Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/November 1884/The Chemistry of Cookery XVII



IN my last I referred to Rumford's anticipation of the results of modern chemical analysis in his selection of the materials for his economical feeding of the poor of Munich; but, as may be supposed, all his theoretical speculations have not been confirmed. The composition of water had just been discovered, and he found by experience that a given quantity of solid food was more satisfying to the appetite and more effective in nutrition when made into soup by long boiling with water. This led him to suppose that the water itself was decomposed by cookery, and its elements recombined or united with other elements, and thus became nutritious by being converted into the tissues of plants and animals.

Thus, speaking of the barley which formed an important constituent of his soup, he says: "It requires, it is true, a great deal of boiling; but, when it is properly managed, it thickens a vast quantity of water, and, as I suppose, prepares it for decomposition" (the italics are his own).

We now know that this idea of decomposing water by such means is a mistake; but, in my own opinion, there is something behind it which still remains to be learned by modern chemists. In my endeavors to fathom the rationale of the changes which occur in cookery, I have been (as my readers will remember) continually driven into hypotheses of hydration, i. e., of supposing that some of the water used in cookery unites to form true chemical compounds with certain of the constituents of the food. As already stated, when I commenced this subject I had no idea of its suggestiveness, of the wide field of research which it has opened out. One of these lines of research is the demonstration of such true chemical hydration of cooked gelatine, fibrine, cellulose, casein, starch, legumin, etc. That water is with them when they are cooked is evident enough, but that water is brought into actual chemical combination with them in such wise as to form new compounds of additional nutritive value proportionate to the chemical addition of water demands so much investigation that I have been driven to merely theorize where I ought to demonstrate.

The fact that the living body which our food is building up and renewing contains about eighty per cent of water, some of it combined, and some of it uncombined, has a notable bearing on the question. We may yet learn that hydration and dehydration have more to do with the vital functions than has hitherto been supposed.

The following are the ingredients used by Rumford in "Soup No. 1":

lbs. ozs. £ s. d.
4 viertels of pearl-barley, equal to about 2018 gallons. 141 2 0 11 712
4 viertels of peas 131 4 0 7 314
Cuttings of fine wheaten bread, Salt 69 10 0 10 214
24 maass, very weak beer, vinegar, or rather small beer turned sour—about 24 quarts 46 13 0 1 212
Water about 560 quarts 1,077 0 . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1,485 10 1 11 9
Fuel, 88 pounds of dry pine-wood 0 0 214
Wages of three cook-maids, at 20 florins a year each 0 0 323
Daily expense of feeding the three cook-maids, at 10 kreutzers (3 pence 2/3 sterling) each, according to agreement 0 0 11
Daily wages of two men-servants 0 1 714
Repairs of kitchen furniture (90 florins per annum) daily 0 0 513
Total daily expenses when dinner is provided for 1,200 persons 1 15 223

This amounts to 4221200, or a trifle more than one third, of a penny for each dinner of this No. 1 soup. The cost was still further reduced by the use of the potato, then a novelty, concerning which Rumford makes the following remarks, now very curious: "So strong was the aversion of the public, particularly the poor, against them at the time when we began to make use of them in the public kitchen of the House of Industry in Munich, that we were absolutely obliged, at first, to introduce them by stealth. A private room in a retired corner was fitted up as a kitchen for cooking them; and it was necessary to disguise them, by boiling them down entirely, and destroying their form and texture, to prevent their being detected." The following are the ingredients of "Soup No. 2," with potatoes:

lbs. ozs. £ s. d.
2 viertels of pearl-barley 70 9 0 5 912 32
2 viertels of peas 65 10 0 3 758
8 viertels of potatoes 230 4 0 1 9911
Cuttings of bread 69 10 0 10 2411
Salt 19 13 0 1 212
Vinegar 46 13 0 1 512
Water 982 15 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Fuel, servants, repairs, etc., as before, . . . . . . . . . . 0 3 5512
Total daily cost of 1,200 dinners 1 7 238

This reduces the cost to a little above one farthing per dinner—1140 exactly.

In the essay from which the above is quoted, there is another account, reducing all the items to what they would cost in Loudon in November, 1795, which raises the amount to 234 farthings per portion for No. 1, and 212 farthings for No. 2. In this estimate the expenses for fuel, servants, kitchen furniture, etc., are three times as much as the cost at Munich, and the other items at the prices stated in the printed report of the Board of Agriculture of November 10, 1795.

