Posts Tagged ‘myths’

New project: Exploring culinary claims

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

My fellow bloggers Anu Hopia (Molekyyligastronomia) and Erik Fooladi (Fooducation) together with Jenni Vartiainen and Maija Aksela have embarked on a collaboration project to explore claims about food and cooking. If you are a researcher (from any field), teacher at any level, chef or simply a foodie who finds this interesting you can find info at the end of this email on how to contact them. I bring here their description of the project in extenso:

Cherry jams with a twist

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

We have a small garden with a single tree. It’s a sweet cherry tree and this year must have been one of the best ever. In May it was overthrown with flowers. Last year I made some jam which came out OK, but the drawback with sweet cherries is that their taste doesn’t really compare with that of sour cherries. They’re good to eat, but not as good for cooking and jam as their sour cousins. The summer last year was quite wet and cold which could explain the fad taste, but this year however has been quite hot and the cherries grew darker and sweeter as summer proceeded.

I decided to give cherry jam another try. To improve the flavor even further, I was pondering on adding spices. My mom has previously added cloves and cinnamon to plums when making jam. The first place I looked was under cherries in the book “Culinary artistry”. Among the numerous suggestions for flavor pairings it was black pepper and lemon that caught my attention. Who would have thought? I made a small test batch and was quite pleased by the “bite” provided by pepper so I proceeded with a full batch. I used a pre-mixed gelling sugar from Danisco sugar (which contained sugar, pectin, a preservative and an acid), but you could use whatever pectin you have at hand. Just follow the instructions on the pack (more on the science further down).

Having added pepper and a little of the sugar to get an idea of how it would turn out, it almost felt as if ginger was already there so I added a little more to accentuate that. The other spices were added to round everything off. The pepper taste is quite noticeable if you eat the jam by itself, but on buttered bread or toast it’s really nice. I also suggest that you try it with different semi-soft and hard cheeses such as Emmentaler, Jarlsberg, Prästost, Parmesan or Pecorino. My wife thinks it’s a little to much pepper, but for me it’s just perfect. In German this jam would be known as a Herrenmarmelade (a gentleman’s jam). If you’re not very fond of pepper however it’s a good idea to start with half the amount of pepper.

Spicy cherry jam with pepper
3.7 kg depitted sweet cherries
7.0 g black pepper, ground
0.8 g cloves, ground
0.7 g ginger, ground
1.3 g anis seeds, ground
0.8 g star anis, ground
zest and juice from 1/2 lemon
2.2 kg gelling sugar (with pectin and preservative)

Place enough jars in a cold oven and heat to 120-130 °C to sterilize them (this is more convenient than in boiling water). Depit cherries (conveniently done with a cherry stoner) and cut in four (helps you discover those stones that eluded the cherry stoner). Add spices and bring to boil. Remove any remaining pits that float up to the surface. Pureé with immersion blender (hopefully you will not hear the sound of cherry pits being crushed at this stage). Add gelling sugar. Let boil and skim of foam. Fill the hot jars immediately. And remember – as all chemists know – hot glass looks just like cold glass! Use a canning funnel to avoid spilling jam on the sealing surface of the jars. Leave to cool for 10-15 minutes and then screw on lids. I usually wipe the inside of the lids with 40-60% alcohol and then screw them on tightly before the alcohol has evaporated. There’s more at the end regarding the procedure for closing the jars.

This way of canning is very convenient and the jam will keep for several years in closed jars if kept in a cool, dark and dry place. This is due to the high sugar concentration (sugar binds water, and unless water is available, molds won’t grow), the low pH and – if added – the presence of preservatives. A more tedious way is to sterilize the jars after filling by boiling in water. This is no doubt the best way to sterilize the jars, but for jams with a high sugar content and a low pH it’s a little overkill. The National Center for Home Food Preservation in the US has more information about this (but notice that there are different traditions – I wonder if there is a divide between Europe and North America?). There are also many books about this and good place to start would be the “Ball Blue Book of Preserving”, better known as BBB among home canners. If you chose this method you should probably use a little more pectin as the additional heating at low pH will degrade some of the pectin making the jam more runny.

