Tag Archives: explanation

Food and Science: Caramelization and the Maillard Reaction

When we cook food, we want it to be as flavorful as possible. Two types of chemical reactions contribute to browning; both of these reactions create hundreds or thousands of other molecules, which then add aroma and flavor. The higher temperature reaction you may be familiar with: caramelization is the breakdown and reaction of sugars. The Maillard reaction occurs at slightly lower temperatures (still usually above the boiling point of water); this reaction occurs between the amino acids of proteins and sugars.

Both of these reactions are so complex that scientists don’t know everything that occurs during them. We understand the basic nature of each reaction, but any plant or animal food contains literally thousands of different molecules that can all react together. Fortunately, we can still implement the process without a full understanding (and we have been for millennia), and a lot of very nice foods undergo either or both reactions.

The Maillard reaction and caramelization often occur at the same time, and produce similar results visually, so they can be tough to separate. If something contains both proteins and sugars, both reactions can occur with heat. Fortunately, they both taste good. They’re also easy to do at home. If you want to brown your food, get a skillet nice and hot. Make sure you’ve patted the food dry (this allows the surface to get hotter than the boiling point of water, thus allowing the reactions to occur), and sear away.

Food and science: sous vide or water bath cooking

In sous vide cooking, food is cooked in a water-bath at low temperatures (130-150 F) for longer times. Food cooked sous vide can be radically different in texture and taste than food cooked by more traditional methods. Even better, sous vide cooking is really, really easy.

What is sous vide?

In sous vide cooking, food in plastic bags is placed in a fixed-temperature water bath. The water bath temperature is held most easily by a digital controller. Some people build their own systems on the cheap. I bought this one, which in my opinion is worth every bit of $200.

As I discussed last week, bacteria die above 125 F. Consequently, food can be cooked at any temperature above 125 F (the closer to 125 F, the longer required for sanitation). This means a steak can be cooked to 130 F and be rare throughout, but also safe. For a 1 inch thick steak, this takes about an hour.

Why is it different?

Like a crock pot, sous vide cooking can be used to make tough cuts of meat extremely tender. Unlike a crock pot, the user has precise control over the set temperature, and the food is isolated from the water in which it cooks. This means that sous vide food isn’t soggy like slow cooker food so often is.

When we cook meat, the textural and color changes we observe are due to changes in the protein of the meat. Different proteins break down at different temperatures. The controller I use (linked above) allows control down to 0.1 C or 0.5 F. With such fine control, the cook can choose the exact temperature at which they wish to cook, and thus the effect they’d like to have on the protein. Poached eggs best demonstrate the results of this control. The proteins in the yolk coagulate at lower temperatures than the proteins in the white. By changing the cooking temperature only slightly, the cook can dramatically change the textures in the poached egg. This is called the perfect egg–at the link you can see eggs cooked to a variety of temperatures.

The set-up

For my set-up, the only major cost was the controller. I clamp it to the edge of a 8 qt pot (bigger would be better, but it’s what I had). Many people vacuum-seal their food before cooking, but the sealing system is an additional cost. I put my food in ziplock bags (glad bags are reported to be BPA-free). Then I add a little oil, squeeze the air out, and seal. To start cooking, I wait for the water in the pot to heat up and I clip the bag to the edge of the pot with a clothes pin.

Recipes and further reading

  • Citizen sous vide: an excellent general guide, with links to recipes and product reviews. Recipes are sorted by meat and cut.
  • Douglas Baldwin’s A Practical Guide to Sous Vide: a more technical discussion of sous vide with straightforward and instructive videos. This guide really explains the motivations of cooking sous vide.
  • Recipe for tri-tip steak: this recipe suggests cooking a tri-tip at 130 F for 6 hours, results shown below. You can see the meat is still pink in the middle. Cooking for six hours allowed it to tenderize, and all I had to do was cut up some meat and stick it in a bag. Very easy and delicious.
  • Tri-tip steak cooked sous vide.

    Tri-tip steak cooked sous vide.

Food and science: when is food safe?

The milk we get at the store is pasteurized, and we all know that chicken must reach 165 F and pork must reach 145 F. What is the source of these numbers, and what is their purpose?

