Wonderful food enjoyed with family and friends is a cornerstone of a great holiday experience. Many of us will soon become amateur chefs to entertain guests. We often feel lost or scrambled following random recipes and are disappointed when the final products are quite distinct from the masterpieces we envisioned. While we cannot all be Top Chefs, to help you work smarter not harder, we put together 5 ways you can use science to level up your holiday cooking this year!
The Maillard reaction is a complex reaction between sugars and amino acids that produces aromatic flavors in any food with protein, from meat to fish to beans. The product of the reaction depends largely on both cooking time and temperature, which leads to flavor discrepancies in food even when the exact same amount of the same ingredients are used. To mimic the flavor profiles of desired recipes, like those followed by top chefs, take special care to follow their cooking medium, water content, temperature, and timing instructions!
Umami, also referred to as savoriness, is one of the 5 basic tastes. In short, foods rich in umami have a delicious flavor. Umami taste is largely created by amino acids (glutamate being the most common one) and does not have a pleasant taste on its own but rather enriches the taste of other foods surrounding it. There are 2 chemical forms of glutamate: bound as part of a protein or free in plant and animal tissues. Foods with high free glutamate levels include cheese, seaweed, tomatoes, anchovies, and mushrooms. The glutamate taste sensation is most brought about in combination with sodium. Relative to the other 4 basic tastes, umami intensifies salt and sweet and balances bitter and sour. When using free glutamate, add less salt or sweet flavoring because these 2 flavors will naturally be enhanced by umami.
Thickening agents, when added to aqueous mixtures, increase the viscosity of foods without disturbing its other properties. In particular, they increase the body, stability, and suspension of the food in question. Proteins, polysaccharides, and fats are all thickening agents. The most common thickening agents are flour, cornstarch, and tapioca. Other effective thickening agents include yogurt, egg yolks, collagen, rice flour, and potato starch. The most flavorful way to thicken a sauce is through reduction, specifically by reducing the moisture by simmering induced evaporation. To further complement the process, add meat or vegetable broth and fats toward the end of the thickening process.
In short, people enjoy tender and juicy meat; that is, they want the collagen in meat to be converted to gelatin through a heat induced process but do not want moisture to be lost in the process. Slow cooking is crucial to striking the balance between these 2 processes that are seemingly at odds with each other. To slow the loss of moisture in your meat cooking process, try steaming, brining, braising, or poaching or by adding acids.
Chocolate can get a bad reputation as an unhealthy dessert food, but it has surprising health benefits. Cocoa contains more antioxidants than most foods. Epicatechin, one of these antioxidants, contributes to cardiovascular health. Chocolate also contains many essential minerals, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Dark chocolate is known to produce serotonin for the brain and gut, leading to elevated moods and better immune health. So next time someone berates you for having extra dessert, tell them about the numerous health benefits of chocolate!
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We hope these insights and tips have empowered and interests scientists and non-scientists alike to create more delicious holiday meals and have more fun in the process!