Adventures in Cooking and Emulsions: How I Could Have Saved My Valentine’s Day Dinner

Usually, I start reading for class each weekend.  However,overValentine’s Day weekend, I prepared a classy French-style dinner for my significant other instead of starting my homework.  Little did I know, doing the reading ahead of time on emulsions and sauces would have really helped.

Valentine’s Day Menu

French bread

White, Burgundy wine (Macon-Villages)

Chicken with mushrooms and white wine

Green beans

Fruit and cheese plate

I had hoped to make most of the menu from scratch, but I found myself lacking time and equipment.  As a result, I resorted to buying a few pre-made components.  In the interest of working with the ingredients I had on hand, I made a few substitutions in the chicken recipe.

Shirley Corriher’s Chicken with Wild Dried Mushrooms and Wine

Serves 6 to 8 (I quartered the recipe for the two of us.)

1 ounce mixed dried morels and dried cepes

½ cup warm water

8 chicken thighs, cut in half across the bone

Salt and pepper


4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup dry white Burgundy (Macon-Villages)

2 cups heavy or whipping cream

  1. Soak the dried morels and cepes in warm water in a small bowl for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.  Season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour.  Brown chicken pieces in butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until deeply browned on all sides, about 8 minutes.  Cover the skillet and cook below a simmer until the chicken is quite tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the chicken and excess fat.
  3. Pour in the wine and scrape the pan well to loosen any stuck browned bits.  Add morels and cepes.  Add soaking water, taking care to pour the water off the top and leave some water so that any sand from the mushrooms is left behind.  Boil 4 minutes to reduce and boil off some of the alcohol.
  4. Add the cream and reduce over medium heat until the consistency of a medium cream sauce, about 4 minutes.  Return the chicken and any drippings to the skillet and simmer about 4 minutes more.

When I served dinner, I thought the set-up looked quite lovely – but alas! The sauce was not the rich and creamy texture that Shirley Corriher had promised.  It was thin and ran all over the plate!  The chicken was not succulent and juicy, but dry and chewy.  Luckily, my boyfriend is not a cooking expert, and he genuinely thanked me for the meal.  Meanwhile, I sat at the table chewing and chewing my chicken in its watery sauce wondering, What had I done wrong??

After analyzing my final product, doing my weekly reading, and discussing the chemistry of emulsions in class, my mishaps were painfully obvious.

The Valentine’s Day Chicken Fiasco: My Mistakes

This experiment in cooking taught me the importance of only substituting chemically equivalent ingredients. I’m not sure what I was thinking – maybe that I could successfully adapt the recipe, or simply, that chicken was chicken. Instead of chicken thighs, I cooked the chicken breasts I already had in the freezer.  As we learned in class several weeks ago – the cut of meat does matter!  Corriher’s recipe specifically called for dark meat because it is tougher than light meat and can handle longer cooking.  The thighs are used to support the entire bird, and so they are full of myoglobin (which gives them their dark color) and are much tougher muscles than the breasts.  Because I cooked the breasts for the same amount of time that the thighs were supposed to have been cooked, the proteins coagulated into tight groups and squeezed out most of the water.  In the end, the meat became much tougher than desired.

Additionally, I couldn’t find an appropriate sized container of heavy cream, and so I figured that half and half would be a good substitution.  McGee’s book On Food and Cooking has a table comparing the relative proportions of fat and water in food emulsions (clearly I read this after making the chicken).  Compared to 100 parts water, heavy cream has 70 parts fat, light cream has 25 parts fat, half and half has 15 parts, and whole milk has 5 parts.  Wow! Given these proportions, I might as well have used water in my sauce.  Now, I know that I could have “rescued” the thin sauce by adding an absorbent starch (like flour) to form networks to trap the water molecules.

Chemistry Class: Emulsions

As we learned in class this week, an emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that do not dissolve in each other and retain their own properties even when combined (often some forms of water and oil).  We know them most commonly as condiments, including salad dressing, butter, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard. The secret to combining the two opposing forces involves mixing (for a temporary combination, like Italian salad dressing) and adding an emulsifier (for a more stable emulsion, such as mayonnaise).

An emulsifier is used to coax the dispersed phase (separate droplets) to combine with the continuous phase (intact liquid). The fat-soluble (non-polar) end of an emulsifier sticks in fat droplets, while the water-soluble (polar) end of the molecule stays on the outside to react with water. Common emulsifiers include proteins (such as lecithin from egg yolks and casein from milk) and plant products (such as starches, pectins, and gums).  Alton Brown (from the Food Network’s “Good Eats”) and Shirley Corriher (author of Cookwise) compare phospholipid emulsifiers, like lecithin, to pushpins in a Styrofoam ball.  The non-polar hydrocarbon chains make up the fatty acid tail (the pin, circled in red) which “sticks” in the ball, while the polar phosphate group (the grip, circled in blue) remains in the polar liquid.  When non-polar droplets are coated with lecithin, they repel each other in order to create an evenly distributed mixture.

Foams are also emulsions, with air bubbles mixed into solids or liquids.  I discovered the importance of air the first time I tried to make an angel food cake, which consists only of egg whites, air, sugar, and flavoring.  Impatient and assuming that I could whisk the mixture by hand in 20 minutes, I made a very flat cake with the flavor of an egg white omelet.


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