Raw foods like meat and dairy contain a certain number of pathogens that can make us sick. These pathogens die when heated above about 125 F. So why are cooking temperatures much higher than 125 F? The recommended cooking temperatures are the temperatures your food must reach in order for a large enough portion of the bacteria to die nearly instantaneously. At 140 F, the salmonella in ground beef is reduced by a factor of ten every 5.48 minutes. Salmonella must be reduced by a factor of ten million to one, so you would have to hold this temperature for a while. At 150 F, the salmonella is reduced by a factor of ten every 0.55 minutes, so this is quite a bit faster. At 160 F, the bacteria reduces fast enough that by the time you’ve measured it, enough time has passed. The process of “sous vide” cooking uses lower temperatures applied steadily for long times to cook food. I will discuss this excellent cooking method in a future post.

The process of making food safe by reducing the bacteria is called pasteurization, which you may be more familiar with from the dairy aisle than meat, but the concept is the same. Also in dairy, the time for pasteurization depends upon the temperature. Pasteurized milk is heated to 162 F for at least 15 seconds while ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to 280 F for 1-2 seconds. Eggs are not usually pasteurized, but they can be when heated to 130 F for about an hour.

Douglas Baldwin’s section on food safety in his online guide to sous vide is the source of much of the information I present here. It is full of scientific citations, but is very readable, and I highly recommend it as further reading. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Fun Science: Why’s platinum so special?

In science, we tend only to learn about a small subset of the elements that populate our world. This is not unreasonable, since 96% of our bodies are composed of just hydrogen, water, carbon, and nitrogen. But there are over a hundred more elements, and they often influence life outside our bodies in ways we don’t hear about. So in today’s post I will talk about platinum.

Platinum is one of the rarest metals in the Earth’s crust. Only 192 tonnes of it are mined annually, where 2700 tonnes of gold are mined annually. When the economy is doing well, platinum can be twice as expensive as gold. So what’s so valuable about it?

Platinum is used a lot in jewelry. Platinum has the appearance of silver, but it doesn’t oxidize and become tarnished like silver. It’s harder than gold, and its rarity can be appealing.

But it’s the chemical properties of platinum that set it apart. Platinum is a great catalyst. This means that platinum facilitates chemical reactions, but is not consumed as the reaction proceeds. The catalytic converter in your car is a platinum catalyst. The catalytic converter helps eliminate a variety of undesirable compounds such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and incompletely combusted hydrocarbons. Platinum is also a critical part of current hydrogen fuel cells; it splits hydrogen into protons and electrons.

Platinum doesn’t force reactions to occur, but it makes them easier by reducing the energy required. The image below shows the reaction of carbon monoxide (CO) to carbon dioxide (CO2). The chart at the bottom shows the potential energy before, during and after the reaction. Imagine a ball rolling along the red curve (with platinum) and the black curve (without platinum). The ball on the black curve will need more speed to get over the hump. Any given ball is more likely to get over the red hump. Likewise, the presence of platinum lets CO get over the hump to become CO2. Platinum does this for all kinds of reactions.

activation energy

The reaction takes less energy because once a molecule bonds to the surface of platinum, the bonds within the molecule are a little weaker. Molecules like O-O and H-H can split into singletons, something they would never do off the surface. Below I show an example reaction for CO to COon platinum. This diagram is meant to be illustrative, a possible mechanism for the reaction and to show how platinum helps out. In reality these reactions occur very quickly, and careers can be spent figuring out exact reaction mechanisms.

catalysis

 

Platinum is a bit like velcro. Molecules become hooked to the surface, do their reaction, and unstick. If molecules stick and then refuse to unstick, this is called catalyst poisoning, and it’s a big issue in fuel cells. Like velcro, once the hooks are occupied, they can’t do anything else. Platinum is a good catalyst because a lot of things (like hydrocarbons) want to stick to it, but they don’t stick too hard. Other metals either are not attractive enough, or they are too attractive. Platinum is so valuable because, besides being rare, its properties happen to be balanced just right for the reactions we want.

