Author: Haritha, Learner at The Integral School, Hyderabad
Is cooking an art or a science? The age old custody battle over who gets to snatch cooking under their wing, Art or Science. Your grandmother is likely to tell you that cooking is an art and it is something one simply has a natural flair for. Whereas, a candy scientist would most likely tell you that one has to understand the molecular structure of the ingredients to create a perfect product. In one corner of the rink stands cups of flour, sugar and butter, accurately measured to compensate for the degree of heat and create the perfect leavened texture (the recipe always nearby). In the other corner stands bags of icing with star tipped nozzles and fondant carefully pressed into pastel flowers. In this ultimate battle, who takes the cake?
Let us stop and think for a moment about whether this battle needs to ensue in the first place. Naturally, one would think that cooking has to fall under one of the two contenders – Art or Science – because they are poles apart, but perhaps cooking can serve as a middle ground between the two subjects. Can cooking be both an art and a science, blurring lines between the two?
I think in order to answer this perplexing question, the definitions of Science and Art need to be explored. Science, unlike art, has a reasonably straight-forward definition, that is if you look it up in a dictionary. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “science” as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Art is defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary as “works produced by human creative skill and imagination”. Evidently, they are from two different ends of the spectrum. However, cooking ticks the boxes in both definitions.
Cooking does have a striking resemblance to making copper sulphate crystals in the laboratory : There are elements and processes that need to be performed in a particular order to receive a certain result. The parallel in cooking is a recipe. A recipe is an algorithm that has been tried and tested so that anyone following the procedure will achieve the same results. Considering that baking is a subcategory of cooking let us take bread as an example. Breads range from flatbreads to leavened ones, the leavened ones requiring a more complex understanding of the molecules and the scientific interactions. Leavened breads rely on the understanding of how how yeast, soda or baking powder interact with the other ingredients in the dough. All the leavening agents react with the ingredients to produce carbon dioxide which aerates the dough, giving bread it’s world famous fluffy texture (www.exploratorium.edu). Different proportions of leavening agents to flour to liquid, etc have been experimented on to arrive at the perfect texture and flavour of a bread. As a dabbler in baking I can state as a fact that making bread requires more than the ability to follow a recipe and toss ingredients in a stand mixer.
Yeast is a living organism and can be very fickle to work with. If the water is too hot, the yeast dies. If the water is too cold, the yeast remains inactive. If there is an insufficient amount of sugar in the dough, the yeast will not produce enough carbon dioxide to aerate it. There are a multitude of variables that will either make or break your attempt at baking bread. This is where one has to fall back on science and thoroughly understand the interactions taking place. I am not about to leave out the details, just in case you plan to bake bread in the near future : The yeast activates when it come in contact with warm water. It then feeds on the sugars in the dough, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts (www.exploratorium.edu). Making sure that the yeast produces air bubbles in a suitable environment is only part of the uphill climb. I am saying this because I have had difficult experiences with yeast. I have tried baking bread around four times and yeast has been my nemesis so far. As a side note for those who are wondering what happens to the alcohol, it gets evaporated in the oven.
Aside from the yeast, the dough and how it is kneaded is another important step to making leavened bread. The dough is knead to work the gluten in the flour. Once again the application of science comes into play as one needs to understand the properties of gluten to make a perfect loaf. If over knead, the loaf becomes hard and dense. If the dough is not worked enough, the loaf will come out flat and dense (www.thekitchn.com). A perfect loaf will be fluffy, moist and hold it’s shape when cut, but there are various kinds of bread that each have different textures. Flatbreads do not contain leavening agents, but some of them are still knead to develop the gluten in the flour. This way the dough stays together and can be shaped or rolled out. To understand how gluten develops in the first place, one needs to look at flour from a molecular level. There are two proteins (glutenin and gliadin) which react with water to form gluten. When the gluten is worked, it becomes more stretchy, giving us that springy texture bread dough is known for (www.exploratorium.edu) . Looking into the science behind bread is so vast that I cannot possibly explain it all (it would also involve a lot of research on my part), but it is interesting none the less.
Baking and cooking in general is about trial and error. Each time one attempts a dish, the science behind the process helps one correct their mistakes. Let me share how I have applied this with the classic dish of ‘mac and cheese’. My take on macaroni and cheese is that I add cream cheese to the sauce to make it more rich and add to the overall cheese flavour. This extra ingredient seems simple indeed, but trust me, it brought it’s own problems. The first two times I made the dish, I stirred the cream cheese in while the sauce was bubbling away and added the elbow macaroni in after a while. The aroma was delicious of course, but as the dish cooked it started to curdle (and we all know how unpleasant curdled food is to the tongue). I figured that the only way I could fix my recipe was to analyse the reactions in the pot scientifically. Based on observations, I realised that the sauce never split before I added the cream cheese. The heating of the cream cheese seemed to separate it’s curds from the whey. At least with my limited knowledge of how cheese is made, I concluded that the combination of heat and cream cheese resulted in a curdled sauce. The third time I attempted macaroni and cheese, I stirred in the cream cheese after I had taken the dish of the stove and let it melt in the residual heat.
