The Enemies: Dilution, Alkalinity, and Metals

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Anthocyanins and anthoxanthins are concentrated in cell vacuoles, and sometimes (as in purple beans and asparagus) just in a superficial layer of cells. So when the food is cooked and the vacuoles damaged, the pigments escape and can become so diluted that their color fades or disappears—especially if they’re cooked in a pot of water. The pigments that remain are affected by the new chemical environment of the cooked plant tissue. The vacuoles in which anthocyanins are stored are generally acid, while the rest of the cell fluids are less so. Cooking water is often somewhat alkaline, and quick breads include distinctly alkaline baking soda. In acid conditions, anthocyanins tend toward the red; around neutral pH, they’re colorless or light violet; and in alkaline conditions, bluish. And pale anthoxanthins become more deeply yellow as alkalinity rises. So red fruits and vegetables can fade and even turn blue when cooked, while pale yellow ones darken. And traces of metals in the cooking liquid can generate very peculiar colors: some anthocyanins and anthoxanthins form grayish, green, blue, red, or brown complexes with iron, aluminum, and tin.