Coquere Ergo Sum


“I cook therefore I am.”  Think about it. When have you seen a cheetah prop out its camp stove and flip a pancake? We are the only species inhabiting this orb that cooks their food. Why?

As we evolved, more and more energy was needed to fuel our unique reason-equipped brains. Lots of this energy however was being used by our digestive system to breakdown hard to digest raw foods. Cooking is the altering of food temperatures as to make nutrient extraction less arduos to our modern digestive system, allowing the brain to soak up the now available energy. When we cook, we denature proteins, break down enzymes, melt collagen, unravel sugars, and much more. There are 3 fundamental blocks that combine to give us fuel:

Proteins:

Proteins are long strands of amino acids that behave quite interestingly when exposed to heat. When a protein strand is exposed to heat it begins to contract. Much shaped like a double helix, each helix begins to tighten as the temperature rises. Have a chewy steak right in front of you? Odds are your cow piece was exposed to to much heat to quickly causing all the moisture to evaporate and the protein strands to contract into something so tough you can’t even bite through. Proteins are very delicate structures and should be treated as such. Exposing your meat to low temperatures over a long period of time will result in a juicy, tender piece of meat. So reconsider your cooking method. Next time try a 24 hour roast or 8 hour braise. See the results. If you cant stand the sight of an “un-caramelized” steak, there is still hope for you. First off, meat doesn’t caramelize. Sugars caramelize. Proteins brown, through an effect called the Maillard Reaction. And if you want a nicely browned steak, cook it with low heat/long time first and then quickly sear it on a high heat pan. The Maillard reaction is responsible for many of the flavors we associate with meats. Proteins are a very important aspect of nutrition as they contribute the necessary elements for the building and restoration of muscle, as well as the energy needed to sustain metabolic processes.

Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates are basically sugars. These sugars are the main source of energy for our brains, so it is important to have a vast quantity of carbohydrates in our diets. That doesn’t mean stock up on Croissants. Whole grains are a great source of carbohydrates, minerals, and fiber. Carbohydrates provide for a great source of prolonged energy, and are also very yummy foods. In nature, carbs are sometimes very long complex chains that our digestive system cant break down, so we cook them. Heat breaks down the carb chains into smaller sugars that our body can easily convert into energy. Unlike proteins, sugars do caramelize. And we all love caramelized things. From straight caramel to caramelized onions, heat has a great way of bringing out those delicious flavors from otherwise unpleasing foods. Fiber, an elemental component of a healthy diet, is composed of carb chains so complex that our GI tract can’t break down and instead travel through it absorbing water and pushing waste out.

Fats:

Nutritionally, fats seem to have the worst reputation of the three. I believe the stigma comes from the fact that an excess in consumption of this essential nutritional component is easily observed in our bodies. But don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, you need fat. Fats help create insulation in our bodies. Without fat, all the energy created to maintain our bodies up to temp for optimum metabolic performance would just escape. Fat also serves as an energy reserve. So if for some reason you skip a meal or are in an emergency, your body has stored energy it can tap in to. It is also a very efficient means of storage, opposed to proteins and carbohydrates who can only store 4 calories per gram, fat can store more than double: 9 calories per gram! So every gram of fat means much more energy to our body than equal amounts of proteins or carbs. Fats are great lubricants and therefore essential in even cooking, this is why we use fats to coat or foods as we cook them. But be weary, some fats are very sensitive and have low smoke points. That means that they will burn if exposed to high heat, creating carcinogens which we in turn consume. So be careful next time you cook with coconut oil.

Fats have long been regarded as great preservation mediums. Being the waterproof substances that they are allows them to cover or coat food with a layer that protects from rotting. Storing foods in fat has long been regarded as a great preservation method. Which brings us to the other side of the temperature scale: cold. Before refrigeration, foods had to be fermented, pickled, preserved, or covered in fat to last through the season where no food grew or animals were out of sight. But like always we learned to adapt the power of nature into cool machines that maintain a controlled environment. By keeping foods in an environment that is colder than that in which bacteria thrives in we were able to preserve foods for longer. A large part of cooking now not only involves heating things to break them down but also cooling them until we’re ready to do so.

Next time you cook be aware that all you are doing is altering the temperature of your foods, but in turn unleashing a myriad of chemical reactions that allow for us to get from foods all they have to offer.

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