A Q&A with the author of 'What Einstein Told His Cook'
Using the genius as his muse, a chemist explains the science of the kitchen.
Wolke first hit the science trail when he got a chemistry set for his 13th birthday. Years later he would get his Ph.D. and spend 30 years teaching chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. But, he told us, he’d always wanted to be a writer. And he succeeded at that as well. Wolke is the author of "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained," the third book in a five-book series on general science. Other titles include "What Einstein Didn't Know" and "What Einstein Told His Barber."
The book has been translated into more than 20 languages. It even spurred a sequel, "What Einstein Told His Cook 2."
“I’m rubbed the wrong way by people who spout out why this and that happens, but don’t really understand it themselves,” Wolke told From The Grapevine. So he set out to explain some of life’s most common science myths, first as a columnist for the Washington Post, and later in his books.
We caught up with the professor emeritus to debunk a few myths of our own.
You have a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry, and your research has been published in several scientific journals, but you've spent much of your career explaining science to non-scientists – why is that?
During my teaching career, I taught the least sophisticated courses because I found it a challenge. Teaching involves, first of all, knowing all the stuff, but also the ability to put the concepts into the simplest possible explanations. As I worked to put the chemistry concepts into everyday language, it was a challenge for me, and it was, I gather, fun for the students, too.
How did the “What Einstein Told” series start?
I wanted to write for the general public, and I’ve always been interested in food and cooking. The first book was called "What Einstein Didn’t Know" – the publisher came up with that title. I thought it was a terrible thing for me to go out in public and claim that I knew more than Einstein, but the title stuck.
Was Einstein a foodie?
I’ve read a lot of biographical stuff about Einstein. I know he had a broad taste for music and the arts, and probably food also.
In "What Einstein Told His Cook," you cover topics such as softening hardened brown sugar, removing (or not) excess salt from soup with a potato, and issues related to nonstick cookware. Where do you get your ideas?
There’s an awful lot of nonsense out there about food and cooking. I take evil pleasure in debunking a lot of that baloney. Even culinary school graduates don’t know much about why everything is happening in their kitchens. They know, “Do it this way or the soufflé will collapse.” I’ve gotten a lot of good reviews but also made a few enemies by shooting down nonsensical beliefs.
Salt. About 10 years ago when I was writing the first food book, the food world had just discovered sea salt as a panacea, instead of this horrible chemical stuff that we have in our salt shakers on our tables. People were singing its praises; it’s natural, it contains essential minerals, it comes from the sea, which is the origin of all life. And well, it’s all baloney.
I never said all salt is the same. It’s all sodium chloride, but there are differences ... but because the evaporation process is really slow, the crystals formed are very large and flaky, that’s fun when you use it as a finishing salt at the table. But the only difference between sea salt and the rest of it is the size and shape of those crystals.
If you walk into a gourmet shop, you'll find maybe 15 kinds of sea salt. There's Himalayan pink salt, which is a total hoax. There’s a huge salt mine in the Himalayan Mountains, and the salt is pink because of iron impurities. It doesn’t take much iron to color the salt, but it’s been hyped as incredibly healthy and wonderful and flavorful.
What was the most outrageous kitchen experiment you’ve performed?
Probably the salt and the potato. They say if you put too much salt in a dish, if you cut up a raw potato and simmer it in the liquid, the potato will extract the excess salt. I did careful chemical experiments measuring where the salt goes, weighing the potatoes and measuring the sodium content before and after. It’s just an old wives’ tale.
Have the results of any of your experiments surprised you?
Well, I don’t want to harp on salt, but a lot of cookbooks talk about the right time to add the salt when cooking pasta. That's an easy experiment to do, and I was interested myself what difference it could possibly make.
What I discovered is that the reason professional cooks say don’t add the salt right away is that if you’re using a stainless steel pan and you put the salt into the water right away, the solid crystals rest on the surface of the stainless steel and actually corrode the pan to some degree. So you wait for the water to start boiling a little bit before you put the salt in.
So what’s the function of the salt?
It’s the flavor only. I did calculate how much the cooking temperature would be changed by the salt, but it’s only about 1/1000 of a degree.
Does knowing the science behind food make one a better cook?
You could have quoted that as my mantra. Yes, no question about it. Things that happen have causes, and finding out the causes of things is what science does. It’s really important because if you learn some of the science behind your art, you can do the art better.
What are the most important lessons the everyday cook can take from your book?
I think it's the importance of curiosity. The mindset of wanting to know why this or that is happening. Once you have that mindset, you keep learning and improving your cooking. It’s fun to know why, and that’s why I’m a science teacher, I guess.
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