Book Review: Culinary Reactions

The Book

Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking by Simon Quellen Field

The Premise

This books purports to explain the hows and whys of cooking in terms of the chemistry going on. It's geared toward non-scientists as an "easy-to-follow primer."

The Naming of Things

It was clear to me by page 9 that I am absolutely not the audience for this book. The target audience is not expected to have a scientific vocabulary, so many terms are defined and explained in plain English. Generally I applaud such efforts, but the author's expectations for his readers' vocabulary are inconsistent. For example, he defines homogeneous versus heterogeneous mixtures and but doesn't explain what he means by "conjugated" molecules. Anyone who has every purchased homogenized milk could probably take a stab at a working definition of homogeneous, but conjugated? No way.1 Here's another example (p. 51):

It is viscoelastic like toothpaste, meaning it can liquefy under shear stress and be pumped or extruded easily.

I doubt my non-scientist relatives would be familiar with shear stress and extrusion, even when compared to toothpaste.

The Power of an Editor

I'm not sure if the author had an editor. If he did, that person needed to be more heavy-handed with the red pen. The entire book is a disorganized jumble. There is no flow from chapter to chapter. There doesn't even seem to be much logic to the order of the chapters. Chapter 1 is on measuring and weighing; take a guess what Chapter 2 is.

Heat? No. Acids and bases? No. Nutrition? No. Proteins, fats and sugars? No, no, no.

Chapter is on foams. Heating, meanwhile, is Chapter 11.

I suspect that this book is a reformatted collection of blog posts, but that doesn't excuse the unfocused and meandering writing. (For one thing, The Joy of x was also a collection of blog posts and it was far more coherent than this book.) The disorganization is even reflected in the structure of the chapters themselves, and even individual paragraphs. For example, this is the first paragraph in the Oxidation of Oils and Fats section of Chapter 13 (Oxidation and Reduction, p. 211):

Oils and fats react with oxygen in ways. That are sometimes beneficial and sometimes undesirable. When cooking oils react with oxygen, they can form compounds that taste bad; they're rancid. But when oils react with oxygen and polymerize into rough insoluble films, they're used in paints and coatings for wood products.

Yum! Paint and wood coating! Gosh, I'm glad he included that in a book on food chemistry. It was totally necessary to include that random fact in the main text of the chapter. /sarcasm

Other paragraphs amount to laundry lists of facts. Lists are fine, but when he claims to explain why and how the chemistry works, saying "it works in A, it works in B, it works in C, it works in D“ doesn't answer why or how. When I consider that not a single fact is backed up – no references, no lists of further reading, not even the names of the people who did the research or the institutions where the work was done – I get cranky. Good science writing tells you where you can go to find more of the details. This book doesn't do that.

Bad Science

And now we get to the real kicker: a bunch of the chemistry in this book is just plan wrong. I could overlook a lot of faults if the science were solid, but it's not, and the parts that I know are wrong make me doubt the whole rest of the book. There were several points when I went "That's pretty cool…if it's true." Without references, I can't know if his sources were bad or his understanding is weak. (I suspect both.) And I'll need to do my own search to find out if those cool-if-true statements have any grounding in scientific fact.

Here's one example of bad chemistry (p. 99):

Since carbon dioxide is a gas, there are no bonds holding it together that have to be broken before it can dissolve [into water].

I read that sentence to two chemist friends and thoroughly enjoyed watching their eyes pop out of their faces and their jaws hit the floor.

The Bottom Line

Don't read this book. It's not worth it. If you're looking for a book on the science of food, stick with the classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee1 or read Alton Brown's cookbooks, which are mostly good at explaining the science. This book just does not measure up and threatens instead to undermine facts with misconceptions.

The Silver Lining

You might ask – as my husband did every time I exclaimed "What?!" while reading – why did I bother finishing the book if I found it so awful? Simple: it could be an excellent teaching tool. There are several examples in this book of chemistry misconceptions that my students may have. Not only can I use these as prompts for my own explanations, I am itching to give one or two of these to my students to have them explain what's wrong.

Okay, the 'carbon dioxide is a gas and has no bonds' statement is crap, but why is it crap? How do we know that it's wrong – and what experiments could we do to test it? What misunderstanding of chemistry underlies the statement? How can we change the sentence to get the chemistry right?

By the end of freshman chemistry, my students need to have a thorough enough understanding that hearing such statements makes their eyes bug-out too.

1: Early in grad school, I heard a physicist give a presentation (to a group of chemists) in which she began explaining conjugation. We (the chemists) told her the explanation wasn't necessary; we were pretty familiar with the term. She said something like "how come you all know this?" But conjugation is a major concept in organic chemistry, which we had all taken and she had not. It was a good reminder to me not to take discipline-specific knowledge for granted.

All of that is to say that if a physics PhD candidate doesn't think of "conjugation" as an everyday term, you can bet that a random science Muggle off the street will have no idea what it means.

2: I admit, I haven't finished On Food and Cooking yet, but as far along as I am, I can assure you the science is more sound than in Culinary Reactions.