Ordinarily, I’m not much of an autograph enthusiast. Or, rather, I’ll enthusiastically sign autographs, but I don’t collect them. I made exceptions for Douglas Adams and Umberto Eco, and a few other geeky types whose names most people wouldn’t recognize. Earlier this week, I made another exception. I went to a presentation and book signing at a local Sur La Table, where two legendary food scientists (if food scientists can be legendary) came to share their expertise with the small assembled crowd.
The celebrities were Shirley O. Corriher and Harold McGee. I knew of Shirley mainly from her frequent guest appearances on Good Eats with Alton Brown. Alton himself is no slouch when it comes to cooking science, but he likes to bring in specialists from time to time, and Shirley happens to be an expert who is also a colorful TV personality. She is the author of CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed and has a new DVD called Shirley O. Corriher’s Kitchen Secrets Revealed!
As for Harold, he’s the author of the encyclopedic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Originally published in 1984 and known among the cooking intelligentsia as “the blue book,” it was massively revised and updated last year, and is now “the red book.” It runs to nearly 900 pages and contains not a single recipe—my kind of cookbook. Instead, it describes (in a very friendly, readable style) the history, chemical and physical properties, and cooking methods for virtually everything edible. It is amazing, and I don’t use that term lightly. If its subject matter were English, it would be Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Those who know, know what I mean.
Anyway, I went with a desire to have two burning questions answered. First was: How do you pronounce “Corriher”? The staff person who introduced the authors just said “Shirley,” so I asked Shirley myself after the presentation. She replied, “It rhymes with sorrier.” Excellent. I never would have guessed that.
The other question has been bugging me for years: Why should I salt the water used to boil pasta? Every recipe, and every cooking show, says you must do this. But I’ve boiled hundreds of pots of pasta in my day and have seldom bothered with the salt, yet this has never diminished the final product in any way I could discern. I know enough about chemistry to realize that a teaspoon or two per gallon is not going to raise the water’s boiling point enough to make any difference. The other rationale I’ve heard a few times is that salting the water seasons the pasta, because some of the salt soaks right into the noodles. That’s fair enough, but if you serve your pasta with a sauce—especially a salty sauce—you’ll almost certainly be unable to taste the salt in the pasta itself. So I find that reasoning unconvincing.
Courtesy of Harold McGee, I now have two other crucial pieces of information. First, according to the red book (p. 576), salt can help prevent noodles from sticking together during cooking. It “limits starch gelation and so reduces cooking losses and stickiness.” That’s something I can get behind, although the book also mentions that you can reduce stickiness in other ways, including stirring during the first few minutes.
During the presentation, though, someone was asking about cooking dried beans. Harold mentioned that what takes the longest when cooking beans is for water to penetrate all the way to the bean’s interior so that it can soften. And salt, he said, inhibits the osmotic process by which this occurs. So salting the water in which you cook beans can increase the time it takes for the beans to get soft in the middle (or make them less soft with the same amount of cooking time). After the presentation, I asked if the same principle holds for pasta, and he said that it did. I asked whether that could be an argument for not salting the water—whether it outweighed the advantages. He replied that it depends somewhat on the thickness of the noodle, but if you have a thicker noodle and you’re more concerned about the fastest possible cooking time than its absorbed flavor, definitely skip the salt. In other words, rather than reducing cooking time by increasing the boiling point, salt can actually increase cooking time by slowing water absorption into thick noodles.
That’s cool. If I’d known there was such an occupation as food scientist when I was a kid, that’s what I would have wanted to be when I grew up.