Long before molecular gastronomy, decades prior to sous vide, and generations before science became the “cool” part of cooking – chefs were inadvertently using science to manipulate the ingredients they worked with.
In an ideal world the ingredients that chefs work with would be fresh, at the peak of their maturity, readily available from a local farmer, and perfect in every respect. Mother Nature and our system of logistics for restaurants don’t always cooperate in this regard. Certainly chefs, as some do, can design a menu to only reflect these characteristics and ignore the expectations of guests to have what they want any time of the year, but sometimes business is not that forgiving.
Historically, the supply and demand challenge of perfect ingredients has plagued chefs so they relied on a deep understanding of the foundations of cooking, their educated palates, and some tricks of the trade to compensate for sometimes - imperfect raw materials. Little did chefs know that what they were doing was applying science to the art of cooking.
The sophistication of equipment and enhanced technique has allowed contemporary chefs to take the science of cooking to new levels, but for me at least, I am quite content with the alchemy of old. The following represents just a sampling of what seasoned chefs have known and practiced for generations:
THE RIGHT COOKING METHOD IS THE UNIVERSAL EQUALIZER
Chefs unable or unwilling to work with the prime sections of an animal can bring about results that rival the flavor and texture of the most expensive cuts by applying alternative methods of cooking such as braising, roasting, or flash grilling. This knowledge has been a part of every chef’s bag of tricks since way before Careme and Escoffier.
THE WONDER OF MAILLARD
The Maillard Reaction (a process that creates brown pigments, think of browned meat and baked bread, through rearranging amino acid and simple sugars) is one of the most universally pleasing flavors imparted through a cooking process and is somewhat separate from the original flavor of the product. Think about how different a boiled carrort vs a roasted carrot taste? Much of this new flavour imparted by roasting ingredients is largely thanks to the Maillard Reaction. The author of the Modernist Cuisine cookbook, Nathan Myhrvold, calls it the "flavour reaction".
OVEN DRYING INTENSIFIES FLAVOR
A chef who required to present tomatoes on a dish at a time of the year when finding this fruit at it’s peak is nearly impossible can use a time tested method of converting a bland, mealy tomato into one that is delicious and enjoyably textured. Splitting those Roma tomatoes, brushing them with a quality olive oil, dusting with sea salt and cracked pepper and allowing them to dry for a few hours in a 200 degree oven will result in a sweet, rich, and melt in your mouth alternative to a sun ripened tomato in the month of July. This is science that marries the gradual breakdown of the fibers of the tomato, incorporation of the added flavor from olive oil and salt, and intensification of flavor as the tomato gives off a portion of it’s moisture.
SALT AS A FLAVOR ENHANCER
Excessive amounts of salt may be harmful and can, if overused, overpower the natural flavor of the ingredient used, but if used with care and a knowledge of flavor, it can help to break down protein strands and enhance the natural flavors of the item that it complements.
SUGAR, ALCOHOL, AND OUT-OF-SEASON FRUIT
Is the restaurant guest intent on seeing strawberries on a buffet menu in the month of February? Surely, the product will lack any flavor or appearance that closely resembles what a local, sun-ripened strawberry in June might provide. Chefs faced with this dilemma know what to pull out of their back of tricks. Sugar and a splash of Kirshwasser or Cognac, and a little time and those berries will be full flavored, tender, and bright red in color.
PICKLING AND CURING TO KEEP AND TRANSFORM FOOD
Ingredients with such a crippling short season have driven some chefs to refuse going without the impact of those essential items in their cooking. A salt brine, vinegar, fresh herbs, maybe some garlic and a blend of unique spices have allowed chefs to preserve those ingredients, albeit in a slightly different form, for use throughout the year. This process of pickling has been part of cooks’ repertoire since the beginning of recorded history in the kitchen. Meats and fish have followed a similar dry process using salt and sugar with the addition of air-drying in cool temperatures for hundreds of years. The Norwegian salt cod, Italian salumi, and German Bundnerfleisch are fabulous additions to any chef’s larder of ingredients. It is the scientific reaction of the salt and evaporation through exposure to air that allow for the intense flavor and firm texture from curing and the preservation of these meats that wards off harmful bacterial growth.
MARINATION IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF COOKING
Although there are many factors that play into the action of cooking (application of heat) on protein there are two common areas of impact: the breakdown of connective tissue and the denaturing of the protein. The cut of meat, cooking method used, length of cooking time, and aging of meat all play a role in not only the flavor, but also the tenderness of the cut. Marination (the addition of an acid) can result in some similar action, as the acid will help to break down the collagen. Thus, marination can help to tenderize a less than prime cut of meat.
REDUCE TO INTENSIFY
Every line cook practices science when he or she reduces a sauce in a pan. This reduction intensifies the flavor profile and increases the viscosity of that sauce. Evaporation is helpful in chemically changing the nature of this accompaniment.
DRY AGING IS A METAMORPHOSIS FOR MEATS
Once an animal is slaughtered an enzymatic reaction begins to take place that converts muscle into a more tender and intensely flavored product taking on a nutty taste profile. The dry aging process that is handled under specific temperature and humidity with direct exposure to circulating air takes place after the typical 14-35 day period of rest. As a result, the science of this transition yields a full flavored, denser, and far more-tender end product. Wet aging, or aging in cryovac is said to yield similar results although chefs might tend to argue this point. In all cases, the dry aging process is science in action.
INFUSE TO BRING OUT A PRODUCTS BEST
Allowing a flavoring agent to coat or steep in the presence of another transitions the nature of the primary ingredient. Vinegars combined with herbs, or other ingredients such as garlic, berries, stone fruit, or chilis will take on the subtle, or not so subtle, flavor profiles of these added ingredients. The application of heat will speed up this process of infusion. This marrying of flavor is science in action. The same can take place with dry rubs, more complex oils, and alcoholic beverages.
All of these processes will have little value unless a chef has a well-developed flavor memory. Once a chef knows, through experience, what a dish should taste like – it then becomes part of their cook’s subliminal database. If a chef understands the processes listed above and combines that knowledge with his or her flavor memory then it is possible to alter less than stellar ingredients to reach that flavor goal. Although chefs of centuries gone by may have viewed these processes as somewhat magical alchemy, we now know that they are based on controllable science. This alchemy is what truly separates a cook from a chef. Adding the toys of molecular gastronomy will only benefit a chef if he or she has the knowledge of the classic alchemist to begin with. Every great chef is an unknowing food scientist as well.