Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
First the caramel burned, then my fingertip. A few months earlier, I had accomplished a delicious, slightly salty sauce by following Samin Nosrat’s instructions. But that morning the caramel simmered from golden brown to smokey, unusable black. Sighing, I poured it into the dumpster and started round two. I wanted the perfect sauce for my apple coffee cake, and salted caramel was just what I craved.
Sugar, water, heat. Stir, stir, stir. The sugar was bubbling again, a golden brown color growing along the edges. I snuck my index finger in to double-check the progress.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I yelped and scurried over to the sink to rinse my throbbing hand. By the time I returned to the stove, the caramel was just as scorched as my fingertip.
Into the trash for the sauce, onto the couch for me. I retreated, nursed my wounds, and cursed that batch of boiling carbohydrates.
When I first combined food and science, guilt always hovered just within reach. Scientific knowledge about food carried a moral flavor: was this food good? Bad? Fattening? Somewhere between food pyramids and food plates, diets, and portion sizes, I met the word carbohydrate. At first, I knew the sugar molecules as the result of my favorite foods: bread, pasta, grains, all the floury things I adored. Then, as I grew older, carbohydrates shortened to “carbs,” and their existence became something to be counted.
Carbohydrates, scientifically, are a mixture of three abundant elements: oxygen, hydrogen, and of course carbon. Oxygen, in common lore, is a friendly substance, something to crave from plants, pump through blood, and search for in distant atmospheres. Hydrogen has a more nuanced reputation with connotations of the dreaded hydrogen bomb along with the life-giving H2O. That leaves carbon, which (at least for my brain) suggests a host of unpleasant associations: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbon emissions, and, of course, carbohydrates.
But carbohydrates—a needed source of energy—are not inherently cackling or cruel. And mishandled carbohydrates do not carry a burning vendetta for overeager cooks. I probably should have used a true saucepan, not the wok-style saute pan I chose that morning. I probably should have turned the flames off sooner and let the sauce thicken at a slower pace. I know all too well that candy-making is a touchy business, mostly because of hot sugar. In only a few minutes, the sweet molecules can transform from pure white sand to deep brown liquid. This explosive ability is a boundless wonder of the culinary world, and it’s also why a single touch of the boiling sugar scarred my finger for weeks.
As I grew from a child to a teen to an adult, attempts to mix science and food started to produce more joy than uneasy frustration. “Nutrition” was no longer the only lens with a claim on kitchen biology or chemistry. I devoured stacks of books and Cook’s Illustrated, reveling in how a recipe worked just as much as what it made. I learned about the Maillard reaction, the magical process that browns food into irresistibility, and I loved having a name for the smells radiating from the oven. I thought about bases and acids, and I started improvising a dash of vinegar, a splash of wine for a squirt of lemon juice.
As I type this, over a month after my failed caramel attempt, I can still feel the little ridge of mended skin along my index finger. Just now I typed the f in finger, and I noted the tiny reminder that curiosity can kill skin cells as well as the cat.
When I set a pan on the stove and ignited a burner, expecting to quickly create a salted caramel, I had already invited carbon into the recipe. Our cooking gases are often carbon-based, in one way or another. Other cooking methods often release carbon as a byproduct. When you cook, you play with fire, and (sooner or later) you’ll be playing with carbon too. Carbohydrates are only a tiny, tiny part of carbon’s kingdom, a world that includes much more than the places laypeople like me know.
When I finally made my long-awaited apple coffee cake, I let the folks at Smuckers take care of the caramel for me. I acknowledged the carbon and carbohydrates in other places: the brown sugar in the streusel, the fructose in the Jonagolds, the flour binding the dough together. I drizzled some premade caramel on my slice and enjoyed a feast of carbon.
Someday I’ll adventure back into the world of boiling carbohydrates: I’ll find a deeper saucepan and round up some butter, sugar, salt, and cream for another attempt at homemade caramel. But this time, I’ll keep a store-bought jar in the fridge, just in case.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.