Why Is Ground Beef Dark On the Inside But Bright Red On the Outside?

A freshly cut meat surface isn’t bright red; it’s naturally purplish because it contains the purplish-red muscle protein, myoglobin. But when myoglobin is exposed to oxygen in the air, it quickly turns into bright, cherry-red oxymyoglobin. That’s why only the outer surface of your ground beef is that nice, bright red color that we generally … Read more

People Just Love To Eat Meat and Fish

We humans are an omnivorous lot, with teeth and digestive systems well adapted to eating both plant and animal foods. But animal rights activists notwithstanding, it’s an undeniable fact that in our society, meat and fish are most often the center of the plate, the star players in our main dishes. Of the virtually unlimited … Read more

Why Are Hominy Grits Made With Lye When It’s Corrosive?

Yes, but it has been thoroughly washed out before the grits ever get near your breakfast plate. The word lye is related to the Latin for wash, and originally referred to the strong alkaline solution obtained by soaking, or washing, wood ashes in water. (The alkaline material in wood ashes is potassium carbonate, and because … Read more

How Toxic Are the Eyes of a Potato?

Not as dangerous as some well-meaning friends who spread scary stories. But there is a small grain of truth to the story. When potatoes were introduced into Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, they were suspected of being either poisonous or aphrodisiac or, an intriguing thought, both. (What a way to die!) … Read more

Why Are Potatoes With Green Skin Toxic and Unsafe To Eat?

It’s not green because it’s unripe; potatoes are ready to eat at any stage of growth. And they’re not flaunting the green because they’re a traditionally Irish food. The green color is Mother Nature’s Mr. Yuk sticker, warning us of poison. Potato plants contain solanine, a bitter-tasting member of the notorious alkaloid family, a group … Read more

Where Does Vinegar Come From and What Is Vinegar Made of?

Vinegar has been known for thousands of years. No one even had to make it in the first place, because it actually makes itself. Wherever there happens to be some sugar or alcohol lying around, vinegar is on the way. Any chemist will tell you without a moment’s hesitation that vinegar is a solution of … Read more

Why Does Lasagne and Spaghetti Eat Holes In Aluminum Foil?

Yup, your lasagne is actually eating holes in the metal. (No reflection on your cooking.) Aluminum is what chemists call an active metal, easily attacked by acids such as the citric and other organic acids in tomatoes. In fact, you shouldn’t cook tomato sauce or other acidic foods in aluminum pots because they can dissolve … Read more

How Does MSG Enhance Flavors In Food and How Is MSG Made?

It certainly does sound mysterious that these innocent-looking fine, white crystals with no really distinctive taste of their own should be able to boost the inherent flavors of such a wide variety of foods. The mystery lies not in whether MSG really works, nobody doubts that, but in how it works. As is the case … Read more

Why Does Vanilla Make Food Smell and Taste So Good, But Tastes So Awful From the Bottle?

Vanilla extract is around 35 percent ethyl alcohol, which has a harsh, biting flavor. Whiskeys and other distilled beverages contain even more alcohol, of course (usually 40 percent), but they are lovingly produced by time-honored flavoring and aging processes that soften the harshness. “Pure vanilla extract,” in order to be labeled as such, must be … Read more

What Is Sour Salt and Where Does Sour Salt Come From?

Sour salt is misnamed. It has nothing to do with table salt or sodium chloride. In fact, it isn’t a salt at all; it’s an acid. They’re two different classes of chemicals. Every acid is a unique chemical having properties that distinguish it from all other acids. But it can have dozens of derivatives called … Read more

What Is Baking Ammonia and What Is Baking Ammonia Used For?

Ammonia itself is an acrid-smelling gas, usually dissolved in water and used for laundry and cleaning purposes. But baking ammonia is ammonium bicarbonate, a leavening agent that when heated breaks down into three gases: water vapor, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. It isn’t used much anymore , if you can even find it, because the ammonia … Read more

How Does Aluminum Cause Alzheimer’s Disease?

Sodium aluminum sulfate and several other aluminum compounds are listed by the FDA as GRAS: Generally Regarded as Safe. About twenty years ago, one study found increased levels of aluminum in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s victims. Ever since then, suspicions have been circulating that aluminum, whether in food or water or dissolved from aluminum … Read more

Does Heavy Cream Weigh Less Than Light Cream?