But since 1795 we have made great progress in the right direction. Bread then cost one shilling per loaf, barley and peas about fifty per cent more than at present, salt is set down by Rumford at 114d. per pound (now about one farthing). Fuel was also dearer. But wages have risen greatly. As stated in money, they are about doubled (in purchasing power, i. e., real wages, they are threefold). Making all these allowances, charging wages at six times those paid by him, I find that the present cost of Rumford's No. 1 soup would be a little over one halfpenny per portion, and No. 2 just about one halfpenny. I here assume that Rumford's directions for the construction of kitchen fireplaces and economy of fuel are carried out. We are in these matters still a century behind his arrangements of 1790, and nothing short of a coal-famine will punish and cure our criminal extravagance.

The cookery of the above-named ingredients is conducted as follows: "The water and pearl-barley first put together in the boiler and made to boil, the peas are then added, and the boiling is continued over a gentle fire about two hours; the potatoes are then added (peeled), and the boiling is continued for about one hour more, during which time the contents of the boiler are frequently stirred about with a large wooden spoon or ladle, in order to destroy the texture of the potatoes, and to reduce the soup to one uniform mass. When this is done, the vinegar and salt are added; and, last of all, at the moment that it is to be served up, the cuttings of bread." No. 1 is to be cooked for three hours without the potatoes.

As already stated, I have found, in carrying out these instructions, that I obtain a purée or porridge rather than a soup. I found the No. 1 to be excellent. No. 2 inferior. It was better when very small potatoes were used; they became more jellied, and the purée altogether had less of the granular texture of mashed potatoes. I found it necessary to conduct the whole of the cooking myself; the inveterate kitchen superstition concerning simmering and boiling, the belief that anything rapidly boiling is hotter than when it simmers, and is therefore cooking more quickly, compels the non-scientific cook to shorten the tedious three-hour process by boiling. This boiling drives the water from below, bakes the lower stratum of the porridge, and spoils the whole. The ordinary cook, were she "at the strappado, or all the racks in the world," would not keep anything barely boiling for three hours with no visible result. According to her positive and superlative experience, the mess is cooked sufficiently in one third of the time, as soon as the peas are softened. She don't, and she won't, and she can't, and she sha'n't understand anything about hydration. "When it's done, it's done, and there's an end to it, and what more do you want?" Hence the failures of the attempts to introduce Rumford's porridge in our English workhouses, prisons, and soup-kitchens. I find, when I make it myself, that it is incomparably superior and far cheaper than the "skilly" at present provided, though the sample of skilly that I tasted was superior to the ordinary slop.

The weight of each portion, as served to the beggars, etc., was 19•9 ounces (one Bavarian pound); the solid matter contained was 6 ounces of No. 2, or 4+34 ounces of No. 1, and Rumford states that this "is quite sufficient to make a good meal for a strong, healthy person," as "abundantly proved by long experience." He insists, again and again, upon the necessity of the three hours' cooking, and I am equally convinced of its necessity, though, as above explained, not on the same theoretical grounds. No repetition of his experience is fair unless this be attended to.

The bread should not be cooked, but added just before serving the soup. In reference to this he has published a very curious essay entitled "Of the Pleasure of Eating, and of the Means that may be employed for increasing it," the discussion of which must be postponed until my next, together with the details of the more luxurious menu of the first company of the Elector's own grenadiers, who were fed upon boiled beef, soup, and dumplings, at the large cost of twopence per day, and other regiments variously fed at about the same cost.

Before concluding this paper, I must add a few words in reference to the amusing fiasco of Mr. Albert Dawson, described in No. 139, p. 486. I scarcely thought it necessary in writing for intelligent people to remind them that the length of time which any kind of moist food may be kept varies with the temperature and the place in which it is kept. Most people know that a leg of mutton, which, on the average, should hang for about a week, may advantageously hang for a month or more in frosty weather, and be spoiled if kept at mid-summer in an ill-ventilated place for two days. The fate of Mr. Dawson's porridge is an illustration of this simple principle. Judiciously kept, it becomes slightly sour; this sourness is due to the conversion of some of the starch into sugar, and the acetous fermentation of some of this sugar. The vinegar thus formed performs the function of that supplied by Count Rumford to his porridge. It renders it more digestible, and assists in its assimilation. The reheating of the oatmeal-porridge drives off any disagreeable excess of acid that may have been formed, as acetic acid is very volatile.