Using black pepper in a jam worked really well so I googled this and found Clotilde’s recipe for a strawberry jam with pepper and peppermint. She got it from Christine Ferber, author of “Mes confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber” which has recipes organized according to season. As mint was also mentioned as a good flavor pairing for cherries in “Culinary artistry” I thought I’d give pepper and peppermint a try.

Cherry jam with pepper and peppermint
2.2 kg depitted sweet cherries
1.3 kg sugar
2.4 g fresh peppermint leaves
2.8 g black pepper, ground
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 pack of Certo fruit pectin*

Depit cherries and cut in four. Add pepper and peppermint and bring to boil. Remove any remaining pits that float up to the surface. Pureé with immersion blender. Add pectin and stir until dissolved. Add sugar. Let boil and skim off foam. Sterilize and fill jars as in the previous recipe.

[ * The Certo pack weighs 70 g and contains sugar (for easier dispersion of the pectin), citrus pectin, citric acid to get the right pH for gelling and a preservative (ascorbic acid). ]

This jam was dominated by peppermint and the pepper could barely be noticed. I found it very refreshing and there is a surprise element as the red color does not suggest the presence of peppermint. Apart from the obvious use as a bread spread, I can imagine that this jam would be very nice with roasted meat, especially lamb, reindeer, elk and perhaps also wild game.

Having experimented with different spices and peppermint, my wife asked me to also make a batch of plain cherry jam which I happily did. But next year I would like to try making cherry jam with red wine!

As you can imagine, I couldn’t do all this without offering the chemistry behind some thoughts. Pectin chemistry is quite complicated though and there are several types available (low methoxyl, high methoxyl and amidated – so far I’ve only included the two first in “Texture – A hydrocolloid recipe collection”). Commercial packs of pectin for home use do normally not specify which type of pectin they contain, but I assume that it is the high methoxyl which gels in the presence of sugar and at low pH (as opposed to the low methoxyl which requires calcium ions to gel). The easiest is probably to follow the instructions that come with the pack you chose. Always add pectin before you add sugar (unless you premix them). The reason for this is that the gelling of high methoxyl pectins is promoted by sugar. If you add sugar before pectin, it will be very diffult to get the pectin properly dispersed and dissolved (it can be done with an immersion blender though – I’ve tried that once). Ready to use pectin is often pre-mixed with an acid to get the pH below 3.5 which promotes gelling. Citric acid is often used, and plain lemon juice will also do the job. Lowering the pH is especially important when using ripe or over ripe fruit as these can be less acidic and also contain less pectin if we are talking about pectin containing fruit. After the pectin and sugar have been added, the jam shouldn’t boil for more than a couple of minutes as pectin is not very heat stable.

There are also a couple of claims found in jam recipes which I have been wondering about:

Skimming: Almost all recipes I have seen for jams call for rapid skimming of the foam which formes when the jam mixture boils. One explanation I’ve seen is that this is done to prevent growth of mold, as these apparently grow more easily in the foam. There are certainly airborn molds, but the bubbles in the foam come from the jam as it boils, so it’s been very hot and presumably sterilized. So I’m simply wondering if the whole skimming is about esthetics – which is is still a good enough reason to me (but then I wish the recipes could state that!).

Turning jars upside-down: One thing that has puzzled me for a time is why recipes recommend that the jars should be turned upside-down. I’ve googled and checked several books and have come up with a couple of explanations (but most recipes only state that it should or shouldn’t (!) be done, without giving any reason). The fun thing is that the suggested time for how long the jars should remain turned upside-down varies from 2 minutes to several hours when the jam is cool and has set.

