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The Exponential Yummying of Onions

Caramelized vegetables are a tasty preparation method, although the process is a bit more complex than it may seem on the sweet surface.  Caramelization occurs by altering the chemical properties of foods containing sugars, which includes almost all fruits and vegetables.  The end result is a heightened natural sweetness that invigorates the flavors for your main dishes, casseroles and side dishes.

Here's a mathematical equation to simplify the caramelization process:

 heat + sugar = flavor change (isomerization) + color reaction (polymerization)

Caramelization is a form of browning, not to be confused with Browning, the poet, or the Browning automatic rifle, which was a favorite of Bonnie and Clyde. It entails roasting or heating for onions, leeks, shallots, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and many other vegetables, to a temperature between 120 degrees and 212 degrees Farenheit.  The objective is to reduce the water content and initiate two chemical reactions – isomerization and polymerization.  The process converts simple sugars to more than 100 different molecules, which I call “exponential yummying.”

Caramelizing speeds as it progresses, like a marble rolling downhill.  As the dehydration process changes chemical properties in the food, it requires lower temperature for the caramelization process to continue.  Its momentum must be stopped by removing it from it's heat source.  If the temperature and time are not kept in check, the result is burning or charring.

Different sugars caramelize at different temperatures.  Fructose, found naturally in fruits and honey, begins to caramelize at about 120 degrees F.  Other sugars, saccharose, glucose, galactose and maltose, start caramelizing at 160 degrees F. Caramelized fruits and vegetables will shrink as the water evaporates, sometimes losing two-thirds of their volume. They will become very hot, with internal temperatures exceeding 300 degrees F. 

Here's your tip of the day:  Do not use butter when caramelizing your fruits and veggies.  Dairy fats burn at a lower temperature than is required for caramelization to take place.  Use a small amount of oil at the start. If you need to prevent sticking, add water, or for added flavor, wine or alcohol.  (One of my favorite recipes is caramelized mushrooms, finished with Southern Comfort.  Killer!).

Next week:  The #1 Public Enemy for your Knives
Last week:  Avoiding Dr. Seuss Eggs

Article ID: TAK2
keywords: the atomic kitchen, caramelization, onions, browning, exponential yummying


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