Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/May 1884/The Chemistry of Cookery XII

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647769Popular Science Monthly Volume 25 May 1884 — The Chemistry of Cookery XII1884W. Mattieu Williams




I NOW proceed to examine the chemical changes which occur in the course of the cookery of vegetable substances used for food. My readers will remember that I referred to Haller's statement, "Dimidium corporis humani gluten est," which applies to animals generally, viz., that half of their substance is gelatine, or that which by cookery becomes gelatine. This abundance depends upon the fact that the walls of the cells and the framework of the tissues are composed of this material.

In the vegetable structure we encounter a close analogy to this. Cellular structure is still more clearly defined than in the animal, as may be easily seen with the help of a very moderate microscopic power. Pluck one of the fibrils that you see shooting down into the water of the hyacinth-glasses just at this season, or, failing one of these, any other succulent rootlet. Crush it between two pieces of glass, and examine. At the end there is a loose, spongy mass of round cells; these merge into oblong rectangular cells surrounding a central axis of spiral tube or tubes, or greatly elongated cell-structure. Take a thin slice of stem, or leaf, or flower, or bark, or pith, examine in like manner, and cellular structure of some kind will display itself, clearly demonstrating that whatever may be the contents of these round, oval, hexagonal, oblong, or otherwise regular and irregular cells, we can not cook and eat any whole vegetable, or slice of vegetable, without encountering a large quantity of cell-wall. It constitutes far more than half of the substance of most vegetables, and therefore demands prominent consideration. It exists in many forms with widely-differing physical properties, but with very little variation in chemical composition—so little, that in many chemical treatises cellular tissue, cellulose, lignin, and woody fiber are treated as chemically synonymous. Thus, Miller says: "Cellular tissue forms the groundwork of every plant, and when obtained in a pure state its composition is the same, whatever may have been the nature of the plants which furnished it, though it may vary greatly in appearance and physical characters; thus, it is loose and spongy in the succulent shoots of germinating seeds, and in the roots of plants, such as the turnip and the potato; it is porous and elastic in the pith of the rush and the elder; it is flexible and tenacious in the fibers of hemp and flax; it is compact in the branches and wood of growing trees; and becomes very hard and dense in the shells of the filbert, the peach, the cocoanut, and the Phytelephas or vegetable ivory."

Its composition in all these cases is that of a carbohydrate, i.e., carbon united with the elements of water, which, by-the-way, should not be confounded with a hydrocarbon, or compound of carbon with hydrogen simply, such as petroleum, fats, essential oils, and resins. There is, however, some little chemical difference between wooden tissue and the pure cellulose that we have in finely-carded cotton, in linen, and pure paper-pulp, such as is used in making the filtering-paper for chemical laboratories, which burns without leaving a weighable quantity of ash. The woody forms of cellular tissue owe their characteristic properties to an incrustation of lignin, which is often described as synonymous with cellulose, but is not so. It is composed of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, like cellulose, but the hydrogen is in excess of the proportion required to form water by combination with the oxygen.

My own view of the composition of this incrustation (lignin properly so called) is that it consists of a carbohydrate united with a hydrocarbon, the latter having a resinous character; but whether the hydrocarbon is chemically combined with the carbohydrate (the resin with the cellulose), or whether the resin only mechanically envelops and indurates the cellulose I will not venture to decide, though I incline to the latter view. As we shall presently see, this view of the constitution of the indurated forms of cellular tissue has an important practical bearing upon my present subject. To indicate this beforehand I will put it grossly as opening the question of whether a very advanced refinement of scientific cookery may or may not enable us to convert nut-shells, wood-shavings, and sawdust into wholesome and digestible food. I have no doubt whatever that it may. It could be done at once if the incrusting resinous matter were removed, for pure cellulose in the form of cotton and linen rags has been converted into sugar artificially in the laboratory of the chemist; and in the ripening of fruits such conversion is effected on a large scale in the laboratory of Nature. A Jersey pear, for example, when full grown in autumn is little better than a lump of acidulated wood. Left hanging on the leafless tree, or gathered and carefully stored for two or three months, it becomes by Nature's own unaided cookery the most delicious and delicate pulp that can be tasted or imagined.

Certain animals have a remarkable power of digesting ligneous tissue. The beaver is an example of this. The whole of its stomach, and more especially that secondary stomach the cœcum, is often found crammed or plugged with fragments of wood and bark. I have opened the crops of several Norwegian ptarmigans, and found them filled with no other food than the needles of pines, upon which they evidently feed during the winter. The birds, when cooked, were scarcely eatable on account of the strong resinous flavor of their flesh.

