Food Glorious Food! The secret science of Christmas dinners

I know I’m not alone in thinking that the best part of Christmas day is the food. Yes, it’s lovely to spend time with your family, but nothing brings people together and makes you feel good like a plate stuffed full of turkey, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets and stuffing!

People have been striving to perfect the Christmas dinner for centuries (be glad you don’t have to cook these feasts nowadays!). Food is an integral part of the holiday season. But how can we master the perfect dinner? Why, by using science of course! Science makes everything better! Obviously personal preferences vary as to what elements people believe are necessary for the perfect Christmas dinner, but here are some little scientific factoids behind some of our classic British Christmas favourites.

The Main Event: Turkey

Nowadays, most UK families (76% back in 2015)  have a turkey as the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner. These delicious birds have a complex biology. You may know that turkeys contain two different types of meat, white meat and dark meat. These are so called because of their different colours, derived from varying myoglobin concentrations. Dark meat has a higher myoglobin concentration, which is the compound which carries oxygen in the blood, and is red in colour. The areas of the bird which contain the dark meat encompass the muscles which are doing the most work, so require more oxygen for cellular respiration.

Why do we eat turkey at Christmas? | Youtube

Cooking turkey with science | Youtube

There are multitudes of different ways to cook a turkey. Avoiding drying out the meat whilst still getting a crispy skin can be quite tricky. Basting, spatchcocking, stuffing – different people use a lot of different techniques. But one thing that doesn’t change is the chemical reaction taking place. This is called the Maillard Reaction, and is actually not one, but a series of complex chemical rearrangements and reactions, transforming the amino acids present in the food into complex flavour and aroma molecules. This happens through reaction with simple sugars called reducing sugars. If you want to find out more about what goes on, check out the wiki!

The Scandalous Side: Sprouts

I remember being amazed as a child to see how sprouts actually grow, the plants looked so magical to me. But though I might have thought they looked magical, many people don’t think they taste it! Why all the controversy over these small, innocuous little vegetables? Turns out, it’s all to do with our genes!

brussels-sprouts-plant-277190_1280

Brussel sprout plants | Pixabay

Back in 2003, scientists characterized the TAS2R38 gene. Not everyone has the gene, but this little guy codes for a receptor to a compound called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). When the receptor and the chemical come into contact, it sends a signal to the brain indicating a bitter taste. Many PTC derivatives are found in vegetables like sprouts, so when we eat sprouts, the chemicals can interact with the PTC receptors and we can taste the bitterness. Of course, if you don’t have the genes to code for these receptors, you’ll probably think sprouts are delicious!

The Delicious Dessert: Christmas puddings

There’s nothing more exciting than a little bit of fire, so dousing the pud in brandy and watching it burn is a fantastic ritual. But why doesn’t the pudding get all burnt and bitter like the brussel sprouts?

Christmas-pudding-flames

Burn Baby Burn: Pudding Inferno | Wikicommons

The traditional combustible of choice is brandy. Warming the alcohol a little before pouring on the oud allows the generation of alcohol vapours, and it is these vapours which do the burning. The heat of the vapours burning increases the energy of the liquor soaked into the pudding, allowing more molecules to be released as vapours and keeping the flame alive. Once all the vapours have burnt out, the fire dies – it never actually reaches the main Christmas pudding, so doesn’t leave it all burnt! Lovely.

Bringing it all together

The Whole Package | Daily Mail

Even if you don’t do anything else fancy, just buying a roast dinner ready meal, presentation is key. Neurogastronomist Charles Michel from Oxford University, told The Telegraph that the most important part of the dinner is the aesthetics. ‘Science has shown that the presentation of our food, distinctive textures, along with specific taste-balance, have a huge influence on both our flavour perception and overall pleasure when it comes to eating. Every detail of the multi-sensory experience counts.’ So even if you’re more into art than cooking, you can still make a smashing meal! However, he did also say more recently, that the perfectly presented dinner will only contain one roast potato, placed upright to give height to the plate. One! Ludicrous. So maybe take his suggestions with a (food pun intended) pinch of salt!

Merry Christmas everyone!

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We’ll be back in the New Year with a whole host of super cool new science articles, including a lot of awesome guest writers, but until then, Merry Christmas everyone! And if you’re still needing more festive science, check out the Royal Society’s Christmas Lectures, which are super great and given by fantastic scientists!


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