Some of the most important lessons I learned in culinary school were the gems of wisdom taught in cooking fundamentals class. It was within those classroom walls that my instructor, Chef Richard, explained how important it is for cooks to understand the facts and processes involved with the food that we use to feed our bodies.
At first, I remember thinking what some of you may be thinking right now…
Why should I care about the basics and cooking fundamentals? My microwave and I are a rock star team!
Well, let me put it like this…
I consider myself to be rather adventurous, but I wouldn’t dare head into a deeply wooded forest without having some sort of map or markers to help me find my way around in the darkness. Without them, I could run into danger and hurt myself and/or others while trying to stumble around and find my way around.
A kitchen can be that scary and dangerous of a place, too! If the person preparing the food is completely clueless about how to operate the “machinery” (oven, small appliances,etc.) and they know little to nothing about the foods that they’re preparing, they’re paving a dangerous path towards burns, cuts, and foodborne illness. You can take it from me… I’ve been there, done that, and should have bought a t-shirt… it’s not a path you want to create, much less walk on!
Since one of my passions is to help others learn from my mistakes, I feel it’s important to share some of the cooking fundamentals that I’ve learned on to you. I’ll give you the facts, but unlike a culinary classroom, there will be no drawn-out lectures, and there definitely won’t be pop quizzes!
I want to be known as the cool teacher, m’kay? Like Alton Brown, I want to be entertaining, intelligent, humorous, and endearing… in a geeky sort of way. That’s totally me, right? Awesomesauce, then let’s get started!
Cooking Fundamentals: How Heat Affects the Way Foods Cook
The foods we eat are made from a combination of proteins, carbohydrates (starches and sugars), water, fats, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. When heat is applied to those components, significant chemical changes take place. By understanding those changes, you’ll have a better chance of creating dishes that have a tasty outcome. For example, tender, flaky biscuits versus something that looks, feels, and tastes like a hockey puck.
So heat, meet my food!!
When proteins are heated, they coagulate.
Proteins are large, complex molecules that exist in every living cell, When I hear the word “protein”, I instantly think of animals (meat), but protein even exists in plant cells! When proteins are heated up, they coagulate, causing them to turn from a liquid or semi-liquid state into a solid state. Think of an egg white before and after it’s fried.
RECIPE TO TRY: Chicken Bacon and Cheese Egg White Quiche
When starches are heated, they gelatinize.
Starches are complex carbohydrates that exist in plants and grains like rice, potatoes, wheat, and corn. When starch is mixed with a liquid and then heated up, the starch expands (like when rice and pasta get larger during cooking, or when flour in a cake absorbs the liquid from the eggs, water, or any other liquid in the recipe). Depending on what type of starch is being cooked, gelatinization will occur slowly, and at a temperature somewhere between 150 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit (66-100 Celsius)
RECIPE TO TRY: Perfect Mashed Potatoes
When sugars are heated, they caramelize.
If you’ve ever seen and/or tasted caramel sauce, the crust on a loaf of bread, or a beautiful creme brulee, then you’ve seen perfect examples of what happens when sugar meets heat, is cooked and caramelizes. It doesn’t just change the color of the food, it changes the taste as well. Common table sugar (sucrose) starts to caramelize at about 338 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why you’ll always read safety warnings with candy recipes. That temp is WAY above the boiling point of 212 Fahrenheit. Drop some of that sugar on your hand and you’ll have a kitchen battle scar for life.
Interesting food fact: Because water and other liquids like stock never reach temps above 212 F, you’ll never be able to brown anything that’s being boiled in them.
RECIPE TO TRY: Cranberry Caramel Puff Pastry Squares
When fat is heated, it melts
Fat is the reason behind my stretchy pants collection… umm, I mean fat is an energy source for the plants and animals that store it.
Fats are smooth and greasy and don’t dissolve in water. They come in textures from a liquid (cooking oils) to solid (butter). When fats are heated up, they melt and turn to a liquid form, but they never evaporate. That’s why they work well to cook other foods in, but why they aren’t so great for us to eat in any great quantity.
Consider fat to be velcro on your hips. Yeah, not so pretty… I think I’ll just stick to the all things in moderation guideline with this category 🙂
RECIPE TO TRY: Snicker’s Cheesecake Browned Butter Bars
When water is heated, it evaporates
All food contains water. Foods like celery, eggs, and leafy vegetables are almost entirely water. Even as much as 75 percent of raw meat is water.
As water heats up, it turns to a gas (steam) and evaporates into the air, causing whatever is being cooked to get drier. That’s why baked desserts like souffle and cream puffs don’t need any baking powder or baking soda to make them rise. The escaping steam helps them to rise, which is also why you don’t want to open the oven while they’re baking.
RECIPE TO TRY: Cream puffs
So there ya have it. You have a wealth of cooking fundamentals to help you cook your way into great food.
If you have any cooking or baking questions for me, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Now get your cute self into the kitchen and make something delicious!