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Kitchen Chemistry 101

by Cindy Thomsen One Comment

Explaining the science behind recipes made chemistry graduate Shirley Corriher an international cooking star.

Corriher demonstrates how to fry just about anything on <em>Jimmy Kimmel Live</em>. From left, Adam Carolla, Snoop Dogg, Corriher and Kimmel.” width=”590″ height=”360″ /><p class=Corriher demonstrates how to fry just about anything on Jimmy Kimmel Live. From left, Adam Carolla, Snoop Dogg, Corriher and Kimmel.

Having a conversation with Shirley Ogletree Corriher, BA’56, is like taking a ride on a verbal roller coaster. Her voice swoops and swirls, plunges downward and then rises to a crescendo. Her words roll clicketyclack down the track and her stories, often as not, end with a belly laugh.

Corriher has a lot to be happy about these days. The one-time single mother of three who supported herself with a paper route is an international culinary phenomenon with two best-selling books (CookWise and BakeWise) to her name and a dance card filled with cooking demonstrations, television appearances and speaking engagements. If that’s not enough, her face will soon grace the packaging of a new flour from Tenda-Bake.

Corriher grew up in Atlanta and spent a lot of time in her grandmother’s kitchen. Milking cows and going into the yard to wring a chicken’s neck were normal activities. She graduated from high school in just three years and came to Vanderbilt where she majored in chemistry at the College of Arts and Science. After graduating cum laude, she worked at Vanderbilt as a research chemist and supported her first husband as he completed graduate school.

Her next move was back to Atlanta where she and her husband opened a boarding school for boys, with Corriher in charge of the kitchen. Cooking didn’t come naturally.

“I went crazy at first scrambling eggs in the school. I had this big old skillet and I would stand there and crack a dozen eggs in the pan and then I would sigh and put it on the heat and stand there and scrape like crazy,” she says. “Because I was using a cold skillet, those eggs—liquid protein—went into every nook and cranny of the pan. When I heated it, I literally cooked the eggs into the pan and ended up with this knotty pile of mess.”

Chemistry for Cooks

Fortunately for Corriher—and the schoolboys—her mother-in-law visited and taught her to heat the pan first so that the eggs cook on the surface of the skillet. Corriher took that lesson to heart and explains how it can help inexperienced cooks.

“Heating the pan first is the key to cooking meat. Say you have two chicken breasts—you put them in the hot pan and they’re literally stuck to the pan. But this is the Zen moment—you have to think happy thoughts and be at peace with the universe. Have a sip of zinfandel, BUT DON’T TOUCH THE CHICKEN BREASTS!” she says.

“As soon as they realize their food is stuck, new cooks will start scraping frantically. Get over it!” she commands. “It takes a full 90 seconds, which is an eternity, but eventually the proteins will coagulate—they hook together and form a light tan surface—and the chicken releases all by itself.”

The story is Corriher in a nutshell—present her with a cooking or baking problem and she’ll tell you why it happened and how you can fix it. She credits the College of Arts and Science with giving her both the science and communications skills that fuel her success today.

“Most people would not associate cooking with Vanderbilt, but my chemistry and English backgrounds both serve me well,” she says. “I probably took as many hours in English as I did in chemistry and I was the editor of the literary magazine, The Phoenix. I use not only my major, but everything I learned at Vanderbilt.”

The Mad Scientist of the Kitchen

Corriher’s marriage ended and so did her job at the boys’ school. The mother of three found herself struggling to make ends meet, even working a paper route for money. Then she won cooking lessons at Rich’s Cooking School in Atlanta and came to the attention of the school’s founder, legendary Southern cook and award-winning cookbook author Nathalie Dupree. If a cake failed to rise or a vegetable turned mushy, Corriher used her chemistry background to explain why. It didn’t take long for Dupree to turn to Corriher with food science questions. Dupree soon hired the newly divorced Corriher to help at the school and eventually, to teach a food science class.

Shirley Corriher

Shirley Corriher

Corriher’s reputation as a food scientist grew and she soon found herself in demand as a teacher. Over the years, Julia Child, Pillsbury and magazine test kitchens tapped into her expertise. In an era of celebrity chefs, Corriher, who still lives in Atlanta, stands out because of her chemistry background. You won’t hear Bobby Flay or Mario Batali tossing around terms like chlorophyll, hydrogen sulfide or peptic substance, but they’re Corriher’s stock in trade and the reason she’s called the “mad scientist of the kitchen.”

Keeping green beans green is a favorite topic where Corriher uses chemistry to demonstrate a point—and to explain how to keep vegetables like fresh asparagus from turning “yucky army drab.”

“When you’re cooking green vegetables, there are three things that happen almost all at once. First—there are fine air bubbles on the vegetable’s surface. When you heat them, they pop and you see the beautiful green that’s underneath,” she explains. “The second thing that happens is that the cell walls shrink and the little cells start leaking out their insides, and the third thing is the glue between the cells—the peptic substance—changes to water soluble pectin and dissolves so the cells are leaking and falling apart—it’s just mass death and destruction.” (See her solution in a simple recipe for asparagus.)

Teaching and Television

If some of these expressions and explanations sound familiar, it may be you’ve seen Corriher on television. One of her most memorable television appearances was on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, where she was given the task of deep frying a variety of objects including a ping-pong ball, chocolate bunnies and a wrist watch. She has also made several appearances on the Food Network’s Good Eats with Alton Brown.

“The early shows were filmed in his mother-in-law’s kitchen and we didn’t even have scripts,” Corriher says. “We just talked. Thank goodness they rerun those over and over—it keeps me out there so people in airports recognize me.”

Corriher laughs at herself a lot, but behind this self-deprecating persona is a bona fide superstar in the culinary galaxy. She has twice been honored by the James Beard Foundation, she was named a grande dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and has served on the board of directors of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She crisscrosses the country regularly demonstrating her unique brand of kitchen chemistry, and not long ago, co-hosted a chemistry of barbecue event during the national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

However, even someone as seasoned as Corriher gets thrown for a loop occasionally—it happened recently at the Oregon Culinary Institute when she realized that she was expected to teach a participation class instead of her usual demonstration class.

“I’m a big ham up there with my molecules moving around, but I’ve never taught a participation class in my life,” she says, relating her dismay when she discovered what she was being asked to do. “Our names and everything were already printed in the brochure.”

Corriher then saw that the topic of her class had already been chosen—Northwest regional ingredients.

“I called my co-teacher and said ‘I know nothing about this.’ He said, ‘Well, Shirley, let’s just cook what’s in season.’ I said, ‘Fine, what would it be?’ And do you know what he said? Asparagus!

“Hallelujah, hallelujah!”

photo credit: ABC/Randy Tepper

One Comment »

  • Mireya said:

    Very inspiring story.