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 carbohydratesa needed source of energyare 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. 

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    What a clever and fun piece! Besides the part where you burned your finger…

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    I think what intrigues me most about this piece is your cooking journey and just how complex that actually was and is more than just fun.

    Reply

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