The science behind cooking a delicious Thanksgiving meal

Written by Adam Pope
UAB . News

Thanksgiving is a time when many Americans pull their recipe boxes from generations of family members, but one thing that might not be included in your grandmother’s turkey stuffing recipe—or marinade—is what happens at the molecular level to make it worth devouring.

Understanding how cooking methods affect food at the molecular level is key to becoming a good chef, says Lizzie Davis, Ph.

“A lot of people think they don’t have the skills to be a good cook, but cooking is a science,” she said. “When they understand how they affect food at the molecular level through cooking techniques and seasoning, anyone can be a great cook.”

For example, Davis recommends draining the turkey rather than brushing it with soup to keep it from drying out when cooking.

“Soaking the turkey does not affect the moisture of the meat, but it may make the skin flavorful,” Davis said.

Soaking in brine allows the mixture to pass through the absorbent meat cells during the soaking process using a method called diffusion – the movement of water through a semi-permeable membrane, in this case the meat cells.

By diffusion, the salt and water within the meat cells balance out with the salt and water in the surrounding brine, resulting in an increased concentration of salt and water in the meat, leaving the meat tender and juicy when it’s ready to be served.

“Liquid from the external brine carries salt and spices to the bird,” she said. “Once the brine diffuses into the turkey’s cells, you’ll get all that moisture and spice inside the turkey.”

To understand what’s really going on, says Davis, you have to understand the turkey’s muscle structure. These muscles are made up of long, bundled fibers, each one contained in a strong protein envelope.

As the turkey warms up, the proteins that make up this casing will shrink, just like when you squeeze a tube of toothpaste. This causes the juices to be expelled from the bird. However, the salt helps relieve this contraction by dissolving some of the muscle proteins, which results in less muscle contraction and more juice remaining in the turkey.

Davis recommends submerging the turkey in the salt solution in a large saucepan stored in the refrigerator for about 24 hours before cooking.

1 potato and 2 potatoes

Choosing the right kind of potato for your mashed potato dish is very important, says Davis.

She recommends using a starchy russet or Idaho potatoes.

“These potatoes have more starch in them, which means they will be easier to mash,” she said. “This makes the mashed potatoes fluffy and absorbent, but may require additional amounts of butter and milk or cream.”

Davis says that the best mashed potatoes are prepared in a certain way:

  • Don’t cut too small.
  • Don’t get overly confused. Excessive release of starch makes it sticky and chewy.
  • Try using resizer.
  • Add a small amount of warm butter and milk/cream at a time.
  • Bake it or boil it.
  • Boil in enough milk or broth until the liquid is absorbed.

piece of pie

When it comes to making an all-important puff pastry, says Davis, the crust should be flaky, not mushy and tough.

The key, she says, is to use cold butter in the dough mixture because phase shifts — the transition from solid to liquid, to gas — are important to obtaining the desired crust.

“When butter is cold, it is considered solid,” Davis said. “When butter melts (a liquid), it releases water in the form of vapor (gas). This transition to gas causes the small pockets within the pie crust to expand and results in an uneven pie crust.”

Davis says food is an experiment, so when people start making their own recipes, it’s important to try new flavors, seasonings, and cooking methods.

“Enjoy your Thanksgiving meal,” Davis said. “There is no such thing as a naturally great chef, just someone who has enjoyed experimenting with the kitchen using different cooking techniques and flavors. Sometimes experiments succeed and sometimes fail. Enjoy incorporating these cooking techniques into the dishes your family prepares during Thanksgiving.”

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