Last weekend was spent burning a few huge piles of brush to much smaller piles of ash consequently helping clear a field. As the flames licked the wood it gave up its energy and water. I kept thinking about food — and not just s’mores. Cooking is so routine as to be habitual. What we rarely think about is humans are the only ones who cook their food.
There are some pretty profound benefits from cooking food. All known human societies eat cooked foods, and biologists generally agree cooking could have had major effects on how the human body evolved. For example, cooked foods tend to be softer than raw ones, so humans can eat them with smaller teeth and weaker jaws.
Incidentally, the human record suggests our brains increased in size at the same time early humans started to cook food, although we have no evidence as to why these changes happened around the same time.
Cooking also increases the energy and nutrients available in food. For example, starchy potatoes and other tubers, eaten by people across the world, are much less digestible when raw. Proteins can be more digestible and harmful bacteria are killed making food safer.
Since early days of a campfire humans have raised cooking to a fine art. Our tools now include microwaves, toasters and air fryers. How we cook changes food dramatically, and can have an equally important impact on nutrition for better or worse.
Proteins including cartilage and other connective tissues in meats break down by cooking. Tough chewy cuts of meat become tender when cooked slowly using moist heat cooking methods like a long braise. Fats melt in between muscle fibers giving it a tender mouth feel as the fibers slide past each other.
Heating also causes two reactions to occur. Carbohydrates like sugars and starches are transformed by heating. Sugars turn brown, as seen when we caramelize the tops of a crème brulee or bake bread. The Maillard reaction is a complex reaction that we see with meat when we sear it — causing protein and carbohydrates to react and the meat to brown. Certainly the tastiness of food influences the amount we eat. Certainly consuming a more plant based diet would be easier if you had to choke down cold raw meat!
Along with starches becoming more digestible, vegetables when cooked, become softer and easier to chew. Their cell structure breaks down and releases air pockets also making the greens brighter. Too much cooking and they turn a dull olive color. They also lose vital nutrients such as vitamins C and B. Too much soaking and nutrients leach out. Just the right heat, applied the right way and the flavors are delicious, the texture exquisite and the colors brilliant.
Cooking also helps bring out the fifth flavor: Umami. This flavor is sourced from glutamate, an amino acid. Certain proteins are rich in glutamates and cooking them only enhances this savory, rich flavor.
Cooking is uniquely human. Fine cuisine is distinctly humanizing.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and the agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.