My 14-year-old son, Ben, loves to cook. He enjoys grilling, creating his own spice mixes, baking cookies for his class, and making meals when we have guests over for dinner. One of his favorites is salty sweet fleur de sel caramels — from Ina Garten’s cookbook How Easy Is That? As Garten puts it, caramels are “a perfect candy happy ending” to a delicious meal. Because of the high heat involved, I used to help, acting as Ben’s sous-chef. After watching the sugar change color and consistency, I began to wonder what’s going on. So I did some reading and learned that caramels provide all kinds of lessons about cooking, chemistry, and raising children.
The first step in making the candy is caramelization, a remarkable transformation. The sugar darkens from white to pale amber to golden brown. Crystal sugar has no smell at all, but liquid sugar has a complex bouquet —and the flavor develops from simple and sweet to richly complex and nutty. It’s so gradual it’s hard to see the changes moment to moment. Yet what we end up with is so different from what we started with. I can’t help but think the same is true of children.
What’s happening exactly? As sugar is heated, hundreds of new chemicals are produced. Some are volatile — they vaporize — so we can smell them. Some are responsible for the flavors we associate with caramels — nutty, buttery, toasty, even fruity. And some make new connections with one another, forming molecules with names like caramelans, caramelens, and caramelins (I’m not making this up).
While Ben and I caramelize the sugar, we also heat cream, butter, and salt in a separate pot. Then we combine the two mixtures, going slowly so the contents don’t bubble over and nothing (and no one) gets burned. At first, I did this step for Ben. Later, I hovered nervously as he poured the hot liquid himself, his sleeve sweeping precariously over the flame. Now he tells me he knows what he’s doing.
When the contents of the two pots merge, a second seemingly magical transformation occurs. The molecules in the sugar mixture combine with proteins in the cream and butter. As in the caramelization process, hundreds of new chemicals are produced. It’s what’s known as the Maillard reaction — which is not one chemical reaction, but many. We continue to heat the concoction until it reaches a key temperature — 248 degrees — on our candy thermometer. If we stop too early, the consistency isn’t right. If we let it go too long, the candy burns. We can’t see the molecules doing their thing — the thermometer gives us a window on the chemical process happening right under our noses.
Making caramels with Ben — or cooking anything, for that matter — is all about chemistry. Surprisingly, chemists don’t fully understand all the chemical reactions that take place during caramelization or the Maillard reaction. As with any chemical reaction, atoms are not changed, but atoms that make up molecules change partners. This is the essence of chemical reactions and cooking — old bonds break and new ones form.
Ben makes caramels by himself now. He no longer needs my help. In many ways, he’s been transformed through cooking — from a child needing guidance to an independent young man who can navigate his own way through a recipe and the kitchen (and elsewhere). I’ve changed, too, not just in recognizing the close connection between cooking and chemistry, but also in being willing and ready (almost) to let Ben learn and explore on his own — which feels, to me, both sweet and salty.