The Chemistry of Stadium Foods
Here at the ACS meeting in Boston, Newscripts was part of an elite group of reporters treated to a quick lesson in popcorn, ballpark hot dogs, and beer before a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. “The Chemistry of Stadium Food,” is part of an ongoing series of events on food chemistry at national meetings hosted by the ACS Office of Public Affairs.
The Boston event was held at Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar & Grill adjacent to the historic ballpark. Remy is the popular announcer for the Red Sox. The tutorial featured two leading food chemists: Sara J. Risch, founder of the food-consulting firm Science by Design, and Shirley Corriher, a cookbook author whose latest work is “Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.” Risch and Corriher previously teamed up at the ACS meeting in Washington, D.C., to talk about the art of barbeque and at the meeting in San Francisco to talk about the sour in sourdough bread.
First up to bat in Boston, Risch gave a short warning about food safety in ballparks, given that a recent survey of ballparks found that most food-service vendors had poor health and safety ratings. Ballpark food service staffs tend to be minimum-wage workers or volunteers without training, Risch said. If the owners and managers of food kiosks aren’t diligent, there can be some public health issues with spoiled food—food could be undercooked, not properly refrigerated, or kept at an unsafe temperature for too long after it has been prepared.
For example, Risch says she would probably avoid sushi, oysters, or any raw foods in a ballpark—you can find just about anything on a ballpark menu these days, from iced coffee to hummus to veggie dogs. Fried foods are pretty safe, she noted, because they have been cooked at a high temperature, although the extra fat is a tradeoff. But you only live once.
Risch continued with the chemistry and physics of popcorn. These properties are fairly simple: the starch inside the kernels explodes when the water moisture reaches a critical temperature. Popcorn growers and marketers want high volume when the corn is popped, she said, but that comes at the expense of loss of flavor—the larger the popped corn, the less flavor it has.
She also pointed out that so far there’s no commercial genetically modified popcorn made to enhance properties, such as the shape of the popped corn, although that might be set to change. Speaking of shape, you have probably noticed there are two types: mushroom, which is like a smooth round ball, and butterfly, which is more open. The shapes are inherent in the variety of popcorn, with some hybrids having nearly all of one type or the other. The mushroom type is best for coating with caramel—as in the ballpark favorite Cracker Jack—or with chocolate or other flavors. Butterfly has more volume and is preferred for filling boxes or bags at the stadium or movie theater.
Risch told Newscripts that most stadium or movie theater popcorn won’t have a problem with diacetyl, the potentially toxic compound that shows up in microwave popcorn. The compound is generated when the flavoring is heated to a high temperature.
Next up to bat, Corriher gave a short lecture on hot dogs. Whether Fenway Franks or Dodger Dogs, ballpark hot dogs or any hot dogs for that matter are all made in about the same way, Corriher noted. “There is an incredible amount of chemistry in a hot dog,” she said.
Franks, like the ones made by Kayem, the company that supplies Fenway Park, are all beef and water, with a little salt and flavoring thrown in for controlling acidity and keeping bacteria at bay, she explained. They start out as cuts of meat that are ground up, with a pinch of sugar along with ascorbic acid, sodium lactate, sodium acetate, sodium sulfate added as brining enhancers. Brining helps keep the dog moist and plump—unbrined hotdogs lose 30% of their moisture, whereas brined dogs lose only 15%, Corriher noted.
The brine works its way into the muscle fiber of the meat to denature the protein myosin, a fact Corriher demonstrated by waving her arms to show how a protein unravels. The floppy protein, water, and fat, all within the confines of the muscle fibers, combine to form an emulsion, she added. The meat is then ground with ice to form fine particles of the emulsion, injected into a casing, cooked slowly, and then smoked to add flavor. As the last step, the casings are removed before the dogs are packaged.
As Corriher munched on a Fenway Frank, Risch came on in relief to finish off the presentation with a short lecture on beer, explaining how beer is made as a fermented extract of roasted barley with hop flavoring. She commented on the differences between different types of beer–different types of yeast are used for making ales and lagers—and about foam and alcohol content.
After a beer and a Fenway Frank at Jerry Remy’s, the gaggle of reporters walked next door into the ballpark in a light rain, hoping to get the game in. The weather cleared by the time the national anthem stopped echoing around the stadium, and the Red Sox went on to beat the Mariners 6-3.