Sodium, salt, RDIs and health

Health authorities urge us to reduce our salt intake and mostly we have accepted that we should. However, the science behind this recommendation has been shaky (sorry) from the start. Even the authorities are unsure how dangerous it is. In the US, the American Heart Association (AHA) sets the recommended

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Sous vide yoghurt

Yoghurt (a word of Turkish origin meaning ‘thick’) originated in W. and C. Asia. It was something of a breakthrough for the times because it enabled milk to be kept longer, it had a refreshing tartness and it could be consumed by lactose intolerant individuals (i.e. most of W. and C.

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Animal fats

Lard, tallow, suet, dripping – animal fats that were ubiquitous before the modern era (mid-twentieth century) without obvious health issues. Then, as we became more sedentary and convenience foods became, well, more convenient, we gained weight and looked for a culprit (other than ourselves). It was easy to blame fat

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Scrambled eggs

Scrambled eggs are physically a gel, as are other cooked eggs. Raw egg proteins are very large molecules but they are normally folded in on themselves to form smaller lumpy balls that are separate and float in the egg’s water (eggs are 90% water). Agitation by heat unfolds these proteins. When

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Discounting calories

A calorie is a superceded unit of heat energy, defined as the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of 1g of water 1 degree (from 15.5C to 16.5C). A Calorie (capitalised) is the conventional unit of dietary energy; however, it is not the same as a calorie – it

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Tempering chocolate sous vide

After posting about dieting on a food blog, I thought I should make amends – an atonement by way of chocolate. While humans have been drinking chocolate for millennia, they only worked out how to turn it into a block fairly recently (not much more than 100 years). The process

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Diets and their traps

My ‘Four Diet Dictums’: 1: All Diets work in the short term. 2: All Diets work equally in the short term. 3: All Diets fail in the long term. 4: All Diets fail equally in the long term. This is my interpretation of the science. It may seem nihilistic, but I think it’s empowering.

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Melting cheese

The home cook has limited options for melting a non-melty cheese (e.g. cheddar), often resorting instead to a ‘manufactured cheese-like substance’ that has been engineered to melt (something from the Kraft line, for example). What is the problem with melting cheese? It doesn’t melt as an emulsion, it separates into a

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Fungi belong to neither the plant nor animal kingdoms. They have their own kingdom (unsurprisingly called the fungi kingdom). Inhabitants include mushrooms, yeasts and moulds. A restaurant truffle lunch next week (it’s the height of the season here), prompts me to look at this most prized (and priced) fungus of

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How to cook a national emblem

In Australia, the kangaroo is a national symbol (sharing the coat of arms with the emu) and readily identified by most of the world. But, not many countries are as confused as we are about their national trademark – variously iconified, culled, harvested, treated as pests and sometimes protected. For

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Cholesterol: an about-face

A recent (February, 2015) report by the Advisory Panel to the US Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) has removed dietary cholesterol as “a nutrient of concern”, thereby overturning decades of stern and adamant advice. They did this unapologetically. Nevertheless, the science has been around for a

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Bacon is one of those ‘indulgent’ foods that has been widely consumed despite decades of finger-wagging by the nutrition police. It has the reputation of being high in fat (saturated), salt (sodium), cholesterol and carcinogens (byproducts of curing and smoking). None of these stand up well to scrutiny. Bacon is an

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Deconstructing one-pot cooking

Breaking down a recipe into components and treating them as separate processes is a versatile strategy applicable to home cooking. The previous post (cooking with alcohol) described how and why this might be applied to the French classic coq au vin (rooster with wine), which normally involves a long simmering to

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Cooking with alcohol

As the fridge magnet may say, “I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food” – a quote variously attributed to WC Fields or Julia Child (but perhaps neither). There is evidence for the intentional consumption of fermented alcoholic beverages going back to the late stone

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Sanitising surfaces

Bleach is an effective sanitiser, as is acidifying with distilled vinegar. Add some soap to wash your hands and that is all you need – expensive cleaning products claiming to ‘kill 99.9% of household germs’ are best avoided. A 200 ppm solution of bleach can kill microbes in about 2

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Cutting boards – wood or plastic?