Cooking can definitely be better understood as a science, but there is no way to extract the creativity from it. The visual aspect of cooking lends itself to art. If you keep up with the latest culinary fads, you probably know how pancake art has taken us by storm. Clearly creating a whale out of pancake batter is an art. In fact any Culinary creation that appeals to us visually can be called art. If you have ever been to a bakery where the bakers are icing cakes, you will see that they treat the fluffy sponges as canvases ready to be painted on. They first crumb coat the cake, which is essentially covering it in a thin layer of buttercream to seal in the cake crumbs. One needs to turn the turntable while simultaneously slathering on frosting with a spatula. One also needs to be able to handle the spatula with finesse. Even the simplest step to icing a cake requires technique, which is art. Let us take it a step further and look at the decorating after the crumb coat. The way in which one can decorate a cake is limited only by their imagination and creativity. Why not try making dark chocolate curls and cascading them over the white background, or rolling out tie dyed fondant to drape over the cake ? There are infinite ways in which to display your creativity through decorating a cake. If you really want to have your mind blown and see how baking is an art in itself, do watch the television show ‘Fabulous cakes’. I have binge-watched the series and can guarantee that you will have a whole new perspective on baking.
The aesthetic aspect to cooking is more clearly immersed in the field of art, as one generally associates art with work that appeals to you visually. I think that we can stretch that definition to say that art is something that pleases the senses through creative expression. The first thought that crosses my mind is that food appeals to three of our sense — smell, taste and sight. It is commonly said that you, “eat with your eyes first”. There is creativity that goes into presenting food appetizingly but there is a lot of creative skill that goes into making the food as well. There are tens and thousands of ingredients in the world, each with their own distinct flavour. Some of the flavours compliment each other and some of them clash. This very similar to paint and their different hues. Some colours stand out due to contrast and others play on subtle shades to emphasize a certain tone. The same applies for flavours. The the gluggy, earthy flavour of olive oil contrasts the sharp, sour flavour of balsamic vinegar to give you a classic : vinaigrette. The sweet fragrance of a vanilla bean, enhances the sugary taste in your plain custard to take it to another level. The tiny drop of mint essence that you add to your lemonade to turn it from cliched to refreshing.
Cooking is invariably about your ability to explore various flavour combination and pair them with suitable cooking methods to create a feast. There is no right way to cook carrots. You can julienne it and saute it with butter or use a mandoline to make ribbons and fry them into chips. It does not matter what you do to the carrots as long as they complement the rest of the dish. For example, if you roast the carrots in olive oil and sprinkle them with herbs, a sour and cutting dip might complement the sweet flavour that carrots get when their caramelised. There is no one way to go about creating a carrot dish, but one needs to have a knack of pairing flavours. One also needs to be able to apply different cooking methods to various ingredients. If one wants to stir fry some vegetables, the manner in which they are stirred and the order in which the vegetables are added, all add to the final product. There are various techniques required for each method of cooking. Baking requires a certain technique, blanching requires a certain technique, deep frying, a different technique, etc. The application of these techniques to create enticing (to the senses) dishes is essentially art.
To end this essay on cooking and whether it falls under science or art, I would like to recount an event that that took place when I was in a chinese restaurant. As most of you will know, chinese restaurants have a little tray of condiments like chili sauce and soy sauce sitting on top of the table. I had finished my main course and was waiting on desert, which was crispy honey noodles with a serve of vanilla ice cream. The hot crispy noodles complimented the smooth coldness of the ice cream and before I knew it I had finished the noodles but had some ice cream remaining. On its own, the ice cream was saccharine and I thought to myself, “it needs some salt to cut the sugar”. There was no salt at the table so as you might guess I grabbed the little pot of soy sauce and poured some of it in my ice cream (umami would do just as fine). To my surprise and delight this concoction of ice cream and soy sauce tasted absolutely amazing. In fact it looked and tasted like salted caramel ice cream. From that moment in the restaurant, I started adding soy sauce to my vanilla ice cream whenever it was sickly sweet.
There are two ends to this story : Science and art. It was creativity that allowed for such a flavour combination and it was science that allowed the combination to create a wonderful flavour. It has been scientifically proven that salt enhances other flavours (www.byrontalbott.com). Also as I mentioned earlier, art is creatively thinking about flavour combinations. Looking at this, I think I can conclude that cooking is both an art and science. Both join hands to concoct those scrumptious dishes that make us salivate, speaking of which, I need to go eat.