Tastes may vary as regards this constituent. For example, my old friend (to whom I referred), the late William Bragg (so well known in Birmingham, Sheffield, and South America), preferred his porridge when thus soured; other members of his family say that it lost the original aroma of the oatmeal. Be that as it may, I have no doubt that the ensilaged porridge, ounce for ounce, supplied more nutriment and demanded less work from the digestive organs than the freshly-made porridge. Probably this advantage may be obtainable more agreeably by Rumford's three hours' boiling, and his willful addition of the vinegar.


In the formula for Rumford's soup given in my last, it is stated that the bread should not be cooked, but added just before serving the soup. Like everything else in his practical programmes, this was prescribed with a philosophical reason. His reasoning may have been fanciful sometimes, but he never acted stupidly, as the vulgar majority of mankind usually do, when they blindly follow an established custom without knowing any reason for so doing, or even attempting to discover a reason.

In his essay on "The Pleasure of Eating, and of the Means that may be employed for increasing it," he says: "The pleasure enjoyed in eating depends, first, on the agreeableness of the taste of the food; and, secondly, upon its power to affect the palate. Now, there are many substances extremely cheap, by which very agreeable tastes may be given to food, particularly when the basis or nutritive substance of the food is tasteless; and the effect of any kind of palatable solid food (of meat, for instance), upon the organs of taste, may be increased almost indefinitely, by reducing the size of the particles of such food, and causing it to act upon the palate by a larger surface. And if means be used to prevent its being swallowed too soon, which may easily be done by mixing it with some hard and tasteless substance, such as crumbs of bread rendered hard by toasting, or anything else of that kind, by which a long mastication is rendered necessary, the enjoyment of eating may be greatly increased and prolonged." He adds that "the idea of occupying a person a great while, and affording him much pleasure at the same time, in eating a small quantity of food, may perhaps appear ridiculous to some; but those who consider the matter attentively will perceive that it is very important. It is, perhaps, as much so as anything that can employ the attention of the philosopher."

Further on he adds, "If a glutton can be made to gormandize two hours upon two ounces of meat, it is certainly much better for him than to give himself an indigestion by eating two pounds in the same time."

This is amusing as well as instructive, so also are his researches into what I may venture to describe as the specific sapidity of different kinds of food, which he determined by diluting or intermixing them with insipid materials, and thereby ascertaining the amount of surface over which they might be spread before their particular flavor disappeared. He concluded that a red-herring has the highest specific sapidity—i. e., the greatest amount of agreeable flavor in a given weight of any kind of food he had tested—and that, comparing it on the basis of cost for cost, its superiority is still greater.

He tells us that "the pleasure of eating depends very much indeed upon the manner in which the food is applied to the organs of taste," and that he considers "it necessary to mention, and even to illustrate in the clearest manner, every circumstance which appears to have influence in producing these important effects." As an example of this, I may quote his instructions for eating hasty-pudding: "The pudding is then eaten with a spoon, each spoonful of it being dipped into the sauce before it is carried to the mouth, care being had in taking it up to begin on the outside, or near the brim of the plate, and to approach the center by regular advances, in order not to demolish too soon the excavation which forms the reservoir for the sauce." His solid Indian-corn pudding is, in like manner, "to be eaten with a knife and fork, beginning at the circumference of the slice, and approaching regularly toward the center, each piece of pudding being taken up with the fork, and dipped into the butter, or dipped into it in part only, before it is carried to the mouth."

As a supplement to the cheap soup receipts given in my last, I will quote one which Rumford gives as the cheapest food which, in his opinion, can be provided in England: Take of water eight gallons, mix it with five pounds of barley-meal, boil it to the consistency of a thick jelly. Season with salt, vinegar, pepper, sweet-herbs, and four red-herrings pounded in a mortar. Instead of bread, add five pounds of Indian corn made into a samp, and stir it together with a ladle. Serve immediately in portions of twenty ounces.