The kitchen is a domestic microbe’s playground (well ahead of the bathroom for example). The kitchen sink, dishwashing sponges, linen towels and cutting surfaces can be teeming with microbes. In the US, about 200,000 cases of food-borne illnesses occur every day. Most of these illnesses have a domestic origin rather

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Burning Vegetables

We burn food routinely for flavour – a crispy grilled (or barbecued) lamb chop or seared steak for example. Mostly it is animal proteins that we treat this way. But not entirely – burnt toast for example.  Still, we deliberately burn animal proteins but generally shy away from this for vegetables.

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Stale bread is not dry bread

Bread is only apparently simple and the processes that occur at the molecular level as dough is baked into bread and as bread then ages are still not well understood. In particular, bread staling has been the subject of considerable scientific study because of the economic implications at manufacturing, distribution

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A brief history of canned food

The principle behind canning – putting food in a watertight container and boiling it – was invented by a Frenchman (Nicolas Appert) around 1795. Napoleon was at war (with Britain this time) and had offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a better method for preserving food

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Beans, dried

I admit to resorting to canned beans, unflavoured (they always come with salt and sugar though), as a starting point for most recipes that call for them. The need to soak the dried beans ‘overnight’ before cooking is the stumbling block for me. But, it turns out that the soaking step

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A Stable Table

A four-legged table inevitably wobbles when positioned on an uneven surface such as in a beer garden or an al fresco dining area. Three of the legs will sit on the ground, but the 4th will be above ground and cause the wobble. The usual solution is to stuff something,

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Chilli, chile, chili

One in 4 people eat chilli daily; but are they eating chilli, chile or chili? And, why peppers? The word is regional and historical. The plants are native to South/Central America, and the word ‘chilli’ was the Latin translation from the Aztec Nahuatl language (an oral language). It has become standard spelling

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Art as food

My posts have always included original content and not just a link to other content. However, I enjoyed this video and so I am being modern and ‘sharing’. It is a promotional video for a 3-Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid (DiverXO; chef David Muñoz). The Spaniards seem to remain in the vanguard, in

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Summer menu – 2015

I thought I would try a meal in multiple small courses, a classic way to eat in many cultures (especially Spanish-speaking). I settled on 15 courses. It took ~4hrs to get through. If I ever attempt anything as crazy as that again, I think it would work better as a

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I’ve posted on the intricacies of batters before. The suggestions there work, and provide the light coating-style batters desired for fish for example. I have tried many variations in the meantime, working on the scientific premise: never leave well enough alone. However, none have improved on the original so far.

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Sugar and other carbohydrates

This post on sugar (and other carbohydrates) belongs to a small series about our most basic ingredients – water (and its solid form ice), salt (in relation to brining) and fat (including saturated fat). The name carbohydrate derives from ‘hydrated’ carbon (carbon combined with hydrogen/oxygen) – shortened to carbohydrate (hydrocarbons

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Wine labels and alcohol content

Wine labeling, regulated by legislation, ensures that the consumer is provided with facts about alcohol percentage and the number of ‘standard drinks’. Or does it? What do those numbers mean? Numbers have a habit of looking scientific, especially if they have a decimal point. So, a red wine label stating

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Thai Basil Daiquiri

Enzymes are naturally-occurring in almost all foods we eat, plant and animal. In plants they are mainly a defense mechanism. The main enzyme group is the polyphenol oxidases (PPOs). These enzymes are stored outside the plant’s vacuoles (flavour and water stores). Plant vacuoles support their parent structure because they are

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Ice is a naturally occurring inorganic crystalline solid – that makes it a mineral. In a previous post, I described salt as the only mineral we dig up and eat in quantity; but I forgot about this one. Before artificial freezers, lake/river ice was transported all over the world (including

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It is hard to exaggerate how important this stuff is. We are mostly water. Arguably, we are ambulating water bottles. The food we cook is mostly made of water and we cook food in water. Nonetheless, like anything common, it can be taken for granted. Plants are the ultimate water

