At the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia last month, Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and a Washington Post food columnist, had sobering words for any American who uses a kitchen.
Wolke, who is the author of "What Einstein Told His Cook" and "What Einstein Told His Cook 2," spoke at KitchenAid's The Book and The Cook, a series of events that team up a food writer or cookbook author with a renowned chef. The result was an enjoyable "page to plate" experience.
The theme of Wolke's talk was long-established kitchen beliefs that don't hold up under scientific scrutiny. As the winner of ACS's 2005 Grady-Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, Wolke is well-qualified to provide such scrutiny. But that didn't make the conclusions any easier to swallow.
His most disturbing revelation: Those boxes of Arm & Hammer baking soda that we trustingly put in our freezers to absorb odors—they don't work. Even the new, more expensive "Fridge-n-Freezer" box with breathable side panels is worthless, Wolke said, because it offers an insufficient amount of surface area for appreciable odor absorption. And as for the supporting research conducted for Arm & Hammer by an "independent laboratory," he has seen it and is not convinced.
Another of Wolke's debunkings involved wine. Some cooks add wine to dishes on the theory that it captures flavors that are soluble in ethanol but not water. But Wolke summarized an elaborate experiment—it involved red dye-bearing annatto seeds and various alcohol-containing solutions—that put to rest this misguided notion. He also revealed that not all the alcohol in wine-based dishes boils off, even after hours of simmering.
The science behind both these conclusions, Wolke said, is that the water and alcohol act not independently but as a mixture that possesses its own unique properties. A little lingering ethanol may be a good thing anyway. As Wolke pointed out, it can react with acids in food to form tasty esters or oxidize into flavorful aldehydes.
Wolke was followed that evening by a different kind of food chemistry: a dinner prepared by chef Mitch Prensky of Philadelphia's The Global Dish Caterers. The delicious miso-glazed skate wing and chocolate velvet mousse were both from Wolke's books.
For those who believe that the world is becoming exceedingly high tech, here is yet one more product to confirm this theory: a temperature-controlled butter dish. To melt away the frustration caused by trying to spread refrigerator-hard butter, the ButterWizard keeps its dairy host at what the company says is the optimal spreadable temperature.
The unit, created by Alfille Innovations Ltd. in East Sussex, England, has a built-in fan and a chip that control the temperature, which is adjustable for different textures of butter, be it for muffin, toast, pancake, biscuit, or baguette. The product was inspired by the company's managing director, David Alfille, who found that regardless of the weather, "his butter never seemed to be at the right temperature to spread properly."
According to the product's website, the dish is small and stylish, has a rechargeable base with a power adapter, has its own internal power supply to keep butter at the desired temperature for up to 2 hours, and accommodates a 250-g block of any type of butter. The Wizard is available in the U.K. for about £35 ($60). Spread away!
A reader points out that in Franklin, Ind., there is a new FM oldies radio station that came on the air at the end of last year. The station is located at 95.9 on the FM dial, and its call letters are WIAU: "W" for its location east of the Mississippi River, "I" for Indiana, and "AU" for gold. It's known as "Indy's New Oldies Station," and the station appropriately is named Gold 95.9 (www.gold959.com). Golden oldies, indeed.