Monday, March 16, 2009

What I Learned from Shirley Corriher: Chef & Biochemist Extraordinaire!

Shirley Corriher was our guest speaker for the Cincinnati Section March Meeting of the American Chemical Society. I want to follow in her footsteps, applying my experience, knowledge, and technique with organic chemistry to recipe development for gluten free foods and molecular gastronomy applications. I was fortunate enough to sit next to her during dinner and we discussed topics such as molecular gastronomy and the evils of gluten before her presentation. When I told her that I want to be the Shirley Corriher of the gluten free world, she commended me with enthusiasm. She finds the recent gluten epidemic horrific – her daughter lost three babies due to problems with gluten. How devastating. We concurred that there is a lot of work to be done on the gluten free horizon, and I am the one the start this revolution. Every second of this experience was worth its weight in palladium (Chemist joke).

About Shirley Corriher:
She is a biochemist and a food writer and consultant. She is the author of CookWise (James Beard Foundation award winner) and BakeWise. In these books, she shows how scientific insight contributes to best results with cooking and baking. She is a close colleague of Harold McGee and works as the “Mad Scientist” consultant to Alton Brown’s Good Eats. She also consults with numerous chefs, including the late Julia Child.

I learned the origin of Molecular Gastronomy goes back to about 1988 at the biannual "Science and Gastronomy” meetings in Erice, Italy. These meetings were started by Professor (of physics) Nicholas Kurti and Chef Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas (who had an affinity for marrying physicists). They wanted to describe food prepared in a highly scientific manner to make it sound more impressive; it was an their joke to make the food prepared very scientific and it was to some extent. I truly admire the progress of molecular gastronomy when created from the correct prospective. An example of this process is eloquently described by Chef Grant Achatz's lecture at the New York Public Library Seminar series this past October, 2008 (available on iTunes). He uses molecular gastronomy techniques as a means to an end desired result of an taste experience, creating an olfactory emotional flash back; not for the sake of using the technique to make him or his food look clever and smart (although he is both).

On Green Vegetables:
All green vegetables have chlorophyll pigments that have a Magnesium (Mg) atom in the center of the porphyrin ring that is responsible for the vivid green color. It can be easily displaced by acid (anything with a pH less than 6, i.e., vinegar, citrus juice, tomatoes, the juice that is created by cooking vegetables), therefore losing the green color and becoming bitter. Since acid is generated when vegetables are cooking, draining that water gets rid of that acid – hence, blanching. It is a little bit more work, but it worth it for the best tasting, non-bitter vegetables. One example she noted was working with Julia Child who would call Shirley frustrated that her creamed spinach would end up bitter even after adding some heavy cream. Shirley proceeded to tell her that she must blanch and drain the water before adding cream. Julia Child did end up using this method for the best results for tender and sweet creamed spinach.
• Blanch vegetables before final cooking and flavoring (That is, boil quickly for 1 minute and immediately drain water)
• Do not add anything acidic (before blanching)
• If a citrus flavor is desired, use the zest only

Red to Violet Vegetables and Fruits:
The orange pigment that is found in carrots, tomatoes, and orange squash is beta-carotene and is heat and acid stable. Therefore, no extra precaution is needed in cooking vegetables high in beta-carotene.

The deep red to violet pigments in vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, red cabbage and beets contain anthrocyanins and turn blue when subjected to basic conditions such as lye or baking soda. These pigments need acid conditions to maintain their color. That’s why classic combinations exist such as cabbage with apples (which are acidic). Be careful with walnuts – neutralize them by roasting before adding to vegetables/fruits that are rich in anthrocyanins. Anthrocyanins are powerful antioxidants and it’s important to keep them like this by keeping them acidic for dietetic benefits.

Baking is very tricky with an understanding what acts as a structurant versus a destructurant. Structrants include thing that build structure and body to a baked good such as gluten protein and egg proteins (whites are drying in nature). Eggs need an acidic environment in order for them to set/coagulate; milk/creamer has buffers in it therefore preventing eggs from setting. Destructants are ingredients that give the ooziness to baked goods such as fats and butters.

Over-leavening is easy detected by the sign of a big dip/sink in the middle of a baked item. This can be prevented by allowing the batter to rest for at half an hour before baking.

Starches (grains, rice, potatoes, and legumes):
If sugar and/or Calcium are retained in the plant cells, it will not break down, i.e., it will not soften upon cooking. A good example of this is the old wives tale of cooking corn cobs with sugar. Adding sugar will prevent the corn from turning too soft, keeping it firm after boiling. Avoid putting sugar in cooking starches if a tender product is desired. Another watch out could be extremely hard water which is high in Calcium. If you are finding it difficult to soften dried beans, try using distilled water for best results.

Another wrench in starch network is acid. Anything acidic will prevent starches from swelling, hence thickening will not occur. Examples are rice, potatoes, and legumes with vinegar, tomatoes, citrus, etc.

On specific cooking topics, I asked her about a problem I was having in recipe development for a coconut milk based, milk-free, panna cotta and puddings using gelatin. My prototypes were a disaster – gray and syrupy messes. She pointed out the fact that coconuts, like other tropical fruit, have enzymes that chop up proteins such as the ones in gelatin. Papaya and pineapple are often used in marinades to break down the connective tissue in meats to tenderize them. Well, looks like tropical fruit + gelatin ideas are not going to work. I will have to try making my tropical ideas into confectionery.

I highly recommend reading Shirley Corriher’s books: CookWise and BakeWise. With her insight, we have guaranteed results in the kitchen, and gain scientific insight and understanding of why things do and don’t work. Remember, cooking is a series of physical and chemical transformations with an artful hand. In the kitchen we can all be creative chemists when we harness this knowledge.

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure


Anonymous said...

Awesome post.

Sophie Sportende Foodie said...

Thanks for those wonderful tips!!!!!


just discovered your blog--thought you might be interested in checking out my gf blog that's mixed with other fun stuff!

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I hope that you succeed in your quest to be the GF Shirley Corriher! I was just going to write her pleading for her next book to be GF baking. Now, I don't have to!