Chemistry in Your Kitchen

Chemistry in Kitchen book cover with a frying pan with a large flame in itby Matthew Hartings, 2017, 320 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-78262-313-7  $32.80 (based on RSC Publishing price of £19.99)

Reviewed by Lyle Sadavoy (retired), Toronto, Ontario

Chemistry in Your Kitchen is without a doubt a delicious book. Hartings serves up a marvellous mix of recipes and chemical explanations that can really whet your appetite. His writing is engaging, and he uses storytelling as the vehicle to explore various foods. There are molecular diagrams and reaction explanations throughout. If you are a chemistry teacher and enjoy the kitchen, then this book is for you.

Chemistry in Your Kitchen is cleverly organized by meal time — Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and Drinks and Dessert. Within each meal section are chapters devoted to various foods, although Hartings does digress into other related foods and chemistry. His writing is for everyone. Among the classes he teaches is “The Chemistry of Cooking”. Consequently, even if you are not a chemist you will miss nothing as Hartings approaches the molecules and reactions with understandable analogies.

In the Breakfast section, the focus is on Coffee, Bacon, Eggs and Pancakes. Starting the book with a good cup of coffee is a perfect beginning! Hartings explains the roasting process as well as brewing and the science of flavour extraction. In Bacon, the Maillard Reaction is described noting its importance to many cooking processes occurring throughout the day. In Eggs you learn about the reaction of proteins to heat and Hartings compares many scrambled eggs techniques. Pancakes brings together the concepts of acid base chemistry, CO2 production and the chemistry of leavening. There is even a sidebar of CO2 equilibrium and global warming.

Lunch is packed, literally! With the chapter on Jelly, Hartings explains the concept of sugars and various hydrocolloids such as cornstarch, pectin and gelatin. Teachers can use numerous ideas in organic chemistry, especially with possible labs relating to polymers. You could even make jam instead of soap. In the Macaroni and Cheese chapter the making of cheese and how different cheeses react to heat is explained. In Bread, we read how the proteins react to produce gluten with an excellent sidebar into gluten free options. Finally, the chapter on Vinaigrette deals with mixing oil and water and emulsifiers. Hartings actually provides the difference between adding oil to the vinegar and vice versa.

Sinking your teeth into Dinner you come up with Pizza (a staple) with crust options, methods for thickening a sauce, cheese and topping ideas as well as options for baking. Two chapters are devoted to Meat. The first deals with steaks and the second with tougher cuts. Hartings explains the effect of temperature on the meat proteins, how to work on the collagen as well as an excellent section on smoking. The final chapter is devoted to colour and how colour defines our choices and our presentation of food.

The final section includes Beer, Cocktails, Ice Cream and Pie. Hartings gives a chemical overview of the processes involved in brewing beer including a humorous Canadian beer story. In Cocktails he discusses distillation and the differences in flavour molecules in various spirits. Then you learn how each step in making ice cream works. Finally, in Pie, Hartings describes how different types of pastry dough are made, including phyllo, puff and of course a flaky piecrust. He even offers a segue into chocolate mousse.

In Chemistry in Your Kitchen, Hartings marries his passion for chemistry with his enthusiasm for cooking. He compares a cook in the kitchen to a research chemist except that for the cook, the task is to literally make hundreds of reactions finish at the same time. We marvel at how our ancestors developed these methods just through repeated observations, passing them down as family recipes. Now, however, with the science behind many of these reactions, one can use the knowledge to tweak a recipe or change an ingredient. Hartings references numerous famous and creative chefs who do just that.

To suggest there is "food for thought" in Chemistry in Your Kitchen would be an understatement. If you know someone who loves to cook then this book is an ideal gift. Chapter references lead to different cookbooks, articles by noted chefs and journal articles. The recipes Hartings suggests, the techniques he offers and the chemical knowledge he imparts can make one want to literally try some chemistry in the kitchen. There is a pancake recipe and a technique for smoking meat waiting for me to try, and I have to see for myself the difference the order of mixing oil and vinegar makes to my salad dressing.