Cooking is Chemistry 1: Ingredients are reactants
“Cooking is chemistry” was an offhand comment I heard more than a decade ago. Every year it seems even more true.
If you have taken a class in the subject, hopefully you learned one of the bigger concepts in the field. Iron, Zinc, and Gold have plenty of unique properties, which you should know. But, they’re also all metals, and like many of those, chloride ions hitch rides on them. Elaborate exchanges of ions and electrons, between one set of chemicals, and then another, and then another are something any chemistry professor can easily draw up for your lab work. The basic lesson is this: specific reactants have their particulars, but which one of a class is available will be used in a reaction if the conditions are right.
So, with cooking’s chemical basis in mind, here’s the guiding principle I take away from that: recipes aren’t as absolute as you were likely told. Sometimes you might want the precise flavor or chemistry of a specific ingredient, but often what you need is a general type. When you understand how to move beyond the specifics of a recipe, you can make choices that are better for your checkbook, your health, and your palate, whatever your circumstances and tastes.
Two pernicious ways I see people struggling with this are with unknown compatriots and falsely similar friends. Yesterday, I threw a few things I had on hand into a sauce pan to make a quick vegetable stew, and couldn’t help seeing a useful (and testable!) example of each.