Controlling Water

A little birdy once told me that all these modern techniques boil down to the simple act of controlling water molecules. Well, it wasn’t really a little birdy, it was Alex Stupak, but he dropped this bombshell in my ear with the casual effect of a little bird chirping their daily song.

With no prompt, he said simply, “You know, it’s really just about controlling water,” and walked away.

This simple phrase had the power of a plot changing hollywood one liner, too few words with more effect than realistically possible, delivered at a turning point at which you can see the characters shift indelibly. These words have shifted me.

These “magic white powders” that are given to modern technique, xanthan gum, gellan gum, agar agar, and various modified starches, are simply put, controlling water. And by controlling water, we are controlling texture.

While this fact was a revelation to me, what was even more thought provoking, was how much of my pastry work up to this point was based off controlling water. And it’s not just me folks, it’s you too.

Cornstarch, something familiar to every pantry is the modern staple in a long line of water controlling white powders used by home cooks for hundreds of years. Before that, home cooks were familiar with dry powdered potato starch and arrowroot starch as well. We use these starches to thicken things like gravy, and pudding. What we are doing is introducing little round starch molecules that when heated, absorb water and swell. These chubby little starches begin to crowd each other and move around lazily, much slower than the tiny swift water molecules. The end result is a thickening, or a specific change in texture do to the controlling of water molecules.

Gelatin, another ingredient familiar to professionals and home cooks alike is a simple act of controlling water. A vast web of gelatin protiens traps water, thus stiffening it. Pectin again is used to jell fruit juices to make jelly, a process that encourages the sugar chains to fold and entrap water. Even without additional pectin, we have learned to take fruits naturally high in the substance and cook them until jellied. From french cooking we have learned to cook butter and flour together to make roux, a thickening substance we rely on for so many traditional sauces. We even control water by simply eliminating it through reduction.

Most recognizable is controlling water by freezing it. Every home has a freezer, and we use it extensively for preservation. But countless times have I seen cooks throw something in the freezer before they cut it, a simple act of hardening the water making it more manageable. The entire process of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and granita is attributed to slowly creating ice crystals while agitating them, gaining a specific texture. Popsicles, even simpler, are a favorite treat made by temporarily solidifying the water in a fruit juice through freezing.

Where would our thanksgiving table be without jellied cranberries and gravy? Who hasn’t curbed their hunger with a little snack of jell-o or pudding? What freezer has never seen ice cream?

It’s clear our desire to control the water in our foods runs deep through professional and home kitchens, and back through time. Thus it’s easy to see that this fundamental fact of modern cuisine, controlling water and texture, is a core fact in all cooking. Whether you are using new white powders unfamiliar to most outside the commercial food industry, or old ones that you first saw in your grandma’s pantry, it’s a fact of the kitchen. As long as there is water to control, we will do just that.

5 Responses to “Controlling Water”

  1. And of course on the savory side there is lots of water control too. Whenever you want to brown something, you need to get rid of water first, at least on the surface. But there is that delicate dance of needing to get rid of moisture without overcooking the interior. And oil and water won’t mix. A quick example from last night – I wanted to roast some green beans, but wanted to wash them first. Rather than toss them with oil immediately, I put them in the oven still wet first, allowing them to dry on the surface, then tossed with oil and salt a minute or two later. And of course breading is another example of a way to get a crispy dry surface into your fat while preserving water on the inside.

  2. Hmm, I can see how this applies greatly to much of pastry cooking, but many more aspects of chemistry are involved with savory cooking…the Maillard reaction to name one. Of course that’s important in pastry cooking as well, but not to the same degree.

    Actually here’s one that’s mainly used by bakers (in addition to the use in the creation of pasta): the development of long gluten strands…

  3. lindsey says:

    What an interesting way of thinking about so many of the actions I do each day at work (and how delicious to be reading this *while* spinning ice cream, I must say)! Thanks for giving me a new way to look at some of those pastry basics.

  4. chadzilla says:

    It is an insightful as well as obvious comment you speak of. Isn’t it strange that most revelations come in this form?
    … especially when you consider the prefix of the word ‘hydro’colloid of which all of these ‘powders’ you mention are.

  5. dana says:

    It’s true, most “revelations” are really just a big “of course!”. And only some of the “powders” are hydrocolloids. Many of them are modified starches and sugars as well.

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