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Food and Drink

Kitchen forensics 101

After the fun of reexamining your basic Canadian fridge last week, compliments of Jean-Louis Brussac of Coquitlam who likes to analyze just about everything he sees, I was curious to peek behind - or inside - other common kitchen appliances and the like to see what might pop up.

If you've ever picked up the book, The Way Toys Work , I bet, like me, you couldn't put it down. Ed Sobey, who founded the National Toy Hall of Fame in the U.S. wrote it with his son, Woody, after "reverse engineering" toys to spill their guts, so to speak. The book dissects everything from the magical Etch-A-Sketch, one of my all-time favourites, to the boomerang, and throws in some history, to boot.

Now Mr. Sobey Sr. has turned his incisive mind to the kitchen with his new book, The Way Kitchens Work . Released by Chicago Review Press, The Way Kitchens Work will totally change the way you see your kitchen and all your best kitchen helpers.

Here's a quick take on three of my favourites, thanks to Ed and his Aunt Jean, who inspired him with her cooking, and to whom the book is dedicated.

The magical microwave

Whenever I use a microwave oven, I try to picture someone transported from the 15th century - or heck, just about any time before the 1970s when microwaves became popular - watching in disbelief as something cold goes inside and quickly comes out hot, with no tangible sign of heat.

Microwaves (for the sake of simplicity I'll drop the "oven", which none of us Canucks ever use, anyway) are such an integral part of today's kitchen it's hard to picture life without them, even for people who don't live on take-out.

We have the American engineer, Percy Spencer, to thank for inventing the microwave after a chocolate bar accidentally melted in his pocket when he stood in front of an operating magnetron.

Spencer patented it in 1950, after Raytheon Company came out with the first one in 1947. It weighed a ton, well, really, about 750 pounds, cost way too much and used about three times as much electrical power as those today.

Essentially, microwaves heat and cook your food using electromagnetic radiation. Only certain molecules in the food react, namely water, fat and sugar, vibrating due to the bombardment and subsequently generating heat.

The radiation has a wavelength of about 12 cm (5 inches) and can pass through glass and transparent plastic, much like visible light can. Since the radiation could potentially pass through that little viewing window in the door, manufactures sandwich a metal screen with very fine openings onto the glass window. The screen blocks the radiation, since the openings are too small to let it through.

If you think green, as we all should, modern microwave ovens make a good choice. They're about 70 to 80 per cent efficient, compared to conventional ovens, where only about 50 per cent or less of the heat generated actually heats the food.

Read The Way Kitchens Work to learn more about how microwave ovens work. But here's a warning from Mr. Sobey: don't dissect one at home because the huge capacitor stores electrical energy, even when the appliance is unplugged.

Nuts for popcorn

I admit it. I'm a popcorn freak and even though I'm really not an appliance buff, my popcorn popper is one thing I defend - and keep - every time we move.

Aboriginal peoples in what we now call the southern Americas were into popping corn centuries before we Caucasians even dreamt it existed. But it wasn't until 1893 that Charles Cretors came up with the first automated popcorn popper.

If for no other reason, it's worth getting your hands on a copy of The Way Kitchens Work to check out the illustration of Cretor's invention, which looks like some kind of crazy Rube Goldberg machine, what with all its pulleys and gizmos.

Next time someone, anyone, complains about my popcorn popper, I'll remind them that the first one weighed 400 pounds. Cretors claimed it could be carried by a pony or a small boy, but I'd sure like to meet that boy.

Despite its unwieldy size, Cretors automated popper harnessed the same principle as our modern ones.

The type of corn used for popcorn contains a relatively large amount of water - about 14 per cent by weight - right inside each kernel's hard little shell, one of which invariably gets stuck in your teeth.

Both popping machines work on the principle that when you heat the kernel, in the case of a modern hot air popper to 400 F, then the water inside the kernel vapourizes, and poof!, the kernel explodes into popcorn. The water vapour also inflates the starchy material inside the kernel by a factor of about eight, creating that fluffy, white piece of popcorn, which is making me hungry just thinking about it.

Timing that tender turkey

Have you ever bought one of those turkeys with the plastic thingy stuck in it that pops out when your bird is cooked? Before I could barely make Kraft Dinner, I bought such a turkey and remember thinking at the time it was a miracle.

Along with the other 54 appliances and gizmos featured in The Way Kitchens Work , Mr. Sobey has turned his gaze on the turkey timer with enlightening results.

Apparently the device was hatched in the 1960s when the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board realized that way too many people were complaining that their cooked turkeys were too dry. At a brainstorming session to solve the problem, one board member glanced up at the fire sprinklers on the ceiling, which are triggered when heat from a fire melts a piece of metal inside the sprinkler.

Eureka! Using the same principle, the board developed a plastic tube with a pop-out indicator that's held in place by a dab of soft metal until the inside temperature of your turkey hits 185 F and the metal melts.

Yes, you can use a meat thermometer to achieve the same results, but not to the same playful effect. Besides, you can reuse your turkey timer, but you'll have to get the book to learn how.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who also enjoyed Sobey's section on aluminum foil - which came after tin foil.