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Sleuths in the Kitchen Hone Cooking Science

These teachers can tell you why your lobster turned red

Sue Wilson and Anne Gardiner are curious about what goes on in the kitchen. Not just in the oven or on the stove top. What really goes on.

Why, for example, does a lobster turn red when cooked? (The "simple" answer is that in uncooked crustaceans, the pink-orange color compound called astaxanthin is normally wrapped in a protein which gives them a blackish hue. Once they are boiled the proteins chains uncoil and the astaxanthin molecules are released and they turn red.)

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Ever on the lookout for scientific explanations, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Gardiner are inquisitive cooks - home economists who have found a niche in public education. They teach the "whys" behind cooking techniques.

It all started back in the early 1980s when they began teaching a class on the chemistry of cooking at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

There, they quickly found that they weren't the only ones interested in the science of cooking. Plenty of others did - as evidenced by the waiting list to get into their class.

Cooking science offered new information beyond recipes in cookbooks and on tattered index cards. "We would see flashes of recognition as people realized 'so that's how it works!' " recalls Gardiner, interviewed along with Wilson by phone.

Their classes included people of all ages, as well as novice and professional chefs. Established chefs found the "whys" behind their techniques and became even more creative. Beginners found that when they learned how to cook from a more-scientific approach they felt more at ease in the kitchen. Even folks who had been cooking for decades were enlightened, declaring, "I've wondered about that for years!"

So great was the response, the two decided to broaden their outlets of public education.

Today, in addition to teaching classes, Wilson and Gardiner are creators of "The Inquisitive Cook," a newspaper column (Victoria Times Colonist), an Internet site (, and a book coming out this spring, "The Inquisitive Cook." The Web site has received accolades from many, including schoolteachers, science institutes, universities, and Internet enthusiasts. Chef Paul Prudhomme wrote in to say, "So you can teach an old dog new tricks."

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Questions come from around the world. One of the most popular arenas is breadmaking, says Gardiner. There are always questions about baking soda and baking powder, adds Wilson.

Then there are other questions, such as: Why saut onions before adding them to pasta sauce (where they would cook anyway?) The answer: The acid that develops in the sauting helps keep the onions firm.

On their Web site, they offer explanations of what MSG is, as well as the difference between black sesame seeds and the familiar wheat-colored ones. Their articles range from broccoli and its greeness to making a memorable bouillabaisse. (Never throw all the ingredients in at once!)

They write, "Surrounded by acids, the vegetables won't soften further. And in the finished soup, an acidic broth helps the fish remain as discernible pieces, rather than disintegrating into flakes. In bouillabaisse, garlic flavours must be there, but they should offer a throaty whisper, not a shout. Adding garlic early in the cooking process gives it time to mellow...."

Working in the realm of culinary science opens up a whole new world to people. Food is a wonderful way to teach kids chemistry, too, they point out.

The combination of teaching, writing, and working in cyberspace is challenging but also exciting. "Oh we love it," says Gardiner enthusiastically. Adds Wilson, "That's what started it in the beginning - our own questions."

Once you know what's going on, Gardiner continues, your cooking takes on a whole different life.

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