Kitchen Confidence

UPDATE: Modernist Cuisine at Home: Make Water Work for You + Giveaway!

By • October 19, 2012 • 231 Comments

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This is the final installment in our 3-part series on food science from the Modernist Cuisine team. We're giving away a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home below, along with some handy equipment for your own Modernist kitchen. (We're selling copies in the Food52 Shop too, at an exclusive discount you won't find anywhere else.)

Today: How to make water work for you -- and don't miss that giveaway! UPDATE: We have a winner!

modernist cuisine at home

Water: Understanding Your Most Common Ingredient
By Nathan Myhrvold and Judy T. Oldfield

You have used a multitude of ingredients in your cooking, but nearly all of them share one thing in common: they contain water, and lots of it. From a chemical point of view, fresh foods are little more than water plus “impurities”: proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, and so on. A carrot, for example, is nearly 90% water; a pork loin, about 60%. So it should come as no surprise that much of cooking fundamentally comes down to manipulating water: adding it, removing it, using it as a solvent, or changing it from a liquid to a gas or a solid.

H20

Many of the more challenging aspects of cooking can be traced to the counterintuitive behavior of water. H2O is a weird chemical. Boiling the stuff requires a tremendous amount of energy — but on the flip side, steam deposits a huge amount of heat when it condenses back into liquid form on the surface of food, speeding up the cooking. Water freezes in peculiar ways that can ruin ice cream — or can be exploited to concentrate fruit juices. And water is uncommonly good at dissolving certain kinds of ingredients — so much so that the inevitable impurities in our tap water can have dramatic effects on our cooking.

Let’s start with the proverbial watched pot. It takes so long to boil because the two hydrogen atoms (the Hs in H2O) in each water molecule have wandering eyes: sometimes instead of bonding faithfully with the oxygen atom (the O) in their own molecule, one of them will pair up with the oxygen in a neighboring molecule. It takes a lot of energy to sever those bonds and excite the water molecules enough that they fly away as steam. That’s why it takes so much longer to cook a pizza loaded up with wet toppings, such as tomatoes or pineapple, than it does to bake a plain cheese or pepperoni pie; much of the initial heat goes into boiling off the water in the toppings rather than melting the cheese and browning the crust.

pressure cooked stock
To see a larger version of this photo, click here.

It is possible to get foods hot enough to brown without drying them out, but only if you either dissolve lots of salt, sugar, or some other substance in the water to raise its boiling point or increase the air pressure over the water, which you can do by using a pressure cooker. Stocks in particular benefit from pressure-cooking, saving time and the amount of food needed.

Modernist chefs sometimes use the opposite technique — hooking up vacuum pumps to reduce the air pressure — to lower the boiling point of water. It’s a clever way to concentrate a juice or reduce a sauce without cooking away so much of the flavorful aromatics. The taste of the reduction remains wonderfully vibrant.

ice freezing

You can sometimes achieve similar effects by exploiting how ice crystals grow in water as it freezes. Seal fruit in a freezer bag and chill it at a temperature not far below 32°F. Slow-growing ice crystals become large and sharp, rupturing the cellular walls of the fruit and allowing you to extract more of the juice. (If preservation is your goal, you should instead freeze food fast and hard at the lowest temperatures you can, to keep the crystals as small as possible.)

The effect of dissolved sugar or salt on the boiling and freezing point of water can be dramatic, because water is a powerful solvent for these ingredients. Yet other substances, such as oils, don’t dissolve in water at all. The root of this behavior lies again in the molecular make-up of pure water. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms are differently charged. This imbalance is analogous to the north and south poles of a magnet. As a “polar” liquid, water readily dissolves large amounts of “polar” solids, such as sugar. But it resists intermingling with nonpolar foods, such as oils and fats.

water

As a cook, you should always keep this in mind: water comes out of the faucet already laden with dissolved minerals that affect your cooking. If your water is hard (rich in minerals), you may find that boiled vegetables turn out tough (and in particular, dried beans do not soften properly) because the minerals reinforce the natural mortar that holds plant cell walls together. In such cases, buy bottles of distilled or deionized water and cook with that instead. These purer alternatives are also handy when using Modernist ingredients such as hydrocolloid gelling and thickening agents, which are quite sensitive to calcium and some of the other minerals dissolved in tap water.

Water may be colorless, odorless, (nearly) tasteless, ubiquitous, and indispensable. But simple it is not.

pressure cooker cutting board strainer probe thermometer

UPDATE: The Giveaway!

Thanks to everyone who shared their brilliant modernist inventions with us -- we got together with the Modernist Cuisine team and picked a winner:

Congrats to Toni Kervina! The winning answer: "I would love there to be some sort of machine you could place over your food to see what's happening inside. Too long have I suffered from charred edges and uncooked middles!"

Us too! We loved Toni's simple but universal idea, and Judy Oldfield from the Modernist Cuisine team added, "The desire to see inside food is why we created cutaway photos."

And for those of you who didn't win, you still have time to pick up your copy (at a $40 discount) in the Food52 Shop.

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Want to win yourself a copy of the brand new Modernist Cuisine at Home, along with some handy equipment from Kuhn Rikon and OXO for your own Modernist kitchen (pictured above)?