 

Fun Science: Small World Networks

The small-world phenomenon refers to the fact that even in a very large population, it takes relatively few connections to go from any element 1 to another random element. Amongst people, we know this concept as the “six degrees of separation” game. Any population of objects with connections can be conceptualized this way. Examples include crickets communicating by audible chirps, websites with links, electrical elements with wiring, board members with common members, or authors on mutual scientific papers. All of the examples I list have been examined in various scientific studies.

In a small-world network, elements are first connected in a regular lattice; for example, each element is connected to one or two nearby neighbors on each side. The leftmost picture below shows a regular lattice of elements. A connection between element and element j is then removed. Then we add a connection between element i and any other element x, like the middle picture below. If x is across the network from i, then the number of steps between i and x has been reduced from some large number to 1. All of the elements connected to i are now 2 steps from element x. This reduces the diameter of the network, which is the maximum number of steps between any two elements, although the number of connections remains constant. In the six-degrees of separation game, the diameter would be 6. As we replace more of the lattice connections with random ones, the network becomes more and more random. We quantify a small-world network by its randomness, as in the picture below.

The small-world network has been explored as a means of sending information efficiently through a population. As the diameter reduces, the time it takes information to spread through the entire network reduces. Neurons in the brain have been explored as small-world networks; certain regions of the brain are highly interconnected with a few long distance connections to other regions of the brain. Protein networks and gene transcription networks have also been described with the small-world model. Further information with scholarly references is available on the scholarpedia page (which is generally a great resource for complex systems problems).

 

Here you can read a good scientific paper by Steven Strogatz, one of the premier scientists in the area. This is a paper published in Nature, one of the highest scientific publications. There are some equations, but the figures are also excellent if you are uncomfortable with the math. The paper models the power grid, boards of directors, and coauthorship using network ideas. I mention this paper specifically because I find Strogatz a very relatable and clear writer. Also consider reading his recent nontechnical book about math, The Joy of X, for more math fun.

Check out my other science posts on graph theory, chaos, fractals, the mandelbrot set, and synchrony. And drop a note with any questions!

Fun Science: Fractals and the Mandelbrot Set

Fractals are often immediately visually appealing, even if the underlying equation is harder to understand. For this reason, fractals have reached a wider audience than many branches of mathematics. Beyond their visual appeal, fractals give us a way to look at many natural systems that math was not previously able to examine. How long is a winding and convoluted coastline? How does a one-dimensional system like the circulatory system serve our three-dimensional bodies? How does lightning disburse its energy when it strikes? (The image below shows how electricity dissipated through a block of plexiglass, more details here.) These are all concepts related to fractals.

from Capturedlightning.com

One very famous fractal is the Mandelbrot set (pictured at the top of this entry), named after pioneer Benoit Mandelbrot. The Mandelbrot set is generated by the iterative equation zn+1 = zn2 + c. This equation indicates that at a specific value of c, we get to the next z (that is, zn+1), by squaring our current z and adding the constant c. Let’s say that c is 1. z0 is 0, so z1 is z0 squared plus 1, and z1=1. Then z2=z12+1=2, z3=z22+1=5, and so forth. A value c is in the Mandelbrot set if zn→∞ goes to a constant value (so that zn=large is roughly equal to zn=large+1). When c=1, each z keeps getting bigger and bigger, so clearly it is not a part of the Mandelbrot set. c is a complex number, so we generate a map in two dimensions of which values of c belong to the set. The video below shows the Mandelbrot set (color giving rate of divergence, black giving a member of the set) and continues to zoom in. Even at incredible zoom scales, fine and self repeating structure can be seen.

Fractals can also be generated in a more directly visual way. Below is a fractal called the Koch Snowflake. The Koch Snowflake is generated iteratively as well. The base unit is a triangle. The middle third of each leg of the triangle is replaced by a tent. For the next step, the middle segment of all the legs of the new structure are replaced by a tent, and so on. You can see in the graphic that the Koch Snowflake gets complicated quickly. Many other visual fractals have been explored. The java applet here has a few that you can play with.

Koch snowflake from Wikipedia

I will have another post about fractals on Friday, where I discuss more numerical properties and examples of fractals in nature. Food for thought: what is the perimeter length of the Koch Snowflake? Also check out my previous science posts on synchrony and art resembling science.