Heavy cream contains a higher percentage of milk fat (usually called butterfat, because butter can be made from it) than light cream does: 36 to 40 percent fat in heavy whipping cream versus only 18 to 30 percent in light cream. And, if you’re interested, the heavy cream can contain up to twice as much … Read more

How Do Those Nonstick Nonfat Cooking Sprays Work?

There is no such thing as a nonfat edible oil. Fats are a family of specific chemical compounds, and an oil is just a liquid fat. Nor do the sprays have to contain a substitute for oil, because, are you ready?, they are oil. Those handy little cans, so great for coating baking pans and … Read more

What Is the Best Way to Dispose of Used Cooking Oil and Fat?

While edible fats and oils are ultimately biodegradable, they can gum up the works in a landfill for years. They’re not as bad as petroleum oils, however, which are digestible by only one or two species of bacteria and stay around essentially forever. Small amounts of fat can be absorbed in a couple of paper … Read more

What Are the Smoke Points of Common Vegetable Oils?

I don’t think you mean boiling point, because in spite of the poetic and sadistic appeal of the expression “boiled in oil,” oil doesn’t boil. Long before it becomes hot enough to think about bubbling, a cooking oil will decompose, breaking down into disagreeable chemicals and carbonized particles that will assault your taste buds with … Read more

How Do They Get Corn Oil Out of Corn?

They use a lot of corn. Corn is indeed a low-fat food, containing about 1 gram per ear until you slather it with all that butter. But it is by far the biggest crop in the United States, grown in 42 states to the tune of more than 9 billion bushels per year. Nine billion … Read more

Why Does European Butter Taste Better Than American Butter?

European butter has more fat. Commercial butter is 80 to 82 percent milk fat (also called butterfat), 16 to 17 percent water, and 1 to 2 percent milk solids (plus about 2 percent salt if salted). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the lower limit of butterfat content for American butter at 80 … Read more

What Is Clarified Butter Used For?

Clarifying butter gets rid of everything but that delicious, artery-clogging, highly saturated butterfat. But when we use it in sautéing instead of whole butter, we avoid eating the browned proteins, which could also be unhealthful because of possible carcinogens. Name your poison. Some people think of butter as a block of fat surrounded by guilt. … Read more

How Come the Amounts of Fat on Food Labels Don’t Add Up?

All fats fall into three categories. Saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. I had never noticed the funny arithmetic you mention, but as soon as I received your question I ran to my pantry and grabbed a box of Nabisco Wheat Thins. Here’s what I saw in the Nutrition Facts panel for the amounts of fat … Read more

Where Does Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil Come From?

Oils are hydrogenated, that is, hydrogen atoms are forced into their molecules under pressure to make them more saturated, because saturated fats are thicker, more solid and less liquid, than unsaturated fats. The hydrogen atoms fill in hydrogen-poor gaps (Techspeak: double bonds, which are more rigid than single bonds) in the oil molecules, and that … Read more

What Makes Fats Turn Rancid?

Free fatty acids. That is, fatty acid molecules that have been broken off from their fat molecules. Most fatty acids are foul-smelling and bad-tasting chemicals, and it doesn’t take much of them to give a fatty food an off flavor. There are two main ways in which the fatty acids can become disconnected: the fat’s … Read more

What Is the Difference Between Fats and Fatty Acids?

Most of us just don’t know the difference between fatty acids and fats. And there is indeed a difference. Every molecule of fat incorporates three molecules of fatty acids. The fatty acids may be either saturated or unsaturated, and they thereby impart those qualities to the fat as a whole. First, let’s see what a … Read more

Why Is Freshly Ground Salt Better Than Granulated Salt?

Freshly ground salt is better for the people who sell those fancy salt mills and combination salt-and-pepper grinders in so-called gourmet shops. The idea seems to be that if freshly ground pepper is so much better than the powdered stuff in cans, then why not use freshly ground salt as well? That’s a delusion. Unlike … Read more

Why Is Kosher Salt Better Than Regular Table Salt?