  • One site claims it is done to prevent larger pieces of fruit from settling to the bottom. This does make sense, and in that case there is no reason to do it if the fruit has been puréed.
  • A blogpost commenter suggests that turning the jars upside-down for 5 minutes makes sure the inside of the lid gets sterilized too. The temperature of the jam at this time is probably somewhere around 95 °C, so it does seem reasonable that it might kill some molds residing on the lid. I’d give this a thumbs up. Any microbiologist who could confirm this?
  • Personally I have speculated whether turning the jars upside-down would allow water (or jam to be precise) to be drawn into the seal by capillary action and that this helps to make a perfect seal, but several sites emphasize that this should not be done to prevent the seal from being broken (these sites assume that a canner has been used – i.e. sterilizing the filled jars with lids in boiling water for 5 to 10 min). I’m not sure, but I wonder if there is a difference here between screw caps and glass lids with rubber bands?
  • A last reason to turn jars upside down would be to prevent the water evaporating from the hot jam to condensate on the lid. If the jars are left to cool upside-down for 10-15 minutes, but turned back before the jam sets this will prevent water to condense on the lid and drip back to the surface of the jam. This water could potentially mean better conditions for growth of molds. This theory is also supported by the suggestion found in old cookbooks where the jars are left to cool completely without lids to let the surface dry and form a skin, and then covered with a filter paper dipped in alcohol before tying them up with pergament paper and string.

The conclusion so far regarding turning the jars upside-down can be summed up as follows. You should chose of the three methods:

  • Cover with lid immediately and turn upside-down until cool enough to handle (~40-50 °C). Then return to upright position. This will prevent condensation of water on the lid, it might help create a better seal and it could possibly knock out some molds on the lid. The jam however will most likely not have set yet.
  • As above, with the only difference that you leave the jars upside-down until cool and set. This means that the air pocket will not be below the lid but at the bottom of the glass when turned back to the upright position.
  • Allow the jam too cool without lids until a skin has formed and the jars are cool enough to handle. This prevents condensation of water on the lid. Wipe the inside of the lids with the highest percentage alcohol available (but do NOT use denatured alcohol!) – typically it would be 40% or 60% – and screw on the lid before the alcohol evaporates. The skin formed will be less suceptible to growth of mold because there is less water present and because of the presence of alcohol.

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 8

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Read about the physics behind the balancing fork trick.

8. Experiment!

Dare to experiment and try new ingredients and procedures. Do control experiments so you can compare results. When evaluating the outcome, be aware that your own opinions will be biased. Have a friend help you perform a blind comparison, or even better a triangle test to evaluate the outcome of your experiments.

In a scientific context, an experiment is a set of actions and observations performed in the context of solving a particular problem, in order to support or falsify a research hypothesis. In a kitchen context, the problem to solve would typically be related to taste, aroma, texture or color. And the required actions and observations would be cooking and eating.

An essential part of the scientific method is that new knowledge is gained when, based previous knowledge, an assumption is made and tested. In the kitchen, this is exactly what you do when you taste your concoctions repeatedly as you cook. And it is also what makes you an experienced cook, because you remember and learn from your previous successes and mistakes. It might sound very complicated, but here’s how it goes:

1) Observation: soup lacks flavor
2) Hypothesis: adding something with flavor might help
3) Experiment: add more spices
4) New observation: soup tastes more (or less)
5) Hypothesis is either supported (or rejected)

Of these steps, I think observation is the easiest. Coming up with a hypothesis however can sometimes be difficult. If you have lumps in your custard or a sauce that’s separating, it isn’t always easy to think of what to do. This is where books on popular food science and molecular gastronomy might help you.


Think outside the cook book! I mentioned in previous post that you should always question authorities and cook books. And even when you have a recipe that works, remember that it’s nothing more than a suggestion. For instance, it can be useful to know when to be sloppy and when to be accurate with measurements. The smaller amount you measure, the greater the precision should be. Let’s consider a hypothetical recipe that calls for 1000 g flour and 1 g of saffron. Whether you use 999 or 1001 g of flour makes no difference, but using 1 or 2 g of saffron will be quite noticable. A good rule of thumb is that you should measure to within +/- 10% of the given amount. But again, don’t follow this blindly. Experience will show when you can be even more sloppy.

Thinking of good experiments to do requires both creativity and experience, and there are many sources of inspiration. The molecular gastronomy movement has come up with a number of books and blogs which point towards new ingredients and procedures. There are several approaches to flavor pairing (i.e. a general one based on experience and a chemical one based on impact odorants). Further more there’s a lot of inspiration to get from regional cooking – also for molecular gastronomists! Lastly, I think considering not only the food but the whole atmosphere and the setting of the meal is important, because our senses are connected!


