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A Wisecracking Biochemist Shares Her Kitchen ABCs

A selection of foods whose scientific properties were discussed by Shirley Corriher at the National Press Club on Oct. 22. (Alison Bruzek/NPR)

Biochemists aren't really known for their sense of humor. But we recently met one who was warm, inviting and downright hilarious. "When chemists don't know what something is, they call it a substance," quips Shirley Corriher.

Corriher is perhaps best known for authoring two books, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, which netted her a James Beard Award, and BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking. You may have also seen her on Alton Brown's show Good Eats.

And there was that time she fried a wristwatch with Snoop Dogg and Jimmy Kimmel after they'd had a few too many shots of vodka. (Thick batter — that's the trick, she says.)

The Salt spent an evening with Corriher (pronounced CAR-ee-er) at the National Press Club, where she served up stories and tips for getting the most out of your food. The National Press Club's executive chef Susan Delbert joined her to dish up some tasty bites.

Here are a few of the highlights from the evening.

A Book Almost Named For Blue Nuts

You may have noticed that when you cook red cabbage, it's liable to turn blue. "You didn't do it, you were just standing there!" says Corriher. What's that about? The cabbage is losing the acids through evaporation in the cooking process that keep it red.

But if you miss the red, you can squeeze a little lemon juice, or add a bit of apple and it will return.

Walnuts actually have the same red compound as red cabbage, anthocyanin, underneath their skin. It's why when you bake walnut bread, you might see blue spots in the loaf. To keep the walnuts from changing color, Corriher recommends heating the nuts in an oven at 350 degrees for ten minutes before adding to your mix.

This fact, led to a slightly-tipsy discussion with Chuck Williams, founder of the Williams-Sonoma stores. According to Williams, CookWise should be called How To Keep Your Nuts From Turning Blue. Unfortunately, she says, the "stuffy New York editors" wouldn't let her.

The Reynolds Wrap Women Have Called Her For Help

Betty Morton and Pat Schweitzer, the Reynolds Kitchen Home Economists, were known in the 1990s for their commercials featuring full home-cooked meals wrapped in aluminum foil. The meals included a starch, a meat and a vegetable that would cook together in just 20 minutes.

Because they didn't have a lot of ingredients, Morton and Schweitzer typically added a tablespoon or two of salad dressing for seasoning.

However, in the course of making one of their meals, they found that they couldn't stop the potatoes from turning out rock hard. The women thought they were slicing the potatoes too thick, but even the thinnest slices refused to soften. So they called Corriher.

"They were using an acid vinaigrette," she says. "So they just had to switch salad dressings." The acid was preventing the starch of the potatoes from swelling and softening as it normally would during the baking process.

While she doesn't remember exactly what they were using, or what they switched to, she says she says adding olive oil or water can help reduce acidity. One quick substitution and the women had a perfectly cooked meal again.

On Fixing Bad Coffee And Drinks

A self-professed Starbucks addict, Corriher offered a hint for making drinks taste less bitter, including a sub-par wine at a dinner party.

"Salt suppresses bitterness," she says. If you've ordered a fish but it's accompanied by a red wine full of terrible tannins (which was probably ordered, she says, by an unthinking steak aficionado), spritz the fish with plenty of lemon juice and salt to cut the bite of the wine and help it pair better.

She says her husband, who believes Starbucks coffee is over-roasted, adds a pinch of salt to his coffee for a less bitter cup.

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