Kosher salt is misnamed; it should be called koshering salt because it is used in the koshering process, which involves blanketing raw meat or poultry with salt to purify it. Kosher salt may be either mined or taken from the sea; nobody seems to care. Its crystals, however, must always be coarse and irregular, so … Read more

How Is Sea Salt Better Than Regular Table Salt?

The terms sea salt and regular salt or table salt are often used as if they denote two distinctly different substances with distinctly different properties. But it’s not that simple. Salt is indeed obtained from two different sources: underground mines and seawater. But that fact alone doesn’t make them inherently different, any more than water … Read more

How Does Salt Tenderize Meat?

Salt tenderizes meat only to a slight extent. If you read further down the ingredient list of meat tenderizers, you’ll find papain, an enzyme found in unripe papayas. That’s what really does the job. All that salt is there primarily to dilute and spread out the relatively small amount of papain in the product on … Read more

What’s So Special About Those Expensive Popcorn Salts and Margarita Salts Sold In Supermarkets?

Chemically speaking, absolutely nothing. They’re plain old salt: sodium chloride. But physically speaking, they’re either finer-grained or coarser-grained than ordinary table salt. And that’s all. The number of specialty salts on the wholesale market is astounding. Cargill Salt, Inc., one of the world’s largest salt producers, makes about sixty kinds of food-grade salt for food … Read more

What Is Salt?

Beneath the surface of Hutchinson, Kansas, and thousands of square miles of its environs lies an enormous deposit of a precious rock-like mineral called halite. There, several huge mining operations extract almost 1 million tons per year, and that’s less than one-half percent of the world’s annual halite production. What do we do with all … Read more

What Is White Chocolate Made Of?

White chocolate is simply the fat from the cacao bean (the cocoa butter) mixed with milk solids and sugar. It contains none of those wonderful, though inauspiciously brown, cocoa-bean solids that give chocolate its unique character and rich flavor. If you choose a white-chocolate-topped dessert to avoid chocolate’s caffeine, bear in mind that cocoa butter … Read more

What Is the Difference Between Dutch Process Cocoa and Regular Cocoa?

To make cocoa, unsweetened chocolate (solidified chocolate liquor) is pressed to squeeze out most of the fat, and the resulting cake is then ground to a powder. There are several types of “regular” cocoa powder, depending on how much fat remains. For example, “breakfast cocoa” or “high-fat cocoa,” as defined by the FDA, must contain … Read more

How Much Caffeine Does Chocolate Have and Why is Carob Used as a Chocolate Substitute?

First of all, contrary to common belief, chocolate doesn’t contain much caffeine at all. A square (one ounce) of unsweetened baking chocolate averages 23 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of coffee might contain more than 100 milligrams. An ounce of unsweetened chocolate does contain 376 milligrams of theobromine, however, an alkaloid closely related to … Read more

Why does Old Chocolate have a White Film Coating and Is it Toxic?

The white film on chocolate is called “bloom” and is caused by excessive or varying temperatures. You have committed the crime of chocolate abuse by not storing it properly. The white film is not mold and is perfectly harmless, affecting only the chocolate’s appearance and to some extent its texture. Milk chocolate typically consists of … Read more

What does Cocoa (Cacao) Percentage Mean on Dark Chocolate Labels?

Americans seem to have discovered only a few years ago that “chocolate” doesn’t have to mean Hershey bars and Whitman Samplers; they learned that serious chocolate bars, as distinguished from candy bars, could open a whole new world of flavors. There are now dozens of dark chocolate bars on the market from both American and … Read more

Where do Marshmallows Come From and How are Marshmallows Made?

who invented marshmallows

The modern version of the marshmallow is only about a hundred years old, but it’s a new take on a several-thousand-year-old treat. The magical material we call marshmallow is named after the marsh mallow plant (Althaea officinalis), whose roots contain a sweet, gummy sap that has been used as a confection and for its supposed medicinal … Read more

Why do Milk and Juice Cartons always have Liquid Left Over after you pour them out?

It happens when you’re “emptying” all sorts of containers, including cocktail shakers and wine bottles. I hadn’t given it much thought, but you have inspired me to figure out what really is going on. What’s undoubtedly happening is that as you “empty” the container, some of the liquid encounters microscopic rough spots or non-wettable spots … Read more

What does Natural Flavorings Mean in Packaged Food?

