Food Opinion

Common kitchen chemistry and some honeycomb for dessert

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(Screenshot via YouTube)

Your kitchen isn’t just a place you trudge into and slap together some sustenance to fuel your body to keep going, but a magical place of alchemy transforming raw elements into tempting foodstuffs through a variety of processes.

Anytime you apply heat or cooling to an ingredient, you are changing its nature — which will affect its texture and flavour. Different techniques are used to bring out and develop the best flavours. It’s why we grill steak and steam broccoli.


Bread, wine and beer – standard items humans have been producing for hundreds of years – come to us through the process of fermentation. Microorganisms, such as yeast or bacteria, break down carbohydrates such as sugar and starch into alcohol and acids.

Pickled vegetables help preserve them for longer, but also allow you to give dishes a tangy note when you include them.

Miso is fermented soybeans. Hatcho (black) miso is fermented for 2-3 years before it’s ready to use.

The Maillard reaction

French chemist Louis Camille Maillard was the first to recognise the process of browning foods to change their molecular structure. His work contributed to the development of more processed food and the beginning of serious food science.

It wasn’t until 1953, though, that American chemist John E Hodge started to unravel the process and the positives and negatives of processes on the food and the human body.

Before that, we just knew that roasting meat and baking bread until they turned brown tasted good.

Gluten formation

When ground flour and water are mixed and then kneaded, the gluten proteins lengthen and form longer chains.

What about no-knead recipes? you may ask. But these use time instead of kneading to achieve the same result — complete hydration of the flour.

Gluten formation is the core to textures in baked goods, or any doughs, which is why gluten-free baking can be a challenge in regards to texture.

Acid-base reactions

You can cook fish in an acid such as lemon juice — ceviche. Marinades with an acidic element such as tomato or yogurt will help tenderise the meat by breaking down the proteins.

In baking, adding a base such as baking powder to an acid helps create bubbles in cakes and batters to achieve a fluffy texture. It’s often why you find buttermilk in baking recipes instead of just milk — the extra acid in buttermilk helps with bubble formation.

Protein denaturation

Heat, acid, high salt concentrations, alcohol and mechanical agitation can cause proteins to denature. This is a good thing in cooking, it allows us to create a variety of different food.


This is the magic process in which you combine an oil and a liquid such as water so that they come together and the oil droplets suspend themselves throughout the liquid. This usually involves mechanical agitation of some kind. For example, when you make a vinaigrette you shake the oil and water together; with mayonnaise, you use a blender to break the oil into droplets through the egg/vinegar liquid.

Butter is an emulsion. When you mix it through flour to bake, the water evaporates from the butter leaving the oil to make the pastry crispy.


Sugar dissolves in water, but cocoa does not. Mixing it through will suspend the cocoa through a liquid such as milk.

Cake recipes will often say Dutch process cocoa since that process helps cocoa to be suspended through a batter.

Baking and making sweets is the time when you can really get into the role of mad alchemist since the processes used can be pretty dramatic. Understanding the scientific processes though can prevent many a cake from failing. Pastry cookery is a much more exact discipline of cooking.

Recipe: Honeycomb

Honeycomb is deceptive in that it rarely contains honey. Rather, it’s named for the shape the structure takes on which is reminiscent of bee-created honeycomb.

Of course, it can contain honey if you choose, which will alter the flavour and structure since it’s mostly fructose. And the usual sugars used are mostly sucrose, so you might need to take it to a lower temperature since it’s more likely to burn.

Glucose syrup is the easiest to use, but you can experiment with other sugar syrups such as golden syrup. Don’t skip adding a syrup of some kind, though, since it helps prevent the sugar from crystallising.


  • 100 grams granulated sugar
  • 45 grams glucose syrup
  • 25 mls water
  • 3 grams bicarbonate soda


  • Large saucepan
  • Tray or pan
  • Baking paper
  • Thermometer


Line your tray or pan with baking paper. A tray will give you a thinner honeycomb; a pan thicker since it takes on the shape of the container it cools down in.

Put sugar, glucose syrup and water in a large saucepan (don’t use a small one — this is going to bubble up like crazy when you add the bicarbonate soda).

Dissolve the sugar over medium heat. Swirl the pan gently to melt all the crystals.

Continue to cook the sugar mix until it reaches 150ºC, it will have started to turn a browner colour.

Remove from heat and add bicarbonate soda. Mix. It will bubble up to form the classic honeycomb structure. It will be hot!

Pour into your container and leave to cool.


You need to either coat your pieces completely in chocolate or store them in an air-tight container. Honeycomb loves to suck moisture out of the air and reduce itself to a sticky mess.

If your honeycomb is too sticky after cooling, it’s because you didn’t take the boiling process far enough. You need to take it as far as you can to evaporate the water out of the pan and the sugar — nerves of steel are required.

If you take things too far and the sugar is too brown (and therefore bitter), you can add some more water to the pan and try to bring it back down, before heating again.

Honeycomb is good to break up and give a crunch to various desserts.

Megan Jane de Paulo is a Melbourne-based, inner-city latte sipper and social media provocateur. You can follow Megan on Twitter @gomichild.

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