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Sushi and ketchup – an unlikely pair

Sushi and tomato ketchup represent two culinary extremes – one associated with refined healthy eating and the other with American junk food. But remarkably, they share a common origin: fermented fish. It all began with the Chinese, as, in historical terms, almost everything did. In river and coastal regions of

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Sous vide pre-sear

Regular readers have seen posts on sous vide popping up repeatedly on this site. The technique cooks meats precisely and evenly. However, optimal cooking temperatures for meat proteins (around 55-65C) are too low to produce a flavourful crust. This needs to be an added step. Usually, the protein is seared

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A beginners guide to fat

Our bodies need fat to function. For example, after allowing for water (70-80% by weight), our brains are mostly fat (health-conscious zombies beware). Fats in the brain provide the electrical insulation for our myriad nerve fibres, and have a role in nerve signaling and neurotransmission. Just as for vitamins, some

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A post on toast

A lot of food gets put on toast. Eggs for example, but only relatively recently (they used to be put in soup). Here where I live, it would be considered un-Australian not to smear toast with a black tar-like paste made from used brewers’ yeast. So, given we might consume

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The difference between brining and marinating is that one uses salt and the other acidity for its active ingredient. They are part of a spectrum though, and it is not unusual to combine these actions. Seawater (brine) is aqua marina, and the word marinade derives from marina, further clouding the

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Why brine meat proteins? To slightly season, to increase water retention during cooking and to plump dry meats. In high doses, salt draws moisture out of meat and is perhaps the oldest means of preservation. However, at low doses, salt can do the opposite and increase the water-holding capacity of

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Crunchy, crispy, crackly are sounds and textures much appreciated in our food. The terms don’t have agreed scientific definitions, although there may be differences in the frequencies of sound they produce (for example crispy making higher-pitched sounds than crunchy) but there is no consensus. Our mouths can interpret a remarkable

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Brussels sprouts

While the brussels sprout is disliked by many, it hasn’t gone away. It’s not that we don’t have choices. Besides the brussels sprout, the cruciferous (brassica) family boasts the cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, broccolini, savoy, kohirabi and mustard greens. Humans started to genetically engineer these variants from one weedy Mediterranean plant, the

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Shaken, not stirred

The martini: London gin, French or Italian vermouth, olives from the Mediterranean and American glamour. It could have been Cosmopolitan but that name is taken. The name comes from the Italian vermouth brand of Martini & Rossi (the surnames of the founders). Likewise, the French vermouth, Noilly Pratt, is named

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Sous vide – confit

A specialty of southwest France, confit is steeped in tradition. It was developed for very practical purposes – preserving meat before the advent of refrigeration. The preserving aspect is no longer relevant, but confits are still prepared for their succulence and flavours. Harold McGee describes how intertwined foods and preparations

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Sous vide – plants

Plant material mainly consists of water held in a cell whose wall is strengthened by pectin, with the walls of adjacent cells bonded together by pectin and hemicellulose. Cooking involves softening the cell walls, and breaking down the glue between cells. This occurs across a range of temperatures, and softening

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Sugar glass

Glasses are at a transition point between a solid, which has an ordered interlocked arrangement, and a liquid, whose constituents are free to flow around each other (however painstakingly). For lack of a better description, a glass is an amorphous solid whose constituent particles are jammed together and cannot easily

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Immersive cuisine

Not immersive as in a sous vide water bath. From a craft steeped in tradition, modern cooking has realized how many possibilities there really are when you look. One of the more novel aspects has been the deliberate manipulation of multisensory experience – the 6th sense as Ferran described it

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Sous vide – tough cuts

Precision temperature sous vide can superbly cook delicate proteins like salmon and chicken breast. However, the method can also optimize the cooking of tough cuts making them tender and succulent. Meat can be thought of as muscle fibres made up of protein strands bundled together and encased in collagen sheaths

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Getting started with sous vide

Sous vide is steadily becoming more accessible to home cooks. Water ovens are starting to appear in electrical appliance stores. Edge vacuum sealers have been around for a while (for food storage). More guides and explanations are appearing in print and on the net. However, because sous vide is fairly

