Acid and Hard Water Maintain Firmness; Salt and Alkalinity Speed Softening

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The wall-dissolving, tenderizing phase of fruit and vegetable cooking is strongly influenced by the cooking environment. Hemicelluloses are not very soluble in acid conditions, and readily soluble in alkaline conditions. This means that fruits and vegetables cooked in an acid liquid—a tomato sauce for example, or other fruit juices and purees—may remain firm during hours of cooking, while in neutral boiling water, neither acid nor alkaline, the same vegetables soften in 10 or 15 minutes. In distinctly alkaline water, fruits and vegetables quickly become mushy. Table salt in neutral cooking water speeds vegetable softening, apparently because its sodium ions displace the calcium ions that cross-link and anchor the cement molecules in the fruit and vegetable cell walls, thus breaking the cross-links and helping to dissolve the pectins. On the other hand, the dissolved calcium in hard tap water slows softening by reinforcing the cement crosslinks. When vegetables are cooked without immersion in water—when they’re steamed or fried or baked—the cell walls are exposed only to the more or less acid cell fluids (steam itself is also a somewhat acidic pH 6), and a given cooking time often produces a firmer result than boiling.