My undergrad started out pretty good, but then it made up for that by sucking super hard. It went a little something like this:
Me: Yeah! First chemistry course done! I’m so smart and proficient and have a better understanding of the world around me! I can’t wait to get a PhD!
Professor in Next Chemistry Course: We were lying to you before. Everything you learned was wrong, but it was a way to introduce you to the concepts. We’re going to stop lying now.
Me: Well, that seems dishonest. But OK, as long as they aren’t lying anymore.
Professor in Next Chemistry Course: We were lying to you before. I mean, you didn’t really think that electrons stayed in one place and that molecules looked like balls and sticks did you? Everything you learned was wrong, but it was a way to introduce you to the concepts. We’re going to stop lying now.
Me: Oh. I see.
They didn’t quit lying. When I finally arrived at the LAST course (quantum mechanics), the professor was all, “This is real chemistry, newbs. You’re finally here.”
But I didn’t really understand quantum mechanics (or thermodynamics), so I guess everything about chemistry that I do understand is just a pile of lies and approximations.
I did not get a PhD.
ANYHOUSE. Something similar happened when I tried to calibrate my oven! But we’ll get back to that later.
Listen: I. Love. Baking. I love baked goods. I love giving them as gifts. I love receiving them as gifts. I love bringing them to work to make Monday more bearable (MONDAYS AMIRITE?).
But you know what sucks? When your oven is a web of lies. Like any instrument, when it is out of calibration, it is the worst and makes your life harder. In the case of the oven, you end up with burnt/undercooked baked goods. This is bad. Unless we are talking about undercooked cookies and/or brownies, in which case it will be FINE because these things are best underdone anyway so everyone calm down and eat your cookie/brownies.
By the way, Google “slutty brownies,” make them, eat them, and send me a thank-you note.
SO HOW DO I CALIBRATE MY OVEN, CLAIRE?
Right. OK, first: The following will tell you if your oven is off by 15°F or more. The reason for this is that ovens cycle, meaning they warm up (over-shooting the target temperature) and then cool down (to the target temperature), and they repeat this over and over. This is a good method to use if you suspect your oven is quite off, or if you are using an unfamiliar oven and you’re a little scared of ruining your precious baked goods. Other people’s ovens haunt my dreams, guys.
I did not come up with this method. I got it from this book. I am all about this book. It is great for a beginner cook/someone interested in food science/anyone really. I obviously love it for obvious reasons.
According to this book, the melting temperature of sucrose (table sugar, which is made up of glucose and fructose) is 367°. Fine, except it also says that sucrose can start caramelizing (breaking down into various aromatic compounds) around 340°F, which means it will start browning.
Based on this, you should be able to set you oven at 350°F and after half an hour, you should still have crystalline sucrose.
This is what my sugar looked like after half an hour at 350°F:
Obviously, there is some caramelization going on here. ALSO SOME MELTING. But calm down, this is fine and probably due to the whole oven cycling thing.
Then, I increased my temperature to 360°F. After 10 minutes (once the oven heated up to that temperature), it was completely melted. This is under the cited 367°F melting temperature, but again, IT’S PROBABLY FINE, because of cycling.
So, for all intents and purposes, my oven is calibrated. I thought it was going to be low because I always have to leave things in longer than the directions say, but this is probably due to the fact that I’m a spaz and am always opening the oven to make sure the cookies are okay. Because maybe they exploded or ran away or turned into puppies AND I NEED TO RESCUE THOSE PUPPIES FROM THE OVEN, GUYS.
I should probably just use the oven light.
My oven is calibrated! End of post/experiment. WRONG.
This is where things turned into something out of my undergrad experience. I decided to find out more about the difference between melting and caramelizing. Fine. That seems harmless enough. Surely someone has the difference between these two phenomena hammered out. I mean, I knew one was a physical transition from a solid to liquid and one was a breakdown of the chemical structure of sucrose, but surely there was an easily understood relation between the two.
As it turns out, sucrose is a pretty complicated molecule, like water. I’m not joking; water is the weirdest molecule ever and nothing else behaves like it. Did you know that it is the only (I think) substance that’s solid state is LESS DENSE than its liquid state?
ANYWAY. So you don’t have to read the whole article, I will provide the passage that gave me UF-nightmare-flashbacks:
That's what I've thought for many years, along with most cooks and confectioners and carbohydrate chemists: heat melts sugar, and then begins to break it apart and create the delicious mixture we call caramel.
And we've all been wrong.
It turns out that, strictly speaking, sugar doesn't actually melt. And it can caramelize while it's still solid. So proved chemist Shelly Schmidt and her colleagues at the University of Illinois in studies published last year.
It's dismaying to think that so many could be so wrong for so long about such a basic ingredient and process!
YEAH HAROLD MCGEE! IT IS DISMAYING. I AM DISMAYED.
Guys, it is important that you know I really love Harold McGee. He wrote "On Food and Cooking" and it is fantastic.
But does all of this really matter? Not really for these purposes. I guess I could have left the above out, but I needed you all to know how frustrating/fascinating chemistry can be. Plus, now you have a fun fact for parties! You know, because I’m sure you guys talk about melting points at parties.
Like thinking of molecules as balls and sticks, calibrating your oven this way works. It’s not technically correct, but it’s correct enough. Your table sugar should be completely melted at 367°F and not completely melted at 350°F. As long as you are within about 10 degrees of this, you should be good to go. If it is off, you can see if there is a way to adjust your oven (I can’t adjust mine), or you could just make a mental note that your oven reads so many degrees too hot or cold.
I hope this was somewhat helpful. If not, at least you Googled “slutty brownies.”
If you’re still mad that you had to go through all that, here is a picture of my dog: