Caramel is magical, and science is delicious

I’m a big nerd. I may not wear a lab coat anymore, but I’m still conducting experiments all the time. Case in point: when I visited a friend in Boulder, Colorado, I knew that it was one mile above sea level. The first thing that popped into my head was “high-altitude baking experiments,” the results of which I still have to document.

When it comes to food, I’m always thinking about the science behind it.

Take caramel, for instance. It seems simple, right? Put sugar (white, crystalline) into a pan and heat it up to 165 degrees Celsius. The resulting caramel (brown, liquid) looks, tastes and smells nothing like sugar. How did it do that? What were the molecular changes? At what temperature? It gets me every time. I think it’s magical and fantastical.

And then there’s Christopher Elbow‘s vanilla bean caramel. It’s lovely, honest flavour. In fact, this chocolate was missing from my chocolate menu and I had to guess what was in it. Sometimes, this is fun; often, it’s a crapshoot as flavours are muddy or, ahem, overly subtle. Well, this was clearly vanilla bean caramel. The caramel was rich and buttery, and just sweet enough. The fragrant vanilla floated on top of the caramel – and who doesn’t love seeing vanilla bean seeds in their food?

But let’s get to the cool science. The mouthfeel was amazing. It was perfectly smooth, but not oozy. As I do with my chocolate tastings, I cut this one in half to get a cross-section view. The caramel looks solid in the shell: it flows a little bit, but it stays in the shell. But then you pop it in your mouh, and your tongue is, quite literally, bathed in liquid caramel. It’s partly to do with the heat of your mouth, but there’s also the molecular structure of the caramel. The study of things that are sometimes liquid, and sometimes solid, is called rheology. I think it’s pretty freaking cool.

But even if you don’t, appreciate this: it makes for lovely caramels.

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One response to “Caramel is magical, and science is delicious

  1. I love caramel and making it is a lot of fun too. I had a ball making these homemade caramel apples by Martha Stewart. Perfect for Halloween!
    http://michaelbeyer.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/classic-caramel-apples/

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