicle and penis size, and sperm count – none of which was ever scientifically proven.
Yellow #6 (E110) is actually an orange colour (think Orange Crush) called “Sunset Yellow” that’s widely used in food products. It’s why the powdered cheese on Cheetos stains everything you touch for days afterwards. When mixed with red food dyes, it creates a brown colour that’s commonly added to chocolates and caramels.
Green #3 (E143) is a sea green colour, and is the least used of all the artificial food dyes. Probably because its been linked with tumours and mutations in animal experiments. Yikes! A safer place to use Green #3 is in the molecular biology lab, where scientists use it to stain DNA and proteins to help make them visible.
Blue #2 (E132) is an indigo dye that’s also used a lot in scientific research because of its ability to indicate pH. Below pH 11.4, it’s indigo, but above pH 13.0 it turns yellow. Handy if you can’t remember which bottle is full of bleach! (hint: it’ll be the one that turns yellow, or, you know, the one that smells like bleach). In obstetrics, it can be injected into the amniotic sack to check for leaks. Fetuses and bicycle tires: more in common than you thought!
Red #3 (E127) is a cherry-pink colour that’s commonly used in Europe where Red #40 is banned, but less so in North America. It’s the dye in those tablets that the dental hygenist made you chew to show you all the plaque on your teeth (followed by an instruction/guilt session on how to brush properly).
All of this research leads me to only one conclusion:
Unicorns are on the verge of extinction because all of the food colouring they ingest (as evidenced by rainbow stools) has given them such bad ADHD that they can’t even focus for long enough to procreate.
Mind = blown. You’re welcome.
Pop quiz, children!
(a) The name of Paris Hilton’s pomeranian.
(b) A particularly fancy species of mountain goat.
(c) A house elf at Hogwarts.
This is, of course, a trick question. Though (a) and (c) might seem like reasonable guesses, sfoof is a Lebanese tumeric cake and is pretty much the only thing that comes up when you Google “tumeric cake recipe.” Thus, this week’s recipe selection was a no-brainer.
And it’s a good thing, too. Because I’ll need my precious brain power to dissect all the interesting things there are to say about tumeric. Seriously: cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, HIV, inflammation, and our old favourite antioxidation; tumeric’s got its golden yellow fingers in all of it. It’s more than I can write about in one post, so let’s just pick one for now.
The tumeric plant is a member of the ginger family, and like ginger it’s the rhizome (root) that we eat (dried and ground up, or fresh). Within tumeric, the molecule that’s getting all the buzz from researchers is called curcumin. It’s responsible for the characteristic yellow colour of tumeric, and does double duty as a food additive under the name “E100” for lending that yellow hue to other foods and products.
Curcumin (and tumeric) seems to be getting a lot of press for its anti-cancer properties, which some are claiming to be pretty plenitful. A 2009 review paper (which is where a bunch of scientists read a bunch of other scientists’ papers and combine the results into a new paper) claimed that curcumin can selectively kill cancer cells in the following ways:
That’s … a lot of ways. And it’s super confusing (unless perhaps you have a PhD in molecular biology, which I do not). Let’s look at a few and see what they mean.
That all sounds great, right? It is. But I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t at least look at the flip side of the coin. A 2004 study demonstrated that curcumin interferes with the p53 tumor suppressor pathway, essentially turning off one of our cells’ self-destruct switches. That’s not good; we obviously want that to be on. Another study from 2009 found that it actually increased lung tumours in people who were smokers or ex-smokers.
At the end of the day, the benefits of tumeric (in the amounts that we would normally consume in our diets) appear to far outweigh the drawbacks. I’d perhaps just advise that before you go eating heaping tablespoons of tumeric, think about the last time you had a smoke.
Happy Birthday, Willow!