I may here, by-the-way, correct the commonly-accepted version of a popular story. We are told that when Marie Antoinette was informed of a famine in the neighborhood of the Tyrol, and of the starving of some of the peasants there, she replied, "I would rather eat pie-crust" (some of the story-tellers say "pastry") "than starve." Thereupon the courtiers giggled at the ignorance of the pampered princess who supposed that starving peasants had such an alternative food as pastry. The ignorance, however, was all on the side of the courtiers and those who repeat the story in its ordinary form. The princess was the only person in the court who really understood the habits of the peasants of the particular district in question. They cook their meat, chiefly young veal, by rolling it in a kind of dough made of sawdust, mixed with as little coarse flour as will hold it together; then place this in an oven or in wood-embers until the dough is hardened to a tough crust, and the meat is raised throughout to the cooking-point. Marie Antoinette said that she would rather eat croutins than starve, knowing that these croutins, or meat pie-crusts, were given to the pigs; that the pigs digested them, and were nourished by them in spite of the wood-sawdust.

When I come to the other constituents of vegetable food it will be understood that the changes effected in their cookery are but nominal, and that nearly the whole business of vegetable cookery consists in rendering the cellular tissue more digestible than it is in the raw state; or in breaking it up to liberate its contents. When on the subject of cooking animal food, I had to define the cooking temperature as determined by that at which albumen coagulates, and to point out the mischief arising from exceeding that temperature and thus rendering the albumen horny and indigestible.

No such precautions are demanded in the boiling of vegetables. The work to be done in cooking a cabbage or a turnip, for example, is merely to soften the cellular tissue by the semi-solvent action of hot water; there is nothing to avoid in the direction of overheating. Even if the water could be raised above 212°, the vegetable would be rather improved than injured thereby.

The question that now naturally arises is, whether modern science can show us that anything more can be done in the preparation of vegetable tissue than the mere softening in boiling water. In my first paper I said that the practice of using the digestive apparatus of sheep, oxen, etc., for the preparation of our food is merely a transitory barbarism, to be ultimately superseded by scientific cookery, by preparing vegetables in such a manner that they shall be as easily digested as the prepared grass we call beef and mutton. I do not mean by this that the vegetable we should use shall be grass itself, or that grass should be one of the vegetables. We must, for our requirement, select vegetables that contain as much nutriment in a given bulk as our present mixed diet, but in doing so we encounter the serious difficulty of finding that the readily soluble cell-wall or main bulk of animal food—the gelatine—is replaced in the vegetable by the cellulose, or woody fiber, which is not only more difficult of solution, but is not, nitrogenous—is only a compound of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.


Next to the enveloping tissue, the most abundant constituent of the vegetables we use as food is starch. Laundry associations may render the Latin name "fecula," or "farina," more agreeable when applied to food. We feed very largely on starch, and take it in a multitude of forms. Excluding water, it constitutes above three fourths of our "staff of life"; a still larger proportion of rice, which is the staff of Oriental life, and nearly the whole of arrowroot, sago, and tapioca, which may be described as composed of starch and water. Peas, beans, and every kind of seed and grain contain it in preponderating proportions; potatoes the same, and even those vegetables which we eat bodily, all contain within their cells considerable quantities of starch.

Take a small piece of dough, made in the usual manner by moistening wheat-flour, put it in a piece of muslin and work it with the fingers under water. The water becomes milky, and the milkiness is seen to be produced by minute granules that sink to the bottom when the agitation of the water ceases. These are starch-granules. They may be obtained by similar treatment of other kinds of flour. Viewed under a microscope they are seen to be ovoid particles with peculiar concentric markings that I must not tarry to describe. The form and size of these granules vary according to the plant from which they are derived, but the chemical composition is in all cases the same, excepting, perhaps, that the amount of water associated with the actual starch varies, producing some small differences of density or other physical variations.

