Now I’m cookin’


It’s often said that chemistry is much like cooking, but with a tastier product, and perhaps often argued that a good chemist, like a good cook, knows just how much a ‘pinch’ of salt, chili powder, or BuLi is required in order to get a good result.

I certainly think this is true, and am always pleasantly surprised that the actual skills I learned in graduate school come in handy in the kitchen. For example, I am a master of pouring just the right amount of solvent… although now the solvent is almost always water. So boring.

One scenario for which I didn’t necessarily expect the similarity to carry over is in the trepidation of using new reagents. In the lab, this was a bit more rational of a response – perhaps the compound is explosive, or smelly, or has gone bad? In the kitchen, however, it feels a bit silly to be worried about using somewhat exotic plants or spices for the first time. Yet I think the consequences of misusing foods are pretty real as well – aside from the obvious lack of dinner if you’ve added too much of a particular spice or too little of a thickener, there’s the frustration of wasting the rest of the ingredients, and having to clean up the whole mess. If you’re really venturing into the unknown, the results can become more serious (as with chemicals) – the improperly cooked vegetable may acquire a terrible smell, or there’s always the possibility that you could give yourself food poisoning if you’ve really botched the job.

What tips and tricks do you chefs use when attempting a new dish? Would we perhaps feel more comfortable if recipes were written as synthetic methods? And while there are obvious reasons to try a failed reaction again in the lab, do you all give failed meals a second try?

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)

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