Answer the question below in the comments section of this post by Monday, October 15th at 3pm EST*. Don't want to leave it up to chance? Get your copy now in the Food52 Shop (the first 10 orders get a signed bookplate!) with a discount you won't see anywhere else.

Sous-vide machines and pressure cookers have changed the way we cook. What's the not-yet-invented, life-changing kitchen gadget of your dreams?

*Sadly, the grand prize can only be shipped within the U.S., but if you don't live here (and don't know anyone here who could receive a sweet package on your behalf), we'll come up with something fun, but admittedly not as fabulous, to send you instead.

Photos: Book - Chris Hoover; Water - Ryan Matthew Smith / Modernist Cuisine, LLC; Pressure Cooker Cutaway - Tyson Stole / Modernist Cuisine, LLC

 

Jump to Comments (231)

Tags: Modernist Cuisine at Home, food science, Nathan Myhrvold, water, pressure cooking, giveaway, kitchen confidence, how-to & diy

Comments (231)

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Barb

almost 2 years ago Miafoodie

I would like a gadget mounted under a kitchen cabinet that would tell you if your leftovers were still edible, if your groceries were safe to eat,(i.e. no e.coli or botulism,etc.) if your produce was pesticide free, if your meat was indeed grain fed or cage free or had died
before it was butchered.

Barb

almost 2 years ago Miafoodie

I would like a gadget mounted under a kitchen cabinet that would tell you if your leftovers were still edible, if your groceries were safe to eat,(i.e. no e.coli or botulism,etc.) if your produce was pesticide free, if your meat was indeed grain fed or cage free or had died
before it was butchered.

Miglore

almost 2 years ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

Update: We have a winner! See the blog post above for details.

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almost 2 years ago Panfusine

Love the suggestion.. definitely a winning idea, Congrats Toni...!

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almost 2 years ago sirporkalot

Adding my name to the list of hopeful winners :)

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almost 2 years ago afduke04

This is probably way nerdy, but I want a replicator, a la Star Trek. Wouldn't it be amazing to just have all of your ingredients at the exact amount and at the exact time that you need them! I was just thinking today how I would love to just snap my fingers and have fennel pollen and whole szechuan peppers to put make tonight's dinner over the top.

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almost 2 years ago Shawn ODonnell

Not sure if this qualifies as a kitchen gadget, but I would love a tool that sucks the smell of food or coffee out of my clothes. As someone who likes to cook and roast my own coffee, I often smell like my hobbies (fried fish, coffee beans, pungent spices, grilled meat). I'd love to taste the deliciousness but not wear it!

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almost 2 years ago Shawn ODonnell

Not sure if this qualifies as a kitchen gadget, but I would love a tool that sucks the smell of food or coffee out of my clothes. As someone who likes to cook and roast my own coffee, I often smell like my hobbies (fried fish, coffee beans, pungent spices, grilled meat). I'd love to taste the deliciousness but not wear it!

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almost 2 years ago Jbvc2

I would like a home still that could produce a premium scotch.

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almost 2 years ago Jbvc2

I would like a home still that could produce a premium scotch.

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almost 2 years ago daveL

A device that allows you to make BBQ indoors without a mess or a smokey kitchen. Provides a wonderful bark and delicious smokey flavor without fussing with grill vents outside in the heat or the cold. Temperature probes to test internal doneness of the meat to control "oven" heat would be a nice touch.

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almost 2 years ago jtbiddle

My dream tool would be something that extracts flavorful vapors from food, kind of like a rotavap, except without the high temperatures that break down some of the flavorful and pleasant smelling hydrocarbons.

Flavorful vapor/gasses could be used to add a new flavor to foams or add an "introductory" aroma when the dish is served (just make sure to serve it quick!).

These vapors could also add an interesting visual flair, kind of like dry ice except with the addition of aroma and flavor.

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almost 2 years ago Alicyn Roberge

I would like a way to taste or even smell recipes in books, magazines, or online, if something looks good and you'd like a nibble to see what it tastes like that you're reading or checking out a food blog or something OR certain global cuisine that you can google then smell/taste it. May be thats too sci-fi but that would be pretty sweet :)

Stringio

almost 2 years ago sebastian.aya

a kind of food dehydrating machine, but that works with low temperatures to preserve flavor

Stringio

almost 2 years ago sebastian.aya

a kind of food dehydrating machine, but that works with low temperatures to preserve flavor

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almost 2 years ago rshidla

I would like a quick safe way to guarantee that raw food is not contaminated, or to decontaminate raw food without applying heat.

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almost 2 years ago rshidla

I would like a quick safe way to guarantee that raw food is not contaminated, or to decontaminate raw food without applying heat.

9257643-the-mexican-flag-painted-on-to-a-stone-wall

almost 2 years ago olechef

Robotic, programmable knives to do all chopping for me.

9257643-the-mexican-flag-painted-on-to-a-stone-wall

almost 2 years ago olechef

robotic arms to pour and transfer liquids and solids back and forth, and robotic, programmable knives to be my sous chef.

Stringio

almost 2 years ago kattie.bespalko

I would love the equivalent of cooking blenders for cooling - If i could have a blender that chills to near freezing simultaneously, I'd be thrilled

Stringio

almost 2 years ago kattie.bespalko

I would love the equivalent of cooking blenders for cooling - If i could have a blender that chills to near freezing simultaneously, I'd be thrilled