washingtonpost.com
Food's Future, And Years Past

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This is my last column of 2006, and because it is traditional at the end of a year to look, Janus-like, both forward and back, here are a few observations on the past and the future.

Where To?

The past decade has seen a remarkable spurt of activity in what some call food science but what is actually the application of scientific tools to food and cooking.

Food science, like any science, is the effort to understand natural phenomena, in this case the ones that take place during the growing, processing, cooking and eating of foods. Such studies have been going on for centuries. Today, scientists in more than five dozen food science departments in American universities alone continue to discover and explain the underlying chemistry, physics and biology of foods.

What is new is that chefs today are applying techniques rarely seen outside chemical laboratories for the purpose of enhancing their cuisine. That is not science, but technology. Nor is it "molecular gastronomy," an absurd term (gastronomy doesn't come in molecules) invented by the French chemist and showman Hervé This to ballyhoo the "new science" he claims to have founded.

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià started it all by inventing alluring flavor sensations, startling presentations and food textures that awakened the culinary world to new opportunities for creativity. The trend he started has grown and will continue to grow as chefs around the world experiment with such things as edible foams, gels and colloids.

As with many new enterprises, however, this experimentation has been prey to wretched excess. Overenthusiastic chefs have been carting centrifuges, calorimeters, yard-long lasers and containers of fuming liquid nitrogen (will cyclotrons be next?) into their kitchens to conjure bizarre sensations for their customers -- at a price, of course. I expect that such circus stunts in the name of science will quickly fade away.

What will not fade is people's newfound interest in understanding their food experiences, in figuring out what's going on in their kitchens. And that's what science is: figuring out what's going on. A landmark in satisfying this interest was the publication last year of a new edition of Harold McGee's classic "On Food and Cooking," a comprehensive and authoritative masterwork of genuine food science.

That's what I, in my small way, will continue to contribute to: the public's ability to decipher the everyday mysteries of supermarket and kitchen by understanding what's going on. By understanding science.

Looking Back

Over the eight-plus years I have been writing Food 101, certain questions have come up repeatedly.

Why do so many recipes call for unsalted butter and then tell us to add salt?

The amount of salt in salted butter is an unknown quantity; it can vary quite a bit from brand to brand and season to season. It's best not to gamble on such an important ingredient and instead to add a deliberate amount of salt, either as part of the recipe or when adjusting the seasoning near the end of the cooking. Especially in baking breads and pastries, the amount of salt can be critical.

How can the label of a food claim that it contains zero calories or is fat-free when the ingredient list clearly includes fat?

The Food and Drug Administration permits labels to claim to be "free" of any substance if the product contains less than 0.5 gram of that substance per serving. After all, there has to be some agreed-upon borderline between "none" and "some." Some manufacturers invent highly creative definitions of a serving to keep that number smaller than 0.5.

Why do almost all microwaveable frozen meals instruct you to leave the meal in the microwave for two minutes or so after the cooking period? What happens during those two minutes?

Microwaves deposit all their energy within a half-inch or so of the food's surface. It takes time for that heat to work its way inside and heat the interior to the same temperature as the surface. Surprisingly, microwaves don't melt ice crystals very well, so any remaining ones need to be melted by contact with already-heated food.

Is it safe to microwave foods in plastic containers or covered with plastic wrap?

Yes. Some plastic containers, such as soft margarine tubs and styrene foam restaurant "doggie bags," can melt because of the heated food and make a mess. But plastic food containers labeled "microwave safe" are indeed safe in both the physical and chemical senses. Plastic wrap made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may leach tiny amounts of toxic plasticizers into hot fats in microwaved foods, but PVC food wraps are no longer used in the United States, the European Union or most of Asia. Nevertheless, I cover my microwaved dishes with an inverted paper plate instead of plastic film. It doesn't stick to the food.

LABELINGO: Perspicacious reader Stephen Greene of Boston reports that the 30-ounce "Kong Size" box of Kellogg's Raisin Bran featuring a ferocious-looking picture of King Kong trumpets that it contains "40% MORE cereal than our 20 oz. package." Stephen wonders whether the math had been delegated to King K. himself. He was never very good at figures.

Robert L. Wolke (http://www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company