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 in a while.
Well, maybe just one gripe about spelling. The word restaurateur does not have an n in it. In eighteenth-century France, before the word came into general use for the operator of an eating establishment, it referred to the proprietor of a stopping place along the road at which a traveler could rest his horse and perhaps score a meal, which might include an energy restorative, or restaurant, such as a bowl of rich broth. The soup chef or proprietor, often the same person, was afforded the honor of being called the restaurateur, the restorer.
Okay, one more spelling gripe. The name of the shiitak e mushroom is spelled with two i’s. It does not begin with an Anglo Saxon four-letter word.
Now on to gripes about misused words. I am well aware that nothing I say here will change the world’s misuse of the words that follow. But I must do my duty to the language I love by recording the following distinctions. Call this the Department of Lost Causes.
• High heat: Cooks often talk about “a higher heat” when they mean “a higher temperature.” I can understand the convenience of saying, “Cook such-and-such over a high (or low) heat,” meaning a high (or low) setting on the range dial, when the objective really is to produce a higher (or lower) temperature in the food. But please, folks. Butter melts at a low temperature, not at a low heat.
Here’s the distinction between heat and temperature: A pot of hot soup may have a certain temperature, that is, it may contain a certain amount of heat per ounce. When you remove a spoonful of soup from the pot, the temperature of the soup in the spoon is the same as that of the soup remaining in the pot, but the spoon is holding a lot less heat because it contains a lot less soup.
• Melting: Have you ever heard a person protest when going out in the rain without an umbrella, “I won’t melt”? And how many times have you heard that sugar melts in hot coffee? Wrong!
Melting is the conversion of a solid into a liquid caused by heat. And neither tea nor coffee is nearly hot enough to melt sugar. Every solid has its melting point, the temperature at which this solid-to liquid transition takes place. Ice melts at 32°F (0°C), salt (sodium chloride) melts at 1474°F (801°C), and iron melts at 2800°F (1538°C). Sugar (sucrose) will melt if you put it in a saucepan and heat it to about 350°F (1 7 7°C), as you might do when making caramel, peanut brittle, or other candies. But it does not melt when you add it
to hot water, which cannot exceed 212°F (100°C ).
• Dissolving: What happens to sugar in coffee and to salt in your stew is not melting but dissolving, from the Latin dissolvere, meaning to come apart. The crystalline structures of solid sugar and salt do indeed disintegrate or come apart, the resulting submicroscopic fragments (molecules or ions) being liberated to swim freely around among the water molecules. In water, sugar and salt do not become molten lumps, as if liquefied by heat. They are present invisibly in dissolved form: “in solution.”
Now don’t write to tell me that melt is defined in your dictionary as “1. to change from a solid to a liquid state, generally by heat; and 2. to dissolve; disintegrate.” Lexicographers compile dictionaries with the express purpose of reflecting the current use of our changing language, not of ordaining what is right and what is wrong. The latter responsibility must be borne by sticklers like me.
• Leaching: Whenever a nutrient or flavor component dissolves out of a food into the cooking water, odds are that it will be said to be “leached out.” No. it is simply dissolving in the water. “Leaching” is a highly specific type of dissolving, and it doesn’t often happen in cooking.
True leaching is a liquid passing through a porous solid and extracting soluble substances along the way. For example, when you pour hot water through a heap of coffee grounds in a cone filter, the water will leach out many water-soluble components as it passes through the grounds. Rain will leach minerals out of the soil as it filters downward. And an underground stream will leach calcium minerals from the rocks as it passes through their cracks. That’s how hard water is made.
On the other hand, when you’re simmering spinach in a pot of water, some of the vitamin C in the leaves may well dissolve in the water. But the water has simply extracted, or dissolved (not leached) the vitamin out of the spinach.
In brief, any old dissolving is not leaching.
• Melding: Similar to but distinct from melting is melding.
Cookbooks tell us to combine ingredients, say, for a sauce, dip, or salad dressing, and then refrigerate them for several hours to let the flavors “meld.” Well, do they?
Meld is what is known as a portmanteau word, a word invented by fusing two words. (Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking Glass is a masterpiece of portmanteauism: , Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe . . .”).
The word meld was melded (if I may say so) from the words melt and weld, and means to blend, merge, or unite, but not to melt. It could be used quite accurately as a synonym for dissolve, because dissolving is a true merging of one substance (the solute) into another (the solvent, which is usually water).
A computer search turned up 843,000 web pages on which meld is used, with more than 8, 000 of them accompanied by the word flavor. Example: “Cook for another few minutes until the flavors meld.” (Does a bell ring when they’re melded?)
Flavors can certainly change, and in many cases improve, upon standing or mixing. Everyone knows that a ragout tastes better on the second day. And of course many wines mature with age.
But when we blend ingredient X with ingredient Y and detect the growth of a new flavor, it may be forever beyond our ability to identify chemical A in ingredient X that has reacted with chemical B in ingredient Y to produce the new product C with a new flavor. If we find empirically that the overall flavor improves, let’s just make the most of it. Melding is probably as good a word as any. Although some romantically inclined food writers prefer to say that the flavors “marry.”
Ultimately, the true blending and combining of the profusion of taste, smell, and texture senses that we experience when chewing a food takes place in the brain. Individual molecules of foods act upon our taste and smell receptors, which send messages to the cortex of the brain. There, the messages are combined with physical texture and mouth-feel signals from the nerves in our oral cavities to produce that consummate sensation of “Mmmm, good!”
That’s true melding.