Cooking and Gleaning

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In conversation, it’s not unusual for people to baulk when you tell them you’re a scientist. “Oh, I wouldn’t understand any of that” is a line I’ve heard over and over again. “Rubbish!” is my preferred response. “It’s just like cooking – but with tiny volumes!”

And so it is.

Cooking is biochemistry, in a very real sense. Granted, you’re not labouring in the kitchen to find out what the binding constants of individual proteins are, but you are – perhaps without being aware of it – carrying out very complex manipulations on extremely complex mixtures of polysaccharides, carbohydrates, and polypeptides. Or, meat, fruit, and veg, as you prefer to call them. It’s only recently that scientists have started analysing the actual chemistry of cooking, but grasping the mechanism of proteolysis or denaturation isn’t necessary for enjoying a good lobster bisque.

The average biochemistry experiment bears more than a little similarity with kitchen activity. Choose your recipe (protocol), get your ingredients (reagents), mix them together in the stipulated quantities, incubate them together for a fixed period of time, then take them out and look at them. Looking at them usually involves running a gel or a column instead of eating the products of your labour, but the results can still be mouth-watering.

In the kitchen, too, every dish is an experiment. How many times have you followed a recipe only to find that something just isn’t quite right? Welcome to the world of experimental variability. How often have you got advice from parents or grandparents to refine a family favourite? Welcome to the intangible world of tacit/expert knowledge. And how often have you had to repeat a recipe over and over again with minor modifications in order to make it perfect? Welcome to the world of protocol optimisation.

For the professionals, almost exactly the same skills are involved whether you’re working in the kitchen or at the bench. The ability to organise your time and plan ahead, the foresight to prep everything in advance so you’re not caught out in the middle of an activity, the discipline to follow instructions precisely, and accurate measurement. Oh, and knowing how to deal with a fire if one breaks out.

As practitioners gain in confidence, their intuitions become sharpened by experience. Cooks measure by eye, biochemists stop worrying about whether the pH of a solution is accurate to 0.05 decimal places (unless you’re working in an organic chemistry lab, it honestly doesn’t matter). That intangible sense of where one needs to focus and where interventions carry less weight is an essential insight that comes only with experience. And as they rise the professional ladder, both tribes delegate more work to subordinates (usually while lamenting the fact that they don’t get to do anything themselves any more).

In fact, you could easily make a case that cooking is far more difficult than benchwork because of the immense complexity of the mixtures being used. And yet many people think nothing of preparing a pretty complicated dinner, but flinch at the sight of a test tube. So the next time you’re boiling an egg (pierce the bottom, add to boiling water for 6 minutes, then briefly rinse in cold water), take a moment to enjoy the sensation. Because it’s not just cooking you’re doing, it’s biochemistry.

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