You Can Take the Chemist Out of the Lab but…

Synthetic chemists make a living by mixing together materials in the right ratios at the right temperature for the right amount of time.

This description makes the correlation between chemistry and cooking obvious, at least for those of us who have done synthetic chemistry. For those in the greater public, there have been a few recent efforts to draw attention to this connection.

One is the recent ACS webinar “Kitchen Chemistry: Combining Chemistry and Culinary Delights for the Holiday” on December 9th.

A more mainstream example is the show “Good Eats” with Alton Brown on the Food Network.

In programs like this we see fundamental concepts like density taught through simple suggestions like measuring sugar by weight rather than volume. The video below is an example of Alton Brown loosely referencing chemistry to explain why onions make you cry, as well as techniques for preventing it.

I would have enjoyed seeing a few chemical structures in his explanation. For those who agree, here is the stepwise reaction:

While on the subject of cooking, I’d also like to explore an anecdote I’ve heard from more than one professor: when no longer doing wet work, their interest in cooking increased.

It has been six months since I made the transition from predominantly synthetic chemistry to pure spectroscopy and I can honestly say that, in spite of my wife’s greatest hopes, my disinterest in cooking remains.

Regardless, I have noticed that my knowledge of chemistry and my finely tuned stirring, pouring, measuring and other mechanical skills are helpful when I do. My experience in lab has also led to tendencies that may border on the obsessive compulsive – and I am not the only one. For example, over the years I have noticed that:

  • I check the meniscus while measuring out a volume of milk.
  • I wash my hands obsessively.
  • After drinking a glass of orange juice, I feel the need to rinse the bottom of the glass with water and then drink the diluted solution in order to quantitatively transfer the juice to my stomach.
  • After five years of washing glassware on a daily basis I absolutely loathe doing dishes.
  • I have witnessed a friend (an organic chemist) finish a glass of water, pour and swirl a small amount of soda in the bottom, dump it down the sink and then fill the freshly washed glass with soda to drink.

I have no doubt that other chemists have lab-based quirks in (and out) of the kitchen. What are yours?


  1. Free Radical says:

    Some “quirks” I have are actually good to have in a kitchen. For example: awareness of cross-contamination (cleanliness of surfaces you put items down on; washing of hands). I also use a kitchen scale and mix ingredients by mass, not volume, where possible (important when baking with flour). Others are more obsessive-compulsive. For example, in analytical chemistry the magic numbers of washes for quantitative transfers were three and seven. When rinsing soap out of a container, or soda out of a can prior to recycling, I wash 3 times at least, and 7 or more if it’s a large container or a lot of soap.

    I’m also attuned to order of operations, and how the order of mixing of ingredients can be important, even when the recipe doesn’t specify. I also try to measure exact temperatures when I can; I really want to buy one of those IR thermometers that can, for example, tell you exactly how hot your griddle or frying pan is in a flash.

  2. Shake and invert your bottle of diluted fruit juice at least 21 times.

  3. Dangerous Bill says:

    I use the back or handle of a spoon to guide the liquid stream when pouring from a wide-mouthed container. After decades of practice, I can also pour from a gallon bottle into a narrow mouthed container without spilling any.

    I always add solid to liquid when dissolving, not the other way round.

    Moving into microbiology, I use disposable vinyl gloves when handling meat, and immediately drop all utensils used to handle the meat into a dishpan of dilute bleach, and avoid touching other items or surfaces in the meantime. One the meat is all in the cooking container, the diluted bleach is used to wipe the counter and the gloves are discarded.

    The spatula used to begin cooking of the meat is dunked in bleach and a clean spatula substituted when the meat is entirely browned.

  4. I have a little coffeemaker that takes flat round filters similar to the type used in a Buchner funnel. I always wet the filter paper before adding the coffee.

  5. My wife and I are both synthetic chemists, and our hobby for some years has been mixing drinks. Our approaches to drink-mixing very closely reflect our approaches to chemistry.

    She has the magic hands – she could always seem to make any reaction work, instinctively knowing when to add which compound in excess, what else might be needed to drive the reaction, and when to change the order of addition, without really analyzing the mechanisms or doing any formal optimization procedures, or taking particularly careful notes. On the other hand, I was always meticulous about recording, analyzing, optimizing, and explaining reaction results and being able to confidently repeat reactions. (The two of us together added up to one good synthetic chemist – she brings the creativity, I bring the reproducibility!)

    When we develop a new drink (or try to replicate a particularly good one we’ve had at a bar or restaurant), she does most of the initial mixing and testing to figure out what should be in the drink and the approximate proportions, then I do a series of optimizations based on the ingredients she has identified and precisely quantify her “dash ofs” and “top withs” and “juice of half a lime wedge”. When we get the recipe just right, it goes on a card in our rolodex (okay, we’re also both old – I mean seasoned – chemists)and I can reproduce it anytime we feel like having it again.

  6. To paraphrase Feynman (but I do it, too!), after years of manipulating vials and caps, I can use the first two fingers on one hand to open easy caps, such as toothpaste or milk.

    I grind my coffee freshly – less than 30 seconds before brewing – because I understand oxidative degradation

    I add more salt when I cook old / tough pasta, because I hope the boiling point increase will help cook it faster.

    “Colorsafe” bleach should be labeled “hello, hydrogen peroxide” – and it can bleach just as many colors as H2O2 in a lab.

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