The Flavor Equation: The kitchen is his science lab
With The Flavor Equation, Nik Sharma walks you through the science behind cooking, chemistry of ingredients and making of the perfect flavour
CHENNAI: Flip the paratha when it sizzles, drink milk not cold water when you eat something spicy, add salt only after the tangy ingredient learning these tips from his mother, grandmother and through his observations led food writer, photographer and cookbook author Nik Sharma into the world of food science and molecular biology.
“The earliest vivid recollection is when I learned to make stock with my maternal grandmother. While she would prep the vegetables for the stock, she’d tell me why she cut them all in similar sizes — they’d all cook at nearly the same time. There were other instances like learning how to cream the butter and sugar for a cake at the right temperature, how to beat cream skimmed off cooled milk to make butter and ghee,” shares Los Angeles-based Nik.
Soon, his experiments began in the kitchen and the labs of his alma maters — St Andrew’s High School, Mumbai; RD National College, Mumbai; St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, TN Medical College, Mumbai; and University of Cincinnati, Ohio. The results of his experiments, understanding how the combination of emotion, sight, sound, texture, aroma and taste establishes the flavour of a dish, and exploring the anatomy of a recipe culminated into his new book, The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes.
What prompted you to write The Flavor Equation?
I spent most of my career in molecular biology labs and later working as a pastry cook. The Flavor Equation is the marriage of both those experiences where I focus on how science and cooking play a central role in how we approach flavour building and appreciation in our food. Of course, the core of this book is cooking, and the book does this by using recipes to teach and highlight the concepts discussed; it’s similar to how experiments act as a practical tool to understand theory in Science. With this book, I hope people notice that every action they perform in the kitchen while cooking has a logical thought built into it. Everything our ancestors taught and passed on to us has scientific wisdom built into it.
What went into the making of this book?
I revisited a lot of my old textbooks, went down the wonderful rabbit hole of research papers to learn what had been done and reported by scientists. But there’s a lot to be learned from research that’s looking to the future of food and minimising waste. In addition, since a large part of this book involves understanding human behaviour and perceptions, I ran basic experiments and asked people to participate in online surveys. For example, one of the most interesting figures in the book is an illustration of how people perceive and associate colours and shapes with different flavours. The results were astounding, people from different parts of the world had similar thoughts. Like, people associated the colour red with heat because they thought of red chillies.
Every cook works differently. Some measure all the ingredients before cooking, and some go by their intuition (like in most Indian households). Does the scientific profile of a recipe change then?
The scientific principles won’t change whether you measure or use your instincts to cook, they’re all driven by the same theory. For example, if you want to add an acid like lime juice to a soup, it’s going to taste sour no matter what. What will change is how sour it turns. If you measure, you’re less likely to make an error and this is especially for folk that are less experienced. Instincts, on the other hand, are developed over time through trial and error. For someone that’s experienced, the soup will taste just right, with someone with less experience, it could end up too sour or too little.
While you mention how oils, fats, sugar, salt and other parameters involved in cooking react with other ingredients, how is the science affected when you go for a healthier alternative like palm jaggery instead of white sugar, wheat flour instead of refined flour, or a vegan variant to milk?
I am personally not a fan of advocating for ‘health ingredients’; the consensus on these things change often, every few years. It also depends on how you define health, a term that means different things to different people. That being said, if you decide to switch to a food substitute for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean it will always work in a recipe. Substitutes aren’t chemical equivalents of ingredients they’re replacing in a recipe, that is the most important thing to keep in mind. The recipe usually needs quite a bit of tweaking, and from experience, I can tell that not only does texture change but also taste. Stevia leaves a metallic taste that some people pick up, palm jaggery does not always give consistent results in baking. You can’t simply sub vegan milk in an ice-cream recipe that uses dairy, they’re chemically different so you need to work out ways to reduce the formation of ice crystals. Flours behave differently and even within wheat, there are hard and soft wheat variants that lead to very different textures. In most cases, when substituting, you’ll need additional ingredients to replicate the original textures and also adjust the ratios of the ingredients.
Do you believe that it is necessary for anyone who cooks to understand the science behind it to cook perfect dishes that balances all parameters?
I think knowing what’s happening and why it happens makes you a better-equipped cook. If it fails, you want to know why and how to fix it. For example, if you heat milk and fresh ginger together, the milk will curdle. However, if you use ground ginger powder or heat the ginger in boiling water and then added the milk, it won’t curdle the milk. Fresh ginger can curdle milk because it contains an enzyme, but the enzyme is heat-sensitive and heating the ginger before it meets milk avoids this problem. Dried ground ginger powder also avoids this problem which is why we see it in chai masala blends.
Though he is someone who loves to experiment, the lockdown gave Nik time to explore his other interests. “To be honest, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing things other than cooking. I’ve been working on building a garden for the past year and it’s brought me much joy. Understanding the climate, the soil, water needs, and also the importance of building an environment for wildlife to thrive while being able to grow things I can eat or just enjoy bloom has turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences,” he shares.
On the book shelf
Book: The Flavor Equation
Price: Rs 1,999
Publisher: Harper Collins India