Like chicken and waffles, food and science combine to form a surprisingly delicious dish. Whether you are wearing a lab coat or an apron, both employ the same rigorous methods of experimentation and process to come out with ground-breaking (and delicious) results, and both have been at the heart of our evolution as a species since we were gobbling nettle stew some 6,000 years ago.
When it comes to replicating scientific experiments, you have to follow a distinct set of rules to get the desired outcome, something that sounds suspiciously like a recipe. So, without further ado, here are some of the best recipe books that smash up science and food better than you could an avocado.
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The Science of Spice by Stuart Farrimond
What would life be were it not for a little spice? Dr Stuart Farrimond’s scientific cook book should be hot property for anyone who wants to understand what is packing their curries, spiced buns, mulled wines and mezze with flavour.
The whole book itself is based on the periodic table of elements, but instead of your gases, metals and non-metals, you have delicious-sounding groups like ‘sweet warming phenols’ or ‘penetrating terpenes’, which are home to the different spices sprinkled into cuisine the world over.
The first half takes you on a culinary voyage around the world, exploring the continents’ most celebrated spice mixtures and the part they play in local culture (as well as how to make them). But it’s the second half that’ll get your inner scientist salivating, explaining what gives each spice their complex characters, the optimum way to cook with them, as well as a few non-culinary uses.
There’s also a bunch of flavourful recipes and a huge table with all the flavour compounds if you really want to nerd out on a bit of food chemistry.
The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt
How do you boil an egg? It’s a breakfast staple that we’ve probably all had a go at, but it’s almost certain that none of us will agree on the best method – the same can be said for searing a steak, or roasting a potato. These regular kitchen tasks all come naturally to us with a bit of practice, with recipes passed down from generation to generation, but does that necessarily mean they are the best recipes?
Take for example a delicious roast beef. Do you sear your fillet before putting it in the oven to seal in the juice? According to López-Alt, this complete nonsense, and a myth passed down from recipes and chefs since the mid-nineteenth century, and to prove it, just like a good scientist, he tests it (of course, the real reason to sear your meat is the Maillard reaction, which unleashes all manner of delicious caramelised flavours).
It’s this commitment to scientific method that takes the recipes in The Food Lab to another level in the pursuit of cooking perfection.
Mr Shaha’s Recipes For Wonder by Alom Shaha
School was the first place that most of donned our lab coats and slipped safety glasses over our eyes, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. There are plenty of fun experiments that we can do at home, and teacher Alom Shaha’s book is a packed to bursting with brilliant ideas for you and your family to try out.
Using regular items that you can find throughout the kitchen and the house, the book takes you through 18 different “recipes” (or experiments if you will), going into exquisite detail to show you what exactly is going on. For example, you can to turn a crisp tin into a camera to teach you about the behaviour of light, or rustle up some cupcakes with a healthy topping of chemistry served up on the side.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Emily Robertson, and each recipe suggests further questions to get inquisitive minds cooking.
The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit
Not a recipe book as such, but one that anybody serious about experimenting with food should have close at hand in their kitchen. We’ve all been in the situation where we’re faced with two ingredients that, for all intents and purposes, should never be thrown together for love nor money. But as it turns out, food is a funny old thing and some of the most delicious combinations can come from some of the most bizarre combinations.
For example, can you marry the sweet notes of vanilla with the salty scent of shellfish? As it happens, French nouvelle cuisine pioneer Alain Senderens did just that to compliment his Burgundy-filled cellar. On the other hand, you’d be a fool for baking your pears with nutmeg, as the key component of the spice is myristicin, a chemical also found in parsnip – a fine flavour for a roast, but not so a pudding.
If you are planning on turning your kitchen into a flavour laboratory, this is definitely a book to keep in your back pocket if you want something more Michelin than monstrous.
Science You Can Eat by Stefan Gates
What is food (other than for the most part delicious)? Science You Can Eat kicks off with the big questions about food and flavour and explains all the wonderful chemistry and reactions that are going on when you fry up an egg. Why does your mouth burn on a chilli? What’s the difference between good mould and bad mould? What is in a fart? It’s all in there in big bold colours and pictures.
If you’re going to indulge in a stack of science books all about food, this one gets right to the juicy bits, and being aimed for kids, is packed with recipes (read: experiments) that will get even the most ardent takeaway aficionado dusting off their pots and pans.
The Kitchen Science Book by Dr Michelle Dickinson
Who knew you could make a candle out of an almond and a banana, or release your inner Rodin using milk to build sculptures? Turns out there are a load of interesting science experiments you can do using food or other kitchen staples, and The Kitchen Science Book by New Zealand scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson is packed full of them.
It’s not just your standard kitchen sciences of chemistry and biology either, there are instructions how to build (relatively) complex constructions to flex your engineering skills and even a few experiments to help you brush up on your Newtonian physics!
With clear indications of time taken, safety instructions and whether the experiment is good for eating, this is definitely one work through with the kids. Now excuse us while we go and rustle up some unicorn noodles…
If you’re the sort of person who demands gastronomic flair when it comes to cooking, you need to add a little chemistry to the kitchen, but if you want to take your dishes to another level, like any good chemistry lab you need your pantry filled with a few items well beyond your cupboard staples. Once you have stocked up on exotic items like calcium lactate, gellangum, kappa carrageenan and sodium alginate, you’re good to get stuck in with this very scientific take on a cookbook.
To get the most out of it you’ll first have to get your head around the processes of spherification, emulsification and gelification (as well as a few others), but there are sections devoted to the science behind all of these techniques, and once you’ve got your head around why calcium ions are so important to making balls of food, you’ll be whipping up mint caviar, dark chocolate spaghetti and curry wind in no time. The ingredients themselves don’t come cheap, but the recipe book itself is a free download, so you can easily see if you’ve got the guts to go gastronomic before you tuck in.