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What Einstein Told His Cook: A brief overview

I tend to enjoy cookbooks for their pictures. So when I decided to pick up a cookbook solely on content, I expected to be less fascinated than normal. Turns out that What Einstein Told His Cook can hold my attention can hold my attention even better than food porn. The book, written by Robert L. Wolke, is one out of his Einstein series. Wolke is a professor of chemistry as well as a food columnist, a combination I find really interesting, being a chemical engineer myself. But Wolke is far more learned, eloquent, and interesting than I will be any time soon. He questions food, and different aspects of cooking like what is hydrogenated oil? What is the best way to cook a lobster? If a soup is too salty does adding potatoes to it decrease the amount of salt? There are many, many more questions that he answers by referencing reputable experiments or trying things out for himself! Here are some (abbreviated) answers Wolke that provides to questions he poses (that you probably find yourself asking sometimes) in What Einstein Told His Cook:

Some people say the best way to cook a live lobster is to boil it. Others insist that steaming is better. Which method should I use?

The preference in flavor turns out to be a draw. It’s simply preference, based on the person cooking it—one method doesn’t turn out to be better than the other. However, the time it takes to steam is longer than that of boiling. Wolke’s experiment showed that both reach the same temperature, but water has a higher heat capacity than steam, which decreases the cooking time. Wolke also notes that steaming with salt water doesn’t improve the flavor since the salt isn’t going into the steam. And that boiling with wine and other flavoring may be futile because the lobster has a fairly resilient armor.

How do those nonstick cooking sprays work? Their labels say the contents are nonfat and low calorie, but when I spray it on the pan it sure looks like oil to me. Is there such a thing as a nonfat oil? Or does it contain some kind of chemical substitute for oil.

Spray can oil is oil. But in the process of spraying it, one probably uses just a spritz instead of pouring a thick layer of oil on the pan. This is where the difference in calories is. The spray can is still the vegetable oil that you could get in a bottle, but with a little alcohol added to help it spray (this alcohol will evaporate). The companies get away with labeling it as 0 g fat on a technicality: the FDA allows products with less than 0.5 g of fat to be labeled as 0 g fat. But this is for the serving size noted on the can, so if you’re going over then you’re probably getting more than 0.5 g of fat. Don’t get tricked!

In a restaurant, I asked for hot tea and was presented with a box form which to choose any one of a dozen fancy kinds, including lapsang souchong, Darjeeling, jasmine, chamomile, and so on. How many kinds of tea are there, anyway?

Only one plant—and a couple hybrids of it—produce leaves that can be used in real teas. Real tea is processed as three types: unfermented, semi-fermented, and fermented. These are more commonly known as green, oolong, and black, respectively. There are many types of known teas in each one of these families. The rest are known as herbal teas, which can just been a combination of leaves, flowers, and herbs from various plants that give off a nice flavor when added to hot water. But these aren’t real tea.

When making a soup, I accidentally put in too much salt. Was there anything I could have done about that? I’ve heard that raw potato will absorb the excess.

Wolke set up his own, controlled experiment (in a chemistry lab!) to test this. His results showed that the potato tastes saltier, but that doesn’t affect the concentration of the salt in the water. The potato just soaks up what it’s cooked in, which is salted water; it’s not just taking in the salt. This is similar to how pasta takes in salted water for flavoring, not just the salt. He tested the salt content using conductivity and the results showed that the amount of salt in the soup stayed the same! So either you’re stuck with taking in more salt than recommended or you can rectify the situation by adding more stock or water.

To sweeten my iced tea quickly, I added powdered sugar. But it turned into gummy lumps. What happened?

Powdered sugar contains 3% cornstarch, which gummies up in cold water. The starch is added to prevent powdered sugar from picking up moisture easily. To sweeten your ice tea without having to wait for granulated sugar to melt, use superfine sugar, which is just ground up granulated sugar. You can do this yourself by pulsing granulated sugar in a food processor until it has a finer grain.

Wolke answers these questions, and so many more, in a fun, teasing, and eloquent tone. He helps the reader not only understand cooking, but for me, makes me find it fascinating. My abbreviated answers don’t do his work justice, so pick up the book and flip through and get absorbed into learning more about what you’re putting into your body, better ways of cooking food, and just picking up on interesting tid-bits of information. 

– Christina Pan 

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