If it isn’t natural, what would it be? Supernatural? My dictionary lists fourteen meanings for the adjective natural, ranging from “not adopted” (for the parent of a child) to “neither sharped nor flatted” (for a musical note). Many consumers appear to believe that natural is a synonym for good or healthful, as opposed to anything … Read more

What are some Commonly Misused Terms and Words in Cooking?

I’m the kind of person who upon being handed a menu in a restaurant scans it for spelling errors before beginning to think about the food. But even though the other day I actually saw “tuna tar tar” on a menu (honest!), this section won’t be about spelling. Anybody can slipp up on that once … Read more

Would Roasting Meat at a Lower Temperature for Longer Use More or Less Energy?

Paula Wolfert’s concept was that long, slow cooking can produce tender, juicy, flavorful meats that higher-temperature cooking cannot match. And as usual, she’s right, as the recipes in her book amply demonstrate (although none of them approaches 24 hours of cooking). It has always been an oversimplification to say that cooking time and cooking temperature … Read more

Why does every Cake-Mix have Different Bake Times and Temperatures?

In a perusal of the acres of cake-mix boxes on the shelves of my supermarket (in space consumption probably second only to breakfast cereals), I found, as expected, a wide variety of baking instructions, specifying a wide variety of baking times and temperatures for different pan sizes, shapes, and materials. And that’s not even considering … Read more

What is the Best Way to Broil Meat and Why is Broiling so Difficult?

Of the six basic methods of cooking, broiling is the hardest to control. What are the six basic methods, you ask? They are (1) immersion in hot water or stock (boiling, poaching, stewing); (2) exposure to hot water vapor (steaming); (3) immersion in hot oil (deep-frying); (4) contact with hot metal (pan-frying, sautéing, searing, grilling); … Read more

How Long does Food Last before it Goes Bad and How do Preservatives help Food Last Longer?

There can be no single rule that covers all the foods we consume, an almost infinite number of combinations of thousands of different proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals that make up our omnivorous diet. “Going bad” can refer to the effects of bacteria, molds, and yeasts; heat; oxidation from exposure to air; or enzymes in … Read more

Why does Butter Stored in the Fridge Go Bad and Where is the Best Place to Keep Butter Fresh?

Even if you think you’re doing everything right, you’re not. Well, the worst place to keep butter is in a butter dish, and the worst place to keep the butter dish is in the “butter keeper” of your refrigerator. Butter dishes were invented to facilitate serving, not preserving. Because they’re not airtight, the butter’s surface … Read more

Where does Vanilla Come From and Why is Vanilla so Expensive?

Real vanilla has always been expensive because wresting it from nature is a time and labor-consuming enterprise and because it is grown in faraway lands. And like cacao, cashew nuts, and coffee beans, vanilla is a commodity subject to the vagaries of nature and to the laws of supply and demand. All four of these … Read more

What is a Salt Pig and How does a Salt Pig Keep Salt Dry?

This kind of container, common in France and England but also available in many stores in the United States, is called a salt pig. It is shaped like one of those wide-mouthed air intakes on ships that some people think are foghorns: squat, vertical cylinders bent into a right angle. Salt pigs are made of … Read more

What is the Best Way to Keep Horseradish Fresh ?

The pungent and tear-producing (lachrymatory) compound in the essential oil of grated horseradish is allyl isothiocyanate, commonly known as mustard oil. It’s in black mustard seeds also. It is created when the plant cells are cut apart by the grating, which releases an enzyme called myrosin and a compound called sinigrin. These two chemicals were … Read more

Where does Wasabi Come From and What is Real Wasabi Made Of?

Most Americans who order sushi in a Japanese restaurant will recognize the condiments on the platter. One is a tangle of thin slices of pickled ginger, intended for palate-cleansing between bites, and the other is a glob of fiery green “wasabi.” Genuine ginger, yes, but real wasabi, probably not. Most people outside of Japan have … Read more

How do some Insects Eat Cayenne Pepper without Suffering the Heat?

