Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) is a strong base, capable of destroying or eroding things on contact. It's so caustic, it's used to dispose of human remains. You might have used it to unclog a drain or clean your oven - NaOH is a major ingredient in Drano and Easy-Off. You might be enjoying a bit of NaOH chemistry as part of your breakfast right now.
"Bagels and pretzels are much better when sodium hydroxide is used when preparing them," Dr. Matthew Hartings, American University associate professor of chemistry, told io9. Dr. Hartings, who teaches a 'Chemistry of Cooking' class, teaches his students all about the science behind those delicious crusty on-the-outside, yet soft-on-the-inside bagels and pretzels. The key chemical reaction, Dr. Hartings explained, is one well-known to scientists and foodies – the Maillard reaction.
"The Maillard reaction is a reaction between sugars, like glucose, and specific parts of proteins," says Dr. Hartings. "This class of reactions produces all sorts of flavors and colors that we find appealing in many of the foods that we eat - bread, beer, steaks, and many others." Where does NaOH come in? "One of the reasons that sodium hydroxide is used in preparing bagels is that alkaline or basic materials are catalysts for the Maillard reaction," explained Dr. Hartings. "This just means bases make the dough brown faster while its baking."
Prior to baking, bagels get a hot bath and base is simply added to the water. NaOH's weaker base peer, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda; NaHCO3), is routinely used instead of NaOH in the bagel base bath. There's an advantage to turning up the base - faster crust-up. Getting that beautiful brown crust faster means a bagel's insides won't be overdone. Easy eating is another reason bagels are dropped in a NaOH bath. "It is also hydrolizes proteins, which helps to make the bagels chewy," says Dr. Hartings. Are NaOH dunked bagels dripping with base? Hardly! Bagel base bath recipes vary (e.g. 1 tsp. NaOH in 1 qt. water, 3 tsp. NaOH in 1 qt. water, etc.), but a bagel's boil is typically just 30 to 60 seconds.
Your bagel may benefit from NaOH chemistry, but it's fairly free of NaOH. "By the time you are eating those delicious bagels, there is hardly any sodium hydroxide in the dough," says Dr. Hartings. "It has all been reacted away or changed." This is the case for lots of chemicals in food, stressed Dr. Hartings. He points to the controversial lean finely textured beef dubbed "pink slime" as an example. "This food requires ammonia in its preparation. But the great majority of ammonia that gets added doesn't remain in the beef as ammonia. It turns into something else."
Sometimes, just hearing that certain chemicals are in food just puts people off. "I think that a lot of people would be really surprised about the precise chemicals that are used to make their favorite foods," said Dr. Hartings. Take Cool Whip for example. One of its ingredients is polysorbate-60, a chemical that helps give Cool Whip its puffy appearance. Polysorbate-60 moonlights as an ingredient in sexual lubricants like K-Y YOURS+MINE.
Our foods contain all kinds of chemicals that have more than one job. Thankfully, one of those jobs is making food delicious.
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