Some people get their kicks from a good algebraic formula, some people get all jazzed about tectonic plates, and some people are into the periodic table.
I have never been any of these people. Don’t get me wrong, I like the occasional igneous rock, just like everyone else, but science and math have always felt like a chore. Something to be turned-in, graded and promptly filed away in the very back cabinet of my brain. In fact, ever since they first arrived, Long Division and Covalent Bonds have been in the corner, quietly playing a Pi-length Parcheesi game, never even disturbing a single synapse. And poor Quadratic Formula. It has deteriorated into a mere combination of syllables and sounds with virtually no meaning attached to them at all.
Then, just like the undead emerging from the crypts, my science vocabulary suddenly became restless. It had been summoned by a greater cause. That cause, of course, was Candy Making.
Science and candy are friends. In fact, they’re practically married. Why did no one tell me this in the 7th grade? I would have studied the pants off chemistry. I would made it my mission to transform the kitchen my own private laboratory… sugar cookery, emulsions of chocolate and cream, water densities, inversion, conversion…
There was always Bill Nye. You know? The Science Guy. He tried to tell me that science was more than balancing equations. He used quirky, vintage movie clips, dramatizations, creepy voice-overs and did a tremendous job of applying science to real-life scenarios…like surviving quicksand. My 7th grade science teacher was brilliant at doing the very same thing (not surviving quicksand…although I’m sure she could have, but making chemistry tangible.) Still, there was no sugar (at least not in any form that I recognized). Perhaps if there had been truffles and marshmallows to eat at the end of each double period the message would have been more compelling.
Now that I’m in baking and pastry school, I use words like, “coagulate,” a lot more than I ever expected to use words like “coagulate.” Also “eutectics,” which is a real doozie. These words are important because it’s essential to know how your ingredients work to gain a true mastery of the craft.
When you boil sugar for candy making, how much water do you want to remove from your product? Will this make a firmer or softer candy? What will this do to the shelf life? What will this do to the texture? If you want a firmer candy, what temperature does this mean I need to cook the sugar too? If I stir the sugar will this change my texture? How? Why?
Even something as simple as salad dressing requires a basic understanding of emulsions in order to mix water based liquids, like balsamic vinegar, with a fat, like olive oil. But we’re not talking about lettuce here. We’ve got more important fish to fry…or rather, sugars to boil.
If I could transport myself back to 1997 I would approach the 7th grade science fair a bit differently. In fact, If I knew what I know now, I would have started a 7th grade revolution and turned the science fair into a molecular gastronomy bake-sale. Instead of testing the insulation of various lunchboxes (#1 Award for Lameness, aside from anything having to do with plants and music), I would take on one the following experiments…
- Explore the sugar syrup density of various confections in relations to the firmness of final candy
- The gradual texture variations of fudge based on when they are stirred/agitated
- Explore various fruit purees and their interactions with gelatin-based gummy candies
- Testing different sugars (brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, powdered, etc) and their effect on the final cookie.
- How much gelatin is enough? Testing marshmallows and different weights of gelatin and their effect on the final texture.
And this, scientists large and small, is only the tip of the iceberg. Every recipe, every ingredient, and every morsel that melts in your mouth, is a little science fair experiment waiting to be science faired. The best part is that you don’t even need to right up a formal report. All you need is a hypothesis, an empty stomach, and a mouth.