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Vitamins and Casimir Funk

Vitamins mean business. We cannot live without them, and vitamin pills are big business (est. USD68 billion per year worldwide). Science has confirmed they’re essential for health, but is equivocal as to whether there is a benefit to vitamin supplementation in developed countries. We haven’t known about vitamins for all

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Subscribe option

There is a new subscribe option in the right sidebar. If you choose to subscribe, a one-off email will be sent asking you to activate your subscription. Please be aware that this email may go to your spam folder, depending on settings. You might like to allow Thereafter, whenever a

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Milk foam

Cappuccini have been popular as a breakfast beverage in Italy and Europe since the early 1900’s when steam pressure espresso machines were first developed. Consisting of equal parts of espresso, warm milk and milk foam, it is perhaps the foam that adds the element of delight to something already delicious.

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Spice and the ‘Age of Discovery’

The three most famous Iberian maritime explorers – Columbus, da Gama and Magellan – all had one thing in common; they didn’t set out to discover anything at all, but rather to find a route to Asia and thereby dominate the spice trade. It is difficult for us now to understand

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Microwave ovens: 10 Questions

Opinion is highly polarised when it comes to microwave ovens – either they are disparaged or they are embraced, and often with passion either way. Coincidentally, microwave ovens work because water is polarised too (a water molecule has a positive end and a negative end) and can interact with microwaves to be

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The cake slicing conundrum

In 1906 a gentleman scholar was confronted with a significant problem for his wife and himself – how to cut a round cake to serve two people at afternoon tea, and preserve the remainder for the next day in good condition. The classic method is to cut it into wedges.

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Evidence of a taste for oysters (and other molluscs, including terrestrial ones – snails) goes back to the Paleolithic (earliest stone tool era). Middens of oyster shells have been dated to at least around 20,000 years ago (Australian aborigines). Once food for the poor, and eaten to near extinction by

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Umami and MSG

Umami – Japanese for ‘deliciousness’ – is what we in the West might think of as savoury. The flavour is central to much Asian cooking, and the molecule responsible was first identified in the Japanese stock dashi. Recently, taste receptors for this molecule were shown to exist on our tongues, and

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As with most vegetables, carrots are full of water. It may seem improbable but at 88%, the water content of carrots is slightly higher than that of full cream milk and comparable to oranges. It is just stored differently; vegetables lock water in their structure very effectively. For example, these

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Gelling hamburger mince

The ground-meat hamburger is as ubiquitous as the letter ‘m’. At home, the texture of hamburger mince mostly depends on the binding agent. Eggs, flour, breadcrumbs and/or milk are often used to bind, however these agents either don’t bind, are poor binders, or interfere with binding. The most effective binding agent

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Is it maize or is it corn? In North America, Australia and New Zealand, maize means corn and vice-versa. In the UK and Europe, corn refers to any locally-grown grain (e.g. wheat, rye, oats, barley). The etymology comes from the verb corn “to salt” (circa 1560). Hence corned beef means

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Why don’t we eat insects?

I mean, of course, in the West. Insects are eaten widely elsewhere – around 2 billion people from ~80% of countries eat from 1,900 varieties. For example, autochthonous Australians eat a range of insects and larvae, including the ones in the picture, a much sought after honey-ant. As well as

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The 6th sense

First, a recap of the taste and flavour post. We use all five of our senses to appreciate flavour: taste (from receptors on the tongue) is only one of them. Smell (as we breathe out and in) is a dominant contributor to the perception of flavour (and why food tastes

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Salt Air

I recently described a method for making an extremely light foam, known as an ‘air’, using soy lecithin. In that post it was used to create a lemon/lime air to drape over chicken – lemon chicken. Ferran Adria pioneered this technique, and has applied it in many interesting ways. Perhaps

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Cinnamon or cassia

Cinnamon is one of the world’s cardinal spices, appearing across multiple cuisines and finding sweet and savoury applications. But if you cook in the West (particularly the English-speaking West), the odds are that you are not cooking with cinnamon, but rather with cassia. Does it matter? Apart from the matter

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