Most Recent Podcast:


The search for the fundamental laws of cooking

I worked my way through college as a cook in the University cafeteria, and while it hardly makes me an expert on food, I've always been interested in the fundamentals of cooking.

A favorite book of mine is Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman in which Ruhlman lays out a series of fundamental cooking ratios (e. g. , fresh pasta is 3:2 ratio of flour to eggs by weight). However, Ruhlman's ratios are a far cry from being the comprehensive theory of the structure of cooking. That is why I was excited to find this article on a research study of the "flavor pairing" hypothesis, a potential theory of why certain foods go together:
The food pairing hypothesis is the idea that foods that go best together contain similar molecular components...Using recipes from such websites as Epicurious, the researchers examined more than 50,000 recipes. They combined these recipe data with information about the chemical components in each of the ingredients, in order to create a network map of related ingredients. For example, shrimp and parmesan are connected in the network, because they contain the same flavor compounds, such as 1-penten-3-ol.
Check the link for a cool graphic. Unfortunately, it seems that their search did not yield a "unified theory of cooking":
And they found that [the food pairing hypothesis] was true, at least when it came to Western cooking. North American and Western European cuisines...However, once we stray from these cuisines, the food pairing hypothesis breaks down. East Asian and Southern European recipes use ingredients that do not overlap in their flavor compounds, implying that these styles of cooking are in fact quantitatively distinct. So, while mathematical rigor can be applied to different types of cooking — the scientists also discovered that Latin American cooking is halfway between Southern European and East Asian — the food pairing hypothesis is not the Grand Unified Theory of Food it had been hoped.
Ah well, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Cooking isn't a magical endeavor, it's merely complicated.  And it is only recently that scientists have taken their work into the kitchen. The more we learn about flavor compounds, heat, and their interaction the better able we will be to understand why good food tastes good.

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.

1 comment:

  1. I think food pairing is just one aspect of cooking that chefs and home cooks need to take into account when they're experimenting with food. To try to find the "one ring" that fits all cuisines is a futile attempt in my book.