The science of cooking

In a fit of utter laziness (and also owing to the fact I don’t trust myself to prepare fish), I bought one of those pre-seasoned fillets of Catfish from the market yesterday. The meat was a dark crimson powdery color from the prepared Cajun seasoning. Also, being that I don’t trust myself to prepare or cook fish (I burned a fillet of Tilapia once and it was the most excruciating, odoriferous misfortune to befall my apartment ever), I did a little (Google) research before leaving work tonight. “How long should I pan fry catfish?” was my innocent query. The first hit was a recipe from a curiously-named blog, “Cooking For Engineers.” I skimmed the recipe and I knew it the moment I read: I was home! I had found a cooking blog with the heart of technonerd. The recipe, entitled “Pan Fried Fish Fillets,” which reads more like a thoughtful kitchen narrative or scientific trial than one of those dry, sterile and vague step-by-step recipes you find anywhere. The blogger, Michael Chu, approaches the craft of cooking with a naturally inquisitive eye of a scientist.

I first began cooking, in a serious manner, at about 30. After I married at 32, I even became more engrossed in cookbooks and cooking methods while experimenting with a multitude of exotic recipes. I tried it all. I’ve always viewed cooking as a form of godly creation because you are essentially constructing an edible organism by combining disparate elements, by fine-tuning the measures and frequencies; you’re adjusting motion and kinetic energy by stirring, sifting, blending; you’re also altering environmental elements of heat and air circulation. Cooking a complex dinner is akin to fashioning your own world, it’s a deistic exercise in molding a reality from the elemental habitat of the kitchen. Cooking is complex and I’ve always felt it should appeal to the higher mind. Cooking is not just cooking; for it is all that leads up to the cooking, the acquired and studious knowledge of what you are chemically distorting and manipulating since a thorough knowledge of these will affect the efficiency of your cooking. This awareness dictates how it must be cooked and apportioned. The craft of cooking is patience and thoughtful diligence. It is a lost and unappreciated art. It is the difference between unenthusiastically throwing together a dry, quick bowl of mac and cheese from a stale box and boiling water; or spending 15-20 minutes carefully stirring a bowl of barely simmering noodles with a carefully measured combination of cheese and evaporated milk while carefully adjusting the circular motion, careful not to stop, in order to thicken the sauce just right. Too much heat, and it curdles. Cooking is physical and mental labor. It demands full involvement, it is Zen. Ask anyone who has ever tried to make risotto! Quick, instant, and lackadaisical cooking inevitably tastes like…that. This the great tragedy of fast food; much of it is pre-packaged, pre-seasoned, pre-constituted. You’re eating something that fell off an assembly line and that scorched by some high school kitchen grunt.

Lack of thought and immersion is living death.

Cooking For Engineers focuses a vividly observant eye on that which many shy away from because it’s easier to buy a Big Mac and be done with it. True, a lot of people enjoy cooking, but Chu’s kitchen also provides a little extra, a geeky laboratory in our own backyard that I savor. For instance, in the fillet recipe, he didn’t just cook fillets. He cooked 2 in a stainless steel pan and the other 2 in a non-stick pan. He proceeded to control for time, temperature and meat size. He wants to know if there’s an advantage to either cooking medium. Though he noted slight differences, neither proved to be the clear winner. It’s a kitchen experiment. Does it get any more nerdy? Hence, is it not possible for me to even delight in it a little more?? Of course, the recipe could not conclude without a detailed discussion of the smoking point of olive oil’s soluble forms, virgin, extra…and which is most beneficial for pan frying fish. Chu eventually ventures into the realm of acidity levels of various cooking oils. Chu’s conclusion? Use an extra virgin name-brand olive oil, since their smoking point is beyond the typical 406-degree threshold of your cheap generic market brand.

Cooler yet are Chu’s elegantly simple cooking “charts” which are visually ergonomic devices which compactly summarize the time line and ingredient distribution of the cooking process for the recipe in several intuitive grids of linear description. Such as this for his red potatoes:

from Cooking For Engineers

Cooking For Engineers is ultimately a blog, and the comments join in elevating the art of food preparation to a higher level. In his recipe for Grilled Pork Chops, a discussion ensued about the best way to kill trichinosis which further ventured off into whether the government’s recommendations are not slightly hysterical. It introduced the alternative microbe-killer you don’t hear about…freezing. And ultimately, someone linked an interesting interview with Food Network’s Alton Brown, the mad food scientist, on Slashdot of all places.

It’s not cooking for dummies.