Friday, May 21, 2010

The Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning How To Cook for Survival: What Food is Made Of

Too many people I talk to lately have no idea how to cook. They can follow a recipe but they can't think of what else they can do with it. This will be an ongoing series on what food is and how to cook it.

Food is made up of thing like proteins, carbohydrates, water, oils and various vitamins and minerals.

Heat breaks down the cell walls of food releasing more of the nutrition inside. Sure, some nutrients will be destroyed in the cooking process but far more will be liberated to make up for that. If that wasn't the case why would anyone keep cooking food. Gathering firewood and maintaining a fire would not be worth the effort to do if the food was better without cooking.
Meat is primarily made up of proteins which are made up of long molecular strands, that uncurl when heated. This is called denaturing and tends to make meat tender and that is why meat is generally has the best texture at medium rare to medium, especially if you let the meat rest for a few minutes to allow the juices to redistribute within the meat. As you keep heating the proteins they will tangle up with each other and begin to contract again, as they contract they will squeeze out the water that was floating between the protein strands, making the meat tough and dry floating on a plateful of juices. 

Staple foods like potatoes and grains and most vegetables are made up mostly of carbohydrates or starches. Starches are a plant's way of storing energy, like animals use fat. Usually as complex carbohydrates, which are large molecular structures. The only problem is that our bodies aren't able to break down such large molecules, that is why we get gas after eating beans. So we need to break them down into something smaller that the chemical and physical processes we have can break those down. The heat of cooking will break down those complex carbohydrates into simple sugars which we can process very easily.

One of the reasons food turns brown, when it is cooked, is because the sugars, that the carbohydrates are breaking down into, are being caramelized.