Frosted Flakes, Kra Macaroni and Cheese, and Bomb Pop Popsicles are not foods that come straight from nature. These products are made in a food laboratory. The people who invent these foods are called food scientists. The way that food reacts to heat and cold, the ingredients required to make a new recipe come out correctly, and the understanding of food nutrition all require a chemical understanding of foods.
Alton Brown is a food scientist that creates new foods on his show Good Eats. On his show he helps explain to people the science behind the food he is making.
Alton started making food with his mother and grandmother at an early age and began developing his skills. When he was growing up, he can remember standing at the griddle waiting for pancakes to bubble up and be ready to flip over. “Pancakes were more than a food. They were a culinary right of passage. They were one of the first dishes that us kids learned how to make,” Alton says, remembering how he learned to cook.
Later, he would use these skills in college to impress girls. In college he studied theater and his parents would joke, “the only thing a theater degree will get you is a job in a restaurant.” Even though it’s not what they meant, they ended up being right.
He used his theater degree to work in cinema, specifically making commercials, but he was more interested in watching cooking shows and thought, “ This would be a lot more fun to work on than commercials.” One day he stopped what he was doing and wrote down what his dream cooking show would be like. He wrote down the name of a famous chef (Julia Child), a scientist (Mr. Wizard) and a comedy (Monty Python). He said, “I want the show to be all three things: science, comedy and food. I want people to know what makes food tick, rather than simply being hit over the head with recipes. And hopefully they would be so entertained that they wouldn’t know they were being educated.”
He left his job and started at a culinary school, where you learn about cooking and the science behind it. He used his skills from making commercials to make several audition tapes and sent them to the Food Network TV channel. They loved his idea and hired him to make more. His show was so loved that he worked on it for over 10 years.
An example of one of his episodes was when he explained the science behind ice cream. Ice cream is just like candy making. Both things are about controlling sugar crystals, known as sucrose. What makes ice cream more complicated than making candy is that you also have to control ice crystals as well. The sucrose prevents the large ice crystals from forming and that is why ice cream can come out of the freezer creamy and smooth, unlike other things that come out hard as a block. Without understanding the chemistry of sugar and freezing water, we would not have ice cream. To make it even more interesting, there is a concept called “overrun” which determines the amount of air that is added to the sugar and water mixture. The more air, the fluffier the ice cream.
Alton has 3 great books called Good Eats that contain all the recipes from his shows that include the science behind the method, similar to the ice cream example. You can also watch his Good Eats TV show on Food Network and Youtube. If you’re interested in cooking and were thinking of being a chef, a food scientist is another career you may enjoy. Not only can you get the joy of inventing new foods, but you get to see them on the shelf at your grocery store.