It’s just another case of biologically different strokes. Differences among animal species can be enormous. There’s no reason to expect pests to behave like humans just because humans sometimes behave like pests. The “heat” of cayenne and other hot peppers comes from chemicals called capsaicinoids. In humans and other mammals they irritate the mucous membranes … Read more

How Long Do Herbs and Spices Last and Does Freezing Herbs Extend their Shelf Life?

While there is no reliable average shelf life, checking them annually should serve your purpose. Bottled herbs and spices are thoroughly dried, and most spoilage bacteria can’t live without water, so if the containers are tightly closed the herbs and spices should last indefinitely without actually spoiling. Also, things that are completely dry can’t freeze; … Read more

How is Garlic Oil Made and Is Garlic Oil Toxic to Humans?

We must be careful to distinguish between garlic oil, the intrinsic essential oil of the garlic plant, Allium sativum, and garlic-infused oil, an edible vegetable oil (usually olive oil) that has been flavored with garlic. Pure garlic oil is indeed nasty stuff that is never ingested per se. One of its major ingredients is allyl … Read more

How much Garlic should I use when Cooking and Why does Chopped Garlic have a Stronger Flavor?

When the cells of a garlic clove are broken open by slicing, crushing, or chewing, an enzyme (alliinase) in the cell vacuoles spills out and reacts with a precursor compound (alliin) in another part of the cell to form diallylthiosulfinate (allicin) and other thiosulfinates, which are the main odoriferous and flavor compounds. Until relatively recently-1993, … Read more

Why does Onion Soup Taste Different from Fried Onions?

French onion soup tastes nothing like raw or fried onions. It’s all in the different chemical reactions that take place at room temperature, at the wet temperature of boiling water, and at the high and dry temperature of frying. Raw garlic and onions have little or no aroma until cutting or chewing breaks open their … Read more

What Chemicals make Chili Peppers Hot and Spicy and Why are some Hotter than Others?

The different sensory effects in hot and spicy food are caused by several different chemical compounds. It would be much neater if we had individual descriptive words for each of these sensations, because they are indeed all different. Instead, we apply the words hot, peppery, spicy, pungent, piquant, biting, zingy, and sharp almost indiscriminately to … Read more

What is the Difference Between a Herb and a Spice and Where do they come from?

Spices enhance the variety of food around the world. They can both be described as plant-derived food ingredients that yield large amounts of flavor from small amounts of substance. That operational non-distinction is really good enough in most situations, because knowing the characteristic flavors and uses of a spice or herb is far more important … Read more

What is the Difference between Grilling and Barbecuing and Is Charcoal Better Than Gas?

I try not to get into politics or controversy, but this issue is so critical, and the two candidates so contrasting, that I cannot resist asserting my position on this, the most contentiously debated concern of our time: “Which is better, charcoal or gas?” I hereby express my wholehearted endorsement of charcoal. Caution: The opinions … Read more

How does adding Lemon Juice or Vinegar help extract the Calcium from the Bones when making a Stock?

Bones are a combination of two kinds of substances: soft, organic cells and proteins, which are partly extracted into the water during the simmering of a stock, and a hard, inorganic mineral that doesn’t dissolve appreciably or contribute any flavor. This mineral material in both bones and teeth is primarily a calcium phosphate compound called … Read more

How do Bacteria Survive in Boiling Water and Does making Soup kill all the Bacteria in the Stock?

Not all bacteria are killed at 212°F (100°C ). Some of them can survive by protecting themselves within virtually invulnerable coatings. They’re then called spores. Most species of bacteria reproduce by binary fission, each organism splitting into two whole new organisms. That’s why they can grow at exponential rates. Once they get started, bacteria can … Read more

Why is it Better to make Stock with Cold Water first?

Just see how flavorful a stock you’d get by soaking the ingredients for hours in cold water, without ever simmering them. Or try making a cup of tea with cold water, in a respectable amount of time, that is. On second thought, don’t. You’ve heard of “natural,” “environmentally friendly” sun tea? It’s made by placing … Read more

What is the Difference between Maillard Browning and Caramelization (Sugar Browning)?

Much confusion exists between Maillard browning and sugar browning or caramelization. Both a sugar molecule’s carbonyl group and a protein molecule’s amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place. Heat accelerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122°F … Read more