What Is Cooking?

What Is Cooking?

What does God need with a Starship?

Favorite quote from my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. To set the scene, you have Kirk, Bones, Spock and Sybok all faced with this God like figure who is adamant about wanting to use the Enterprise to leave the Great Barrier and everyone is in aw, except Kirk who takes a moment to pause and ask “What does God need with a starship?” And you can’t just ask the almighty for his i.d.–just ask Bones–but it’s a good question that cuts to the core of what they are doing there. It’s a wonderful moment.

Now, I’m sure you’re nodding along like ‘Yeah, ok. Weird movie choice’, but stay with me because I’m going somewhere with this. You see, if you’re a normal person who doesn’t listen to cooking podcasts weekly and read multiple cooking books about the science and history of cooking, you likely don’t think about it beyond what’s for dinner and how you intend to make that happen.
Eventually you, like Sybok, will go on this epic journey to get to your desired point without ever questioning why. Not why you need to eat, that’s easy–existence requires sustenance–,but rather why we cook like we do. Most people are taught to cook through ritual, regardless of where the ritual comes from. You just follow the steps like Bones and Spock because someone, like Sybok, told you to. That’s it. Roll credits as you boil soak your beans, you marinate your meats overnight, and you salt food because…

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Therein lies the craft of cooking. It’s a process of steps and actions anyone can do. But if we all did that we would unleash a hellish alien from the Great Barrier where the Q had trapped it aeons ago to prevent it from destroying everything. This is where I say you should really read the novelization of The Final Frontier. Because that seemingly stupid question of what does God need with a Starship? It was smart. It cut to the quick of all these beliefs and grand undertakings that everyone else had done because they were told it was good. And honestly, many of us need to do that when it comes to cooking.

Hence why we have molecular gastronomy, which is the big umbrella term for the science of cooking. This isn’t to be confused with Molecular Gastronomy is best known as a cuisine where wild, scientific techniques are used to create new takes on old classics. But by applying some really basic science to the craft of cooking, you can be a better cook and make life easier for yourself. If you’re really good at it, you can turn that science into an artform and charge fifty dollars for two bites of food and some foam pretending to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But I think that’s jumping a bit ahead of ourselves, so let’s get back to the basics.

What is Cooking?

It’s a ritual. It’s history. It’s… 42. I mean, if it’s good enough to be the answer to the meaning of everything, 42 can be cooking. Especially given that it highlights perfectly how when you don’t know what you’re asking, the answer can be anything. So, step one of our scientific method is to know exactly what we are asking. We want to narrow down our scope so we get less 42 and more precise answers. So let’s go back and revise the question to ‘what is the act of cooking, at its most basic level?’

The answer? Cooking is the transfer of heat from an energy source to the food.

Honestly, take a moment to consider what you cook and what you don’t. You don’t cook a salad. You don’t cook ice cream. You don’t cook ceviche. You may cook apples and a stew is definitely cooked. You cook eggs. I could do this all day, but I feel as though I would be beating a dead horse (which you can also cook). The English language makes it very clear what is cooked and what isn’t, even when we don’t think about it. And if you aren’t me, you probably never think about it.

Why Do We Cook?

We do it to cause a chemical reaction that will change the texture and flavor of food. This change is created when the energy–in this case heat–causes a physical change to take place in your food’s proteins, fats or carbohydrates. Each of these have a different reaction to heat. Proteins tend to become firmer. Carbohydrates caramelize or expand when put into water. Fats liquify and eventually smoke. Fibers break down and soften as they are cooked.

And this isn’t even touching on the safety concerns of cooking (don’t eat raw meats and eggs if you can avoid it). Cooking food was one of the best skills humans evolved since most bacteria begin to die at roughly the temperature needed for a medium-rare steak, which is 130°F (52°C). However, your food may not be properly sterilized at this temperature for a good two hours, so consider that next time you order that steak. Or anything else since a difference in temperature can affect not only how long it takes your pans and pots to properly heat, but also the chemical reactions taking place in your food.

But that’s a post for another time. For now, I’m going to let you rest like a well cooked steak so that way you can continue cooking these ideas on your own. Live long and prosper, Captains

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