The best way to judge the outcome of a new procedure or ingredient is to compare it with the original. I’ve previously termed this “parallel cooking”. In scientific contexts it’s very common to do control experiments and I can’t see why this shouldn’t be done in the kitchen routinely. Im convinced that this could have saved us from many kitchen myths!

Once you’ve done your parallel cooking, you have to taste it. If you did the cooking, you’ll probably have an opnion or expectation that the new dish is better or worse than the original. The big problem here is that due to confirmation bias, if you know what you are eating, this will influence your perception of it. Therefore it’s crucial to do a blind tasting (or a double-blind tasting). Have friend help you label each dish with random three digit numbers (to avoid thinking about ranking) and give them to you. If the dishes can easily be recognized due to color, it’s important that the lights are turned down or that you are blindfolded. State which dish you prefer and have your friend reveal the identity of the dishes tasted.

A slightly more sophisticated test is the triangle test which is commonly used in the food industry. The tester is presented with three samples of which two are identical and the task is to pick the odd one out. Using statistics, it’s possible to evaluate the outcome of repeated tests. The number of correct assignments in a number of triangle tests required for you to be 95% sure there is a difference are given in the table below. Read more about simple difference tests here.

Number of tests performed Number of correct assignments required
3 3
4 4
5 4
6 5
7 5
8 6
9 6
10 7

Bionomial distribution for a triangle test (p=1/3) at 0.05 probability level. A more extensive table can be found here.

It seems that this would be the ultimate way to determine whether or not there is a difference between pepsi and coke. It’s more than 50 years since the first experiments were conducted. The theory is simple, but in the real world things aren’t always that simple. Read the entertaining story about Fizzy logic.


There are several examples of experimental cooking out on the net, and I thought I’d share some of them with you as this might illustrate my ideas on the subject.

Many cooks have strong opinions about how garlic should be treated. Should it be minced, crushed or microplaned? And does this really influence the taste and aroma? Or does it only affect the degree of extraction and hence the intensity of the flavor? Dominic of Skillet Doux had a excellent post on this subject in 2006, Deconstructing garlic. The task was formulated as follows:

The subject of this experiment is the effect that various methods of breaking down garlic have on its flavor when used to prepare a dish. The hypothesis is that not only does mincing garlic create a different flavor than crushing it, but also that mincing is the preferred method for pasta sauces. Furthermore, the experiment is intended to determine if microplaning garlic achieves a character different from mincing or crushing.

In his conclusion, Dominic writes ” I was surprised to discover that the difference between the minced and crushed garlic sauces was even more significant than I had previously thought”. Check out his post to find out which kind of garlic treatment he prefers for his pasta sauces. As a side comment it can be mentioned that a group of researchers in 2007 studied the effect of cooking on garlics ability to inhibit aggregation of blood platelets. They found that crushing could reduce the loss of activity upon heating. But unfortunately they didn’t report anything about the flavor.

Other food bloggers have also adopted experimental cooking with emphasis on systematic and thorough testing. Examples include Chad’s experiments with gellan, konjac and iota/kappa carrageenans, Michael Chu’s parallell cooking of bacon and his eggplant test and Papin’s comparison of orange juices – to mention but a few! And I shouldn’t forget Dylan Stiles either whom I mentioned in part 5 of this series:

A challenge with aroma molecules is that they should remain intact during storage and not be released until cooking (or even better, until consumption). A example would be to install a Liebieg condenser over your pot. Dylan Stiles has explored this in his column Bench Monkey by placing a bag of ice on top of the lid. He claims that his roommates preferred the curry which has been cooked under “reflux conditions”. The study was performed in a double blind manner (which I will come back to in part 8 of this series).

An extreme example of the application of the scientific method to cooking appeared in the news last spring when the recipe for the ultimate bacon buttie was revealed by scientists from Leeds University. Commissioned by Danish Bacon, the study evaluated more than 700 variations of a bacon buttie. They even came up with a “formula” for the perfect bacon buttie and quantified the required crispiness and crunchiness. The news story was picked up by many news agencies, so although it wasn’t necessarily ground breaking science, at least it was clever marketing.


Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the 10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy series. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry, presentation/photography) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at might also be of interest.

Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy, part 7

Monday, August 27th, 2007

Click here for full size image

7. Question authorities and learn from the experts

A thick, nicely bound cook book with marvelous pictures and a professional layout signals quality and authority. But unfortunately the nice wrapping is no guarantee that the contents is scientifically sound. I would guess that the searing/sealing myth and adding salt to water used to boil vegetables are among the most ubiquitious of the myths. The challenge for everyone is to question the procedures and explanations given in cook books and those that are inherited from your parents and grand parents. Most of them are fine, but some are not. In fact Hervé This has collected more than 20.000 so called “precisions” from French culinary books that he wants to test.

My seventh tip for pursuing molecular gastronomy in your very own kitchen is to question the cook book authorities, but also to learn from the experts in the field. The site Khymos originally started out as a listing of books and web pages that could be useful for anyone interested in molecular gastronomy and popular food science. When giving presentations it was more convenient for me to refer to a webpage than to have people taking notes of all the references. My own collection of books is constantly growing as you can see from the picture (I justed crossed the 100 cm mark), and I am more than happy to share with you my favorite books. Most of what I know about food chemistry and molecular gastronomy is from these books.


Molecular gastronomy should of course never become a theoretical practice only, so remember that “the proof is in the pudding”, as Nicholas Kurti, one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy often said. Let taste guide your cooking and learn how to conduct simple blind tastings (more on that in part 8). If possible, do an experiment: if there are two or more procedures, follow them and compare the end result.

Despite the many books and articles that have appeared on food chemistry and molecular gastronomy there are still many questions that remain unanswered. Scientifically, molecular gastronomy is tremendously complex. The science of deliciousness lies in the cross section of analytical, biological, inorganic, organic, physical, polymer and surface chemistry. But even though describing and understanding what happes is difficult, everyone is able to judge the end result! This is quite intriguing and because of this it is possible to become an excellent cook – even if you don’t understand the chemistry behind in every detail. This makes me confident that there will always be an “art” and a “love” component in cooking, as Hervé This puts it in his definition of molecular gastronomy.


Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the 10 tips for practical molecular gastronomy series. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry, presentation/photography) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at might also be of interest.

Making sense about science

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

When chopping onions, propanethial-S-oxide is liberated. If this compound is not a chemical, what is it then?

There are many misconceptions about chemicals, and one of the most common ones is that food should be “free” of chemicals. For example, in the article “The future of cuisine?” the journalist writes:

“… the ingredients used in molecular cooking are natural, free of chemicals…”

Most of the hydrocolloids used in molecular gastronomy are certainly of natural origin, I don’t disagree about that. But “free of chemicals” is ridiculous… All ingredients used in the kitchen are chemicals (in a broad sense), albeit some very complex and not always very pure onces!

One of my motivations for being involved with molecular gastronomy and popular food science is to promote the understanding that all food is made up of atoms and molecules. Therefore I would like to present to you the organisation Sense about science which tries to combat common chemical misconceptions. According to their site which is well worth a visit they “promote good science and evidence for the public”. As a chemist I found the section Making sense of chemical stories particularily interesting. I think the report Misconceptions about chemicals (downloadable pdf) should be downloaded and read by every journalist writing a story about molecular gastronomy (or any other everyday science topic for that sake). And I think it should be quite interesting for the readers of this blog as well. Here’s a short summary:

You can lead a chemical-free life
The chemical reality is that you cannot lead a chemical-free life, because everything is made of chemicals. Chemicals are substances and chemistry is the science of substances – their structure, their properties and the reactions which change them into other substances. Claims that products are “chemical free” are untrue. There are no alternatives to chemicals, just choices about which chemicals to use and how they are made.

Man-made chemicals are inherently dangerous
The chemical reality is that whether a substance is manufactured by people, copied from nature, or extracted directly from nature, tells us nothing much at all about its properties. In terms of chemical safety, “industrial”, “synthetic”, “artificial” and “man-made” do not necessarily mean damaging and “natural” does not necessarily mean better.

