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Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter

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Chapter 6. Playing with Chemicals

MANKIND HAS BEEN ADDING CHEMICALS TO FOOD FOR MILLENNIA. Salt is used both as a preservative (curing meats, inhibiting bacterial growth) and as a flavor enhancer (masking bitterness). Acetic acid, a key component in vinegar and a byproduct of some strains of bacteria, turns cucumbers into pickles and cabbage into the Korean dish kimchi. And citric acid in lemon juice brightens the smell and taste of fish by neutralizing the amine compounds that can create that “fishy” smell as the tissue breaks down.

In recent history, the food industry—the collection of businesses that farm, distribute, prepare, and package the foods we eat—has developed a number of techniques to help perishable foods last longer. Refrigeration slows down bacterial growth, “modified atmosphere packaging” (MAP) displaces oxygen to reduce oxidation and retard the growth of aerobic bacteria, and chemical food additives extend shelf life, fortify foods, and aid in mass production. These same chemicals are also used to create entirely new types of foods, including many candies, and as key ingredients in some techniques of an entirely new kind of cooking given names such as molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine.

By definition, food itself is made up of chemicals, of course. Corn, chicken, and bars of chocolate are just big piles of well-structured chemicals. For our purposes, we’ll consider a food additive to be any chemical—a compound with a definable molecular structure—used in food ...

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