Taking arrowroot as an example. To the chemist arrowroot is starch in as pure a form as can be found in nature, and he applies this description to all kinds of arrowroot; but, looking at the "price current" in the "Grocer" of the current week (February 16th), I find, under the first item, which is "Arrowroot," the following: "Bermuda, per pound. 1s. to 2s."; "St. Vincent and Natal, 2


d. to 8


d."; and this is a fair example of the usual differences of price of this commodity. Nine farthings to ninety-six farthings is a wide range, and should express a wide difference of quality. I have on several occasions, at long intervals apart, obtained samples of the highest-priced Bermuda, and even "missionary" arrowroot, supposed to be perfect, brought home by immaculate missionaries themselves, and therefore worth three and sixpence per pound, and have compared this with the twopenny or threepenny "St. Vincent and Natal." I find that the only difference is that, on boiling in a given quantity of water, the Bermuda produces a somewhat stiffer jelly, the which additional tenacity is easily obtainable by using a little more twopenny (or I will say fourpenny, to allow a good profit on retailing) to the same quantity of water. Putting it commercially, the Natal, as retailed at fourpence per pound, and the Bermuda at its usual retail price of three shillings, I may safely say that nine ounces of Natal, costing twopence farthing, is equal to eight ounces of Bermuda, costing eighteen-pence. Both are starch, and starch is neither more nor less than starch, unless it be that the best Bermuda at three shillings per pound is starch plus humbug.

The ultimate chemical composition of starch is the same as that of cellulose—carbon and the elements of water, and in the same proportions; but the difference of chemical and physical properties indicates some difference in the arrangement of these elements. It would be quite out of place here to discuss the theories of molecular constitution which such differences have suggested, especially as they are all rather cloudy. The percentage is: Carbon, 44·4; oxygen, 49·4; and hydrogen, 6·2. The difference between starch and cellulose that most closely affects my present subject, that of digestibility, is considerable. The ordinary food-forms of starch, such as arrowroot, tapioca, rice, etc., are among the most easily digestible kinds of food, while cellulose is peculiarly difficult of digestion; in its crude and compact forms, it is quite indigestible by human digestive apparatus.

Neither of them is capable of sustaining life alone; they contain none of the nitrogenous material required for building-up muscle, nerve, and other animal tissue. They may be converted into fat, and may supply fuel for maintaining animal heat, and may supply some of the energies demanded for organic work.

Serious consequences have resulted from ignorance of this, as shown in the practice of feeding invalids on arrowroot. The popular notion that anything which thickens to a jelly when cooked must be proportionally nutritious is very fallacious, and many a victim has died of starvation by the reliance of nurses on this theory, and consequently feeding an emaciated invalid on mere starch in the form of arrowroot, etc. The selling of a fancy variety at ten times its proper value has greatly aided this delusion, so many believing that whatever is dear must be good. I remember when oysters were retailed in London at fourpence per dozen. They were not then supposed to be exceptionally nutritious and prescribed to invalids, as they have been lately, since their price has risen to threepence each.

The change which takes place in the cookery of starch may, I think, be described as simple hydration, or union with water; not that definite chemical combination that may be expressed in terms of chemical equivalents, but a sort of hydration of which we have so many other examples, where something unites with water in any quantity, the union being accompanied with an evolution of some amount of heat. Striking illustrations of this are presented on placing a piece of hydrated soda or potash in water, or mixing sulphuric acid, already combined chemically with an equivalent of water, with more water. Here we have aqueous adhesion and considerable evolution of heat, without the definitive quantitative chemical combination demanded by atomic theories.

In the experiment above described for separating the starch from wheat-flour, the starch thus liberated sinks to the bottom of the water, and remains there undissolved. The same occurs if arrowroot be thrown into water. This insolubility is not entirely due to the intervention of the envelope of the granules, as may be shown by crushing the granules while dry, and then dropping them into water. Such a mixture of starch and cold water remains unchanged for a long time—Miller says "an indefinite time."

When heated to a little above 140° Fahrenheit, an absorption of water takes place through the enveloping membrane of the granule, the grains swell up, and the mixture becomes pasty or viscous. If this paste be largely diluted with water, the swollen granules still remain as separate bodies, and slowly sink, though a considerable exosmosis of the true starch has occurred, as shown by the thickening of the water. It appears that in their original state the enveloping membrane is much folded, the folds probably forming the curious marking of concentric rings, which constitutes the characteristic microscopic structure of starch-granules, and that, when cooked at the temperature named, the very delicate membrane becomes fully distended by the increased bulk of the hydrated and diluted starch.

A very little mechanical violence, mere stirring, now breaks up these distended granules, and we obtain the starch-paste so well known to the laundress, and to all who have seen cooked arrowroot. If this paste be dried by evaporation, it does not regain its former insolubility, but readily dissolves in hot or cold water. This is what I should describe as cooked starch.

Starch may be roasted as well as boiled, but with very different effects. The changes that then occur are much more decided, and very interesting. I will describe them in my next.—Knowledge.