Synthetic chemicals are causing many cancers and other diseases
The chemical reality is that many of the claims about chemicals being ‘linked’ to diseases simply tell us that that a chemical was present when an effect occurred, rather than showing that the chemical causes the effect. Caution is needed in reporting apparent correlations: it is in the nature of scientific experiments that many disappear when a further test is done or they turn out to be explained in other ways.

Our exposure to a cocktail of chemicals is a ticking time-bomb
The chemical reality is that, although the language of “cocktails” and “time bombs” is alarming, neither the presence of chemicals nor the bioaccumulation of them, in themselves, mean that harm is being done. We have always been exposed to many different substances, because nature is a “cocktail of chemicals”. Modern technology enables us to detect miniscule amounts of substances, but the presence of such a small amount of a specific substance does not mean that it is having any discernible effect on us or on future generations.

It is beneficial to avoid man-made chemicals
The chemical reality is that, insofar as there is a ‘need’ for anything, synthesised and man-made chemicals have given societies choices beyond measure about what they are exposed to and the problems they can solve.

We are subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled experiment
The chemical reality is that there is an extensive regulatory system that strictly controls what chemicals can be introduced: what experiments can take place, what can be used, for which purpose and how they should be transported, used and disposed of.

Apart from the “free of chemicals” misconception there is the whole natural/organic vs. synthetic/conventional food debate. But I think I’ll leave that for a separate post.

Update: Several commenters below have pointed out that Sense about science is funded by various lobby groups. An article by George Monbiot explores this in great detail. It’s OK to be aware of this, but I still feel their statements regarding “Misconceptions about chemicals” are very much to the point and well worth reading.

[“Sense about science” was found via The Sceptical Chymist. Thanks!]

Staying warm: Cast iron vs. stainless steel

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Cookware made from cast iron has a reputation for keeping food warm for a long time. Is that really true? Best way to find out is by an experiment. I decided to compare a cast iron pot with one of stainless steel. These are the pots I used:


For the first experiment I filled them each with 2,5 L of water, put the lids on and brought both to the boil and let them boil for a minute so the pot itself would be warm throughout. Then both were placed on cork plates and left to cool. The temperature probe was carefully inserted under the lid in order to reduce the heat loss, and removed once the temperature had stabilized. For the second experiment 5 L of water were used. The measured temperatures are shown in the graph.


Contrary to what I had expected, the stainless steel pot keeps water warmer! After approximately 1,5 hours there is a 10 °C difference between the two. As expected, when using 5 L of water, it stays warm longer. Physical data for the two pots are given in the following table:

Cast iron Stainless steel
Volume 6 L 6 L
Diameter 27,9 cm 25,0 cm
Height 11,5 cm 14,5 cm
Surface area
1619 cm2 1629 cm2
Surface area
in contact with 5 L water
1301 cm2 1286 cm2
Weight 6,1 kg 2,3 kg
Wall thickness ~4 mm <1 mm
Heat capacity of pan 2,8 kJ/K 1,2 kJ/K
Thermal conductivity 80 Wm-1K-1 16 Wm-1K-1
Thermal diffusivity 22 x 10-6 m2/s 4.3 x 10-6 m2/s
Emissivity 0.95 0.07

The heat capacity of the cast iron pot is more than double that of the stainless steel pot. But this is negligible compared to the heat capacity of water: 10.5 kJ/K (2,5 L) and 20,9 kJ/K (5,0 L). Also, there is only a small difference in their surface area which cannot explain the large difference in temperature loss observed.

This leaves me with two eplanations:

  • Cast iron is better heat conductor and has a higer thermal diffusivity
  • Cast iron (being nearly black) has a much higher emissivity than a polished stainless steel surface. The reason for this is that absorption and reflection of radiation are related.
  • My guess is that the difference in emissivity is more important (but please correct me if I’m wrong). With an infrared thermometer, one should therefore be able to measure a difference between pots of cast iron and polished stainless steel (even though they’re at the same temperature!) due to the difference in emissivity. Any one who can do the experiment and report back?

    Conclusion: There are many good reasons to use cast iron, but keeping food warm is not one of them!