Samp is "said to have been invented by the savages of North America, who have no corn-mills." It is Indian corn deprived of its external coat, by soaking it ten or twelve hours in a lixivium of water and wood-ashes.[1] This coat or husk, being separated from the kernel, rises to the surface of the water, while the grain remains at the bottom. This separated kernel is stewed for about two days in a kettle of water placed near the fire. "When sufficiently cooked, the kernels will be found to be swelled to a great size and burst open, and this food, which is uncommonly sweet and nourishing, may be used in a great variety of ways; but the best way of using it is to mix it with milk, and with soups and broths, as a substitute for bread." He prefers it to bread, because "it requires more mastication, and consequently tends more to prolong the pleasure of eating." The cost of this soup he estimates as follows:

Five pounds barley-meal, at 11/2d. per pound, or 5s. 6d. per bushel 71/2
Five pounds Indian corn, at 11/4d. per pound 61/4
Four red-herrings 3
Vinegar 1
Salt 1
Pepper and sweet-herbs 2

This makes sixty-four portions, which thus cost rather less than one third of a penny each. As prices were higher then than now, it comes down to a little more than one farthing, or one third of a penny, as stated, when cost of preparation in making on a large scale is included. I have not yet tried this soup. In reference to the others specified in my last, I should add that I found it advantageous to use a double vessel—a water-bath constructed on the glue-pot principle. Such vessels are sold under the name of "milk-scalders."

The reason of this is, that with our ordinary fireplaces the heat is so great that the liability to char the bottom of the thick porridge is a source of trouble. Rumford's fireplaces were so skillfully constructed, and used with just as much wood-fuel as was required to do the work demanded, and thus this difficulty scarcely existed. I have little doubt that one of the reasons why the thin broth of our workhouses and prisons takes the place of his thick soup is, that the liquid stuff demands no skill nor attention from the officials who superintend and the cooks who prepare it. Their convenience is, of course, sacred.

The feeding of the Bavarian soldiers is stated in detail in Volume I of "Rumford's Essays." Space will permit me only to take one example, and that I must condense. It is from an official report on experiments made "in obedience to the orders of Lieutenant-General Count Rumford, by Sergeant Wickelhof's mess, in the first company of the First (or Elector's own) Regiment of Grenadiers at Munich."

June 10, 1795.—Bill of Fare.

Boiled beef, with soup and bread dumplings.


First, for the boiled beef and the soup.

lbs. loths. Kreutzers.
2 0 beef 16
0 1 sweet-herbs 1
0 01/4 pepper 01/2
0 6 salt 01/2
1 141/2 ammunition bread cut fine 27/8
9 20 water 0
Total. 13 10 Cost   207/8

The Bavarian pound is a little less than 1/4 pound avoirdupois, and is divided into 32 loths. All these were put into an earthenware pot and boiled for two hours and a quarter; then divided into twelve portions of 267/12 loths each, costing 13/4 kreutzer.

Second, for the bread dumpling

lbs. loths. Kreutzers.
1 13 of fine Semel bread 10
1 0 of fine flour 4 1/2
0 6 salt 0 1/2
3 0 water 0
Total.  5 19 Cost   15

This mass was made into dumplings, which were boiled half an hour in clear water. Upon taking them out of the water they were found to weigh 5 pounds 24 loths, giving 151/3 loths to each portion, costing 11/4 kreutzer.

The meat, soup, and dumplings were served all at once in the same dish, and were all eaten together at dinner. Each member of the mess was also supplied with 10 loths of rye-bread, which cost five sixteenths of a kreutzer. Also with 10 loths of the same for breakfast, another piece of the same weight in the afternoon, and another for his supper.

A detailed analysis of this is given, the sum total of which shows that each man received in avoirdupois weight daily:

lbs. ozs.
2 2 11/100 of solids,
1 2 84/100 of "prepared water,"
3 5 18/100 total solids and fluids,

which cost 517/48 kreutzers, or twopence sterling, very nearly. Other bills of fares of other messes, officially reported, give about the same. This is exclusive of the cost of fuel, etc., for cooking.

All who are concerned in soup-kitchens or other economic dietaries should carefully study the details supplied in these essays of Count Rumford; they are thoroughly practical, and, although nearly a century old, are highly instructive at the present day. With their aid large basins of good, nutritious soup might be supplied at one penny per basin, leaving a profit for establishment expenses; and, if such were obtainable at Billingsgate, Smithfield, Leadenhall, Covent-Garden, and other markets in London and the provinces, where poor men are working at early hours and cold mornings, the dram-drinking which prevails so fatally in such places would be more effectually superseded than by any temperance missions which are limited to mere talking. Such soup is incomparably better than tea or coffee. It should be included in the bill of fare of all the coffee-palaces and such-like establishments.—Knowledge.

  1. Such lixivium is essentially a dilute solution of carbonate of potash in very crude form, not conveniently obtained by burners of pit-coal. I will try the commercial carbonate, and report results in my next, stating quantities and other particulars. I have but just come upon this particular soup receipt for the first time.