Why Do We Cook So Many Foods at 350 Degrees?

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iStock

Whether you’re making mouthwatering blueberry muffins from scratch or finally giving in to that partially opened box of fish sticks that's been hiding in the back of your freezer for eight months, there’s a fairly good chance that you’ll be heating your oven to 350ºF. How can such vastly different foods require the same cooking temperature?

It’s all thanks to something called the Maillard Reaction. In 1912, chemist Louis Camille Maillard was the first to describe the magical transformation that happens to food when it's cooked at around 300 to 350ºF. The finer details of the process are still not totally understood, but according to Serious Eats, it’s generally agreed that the Maillard Reaction happens when heat transforms the proteins and sugars in food, creating a release of new flavors, aromas, and colors. On a primitive level, these delicious changes signal to humans that the food won't harm us and may also contain vital nutrients.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should cook everything at 350ºF. That’s just the baseline. For example, most breads need higher temperatures to rise quickly, and puff pastries do better in the 400ºF range because the steam released at that temperature helps the dough expand. But for many recipes, 350ºF is the golden rule.

By the way: you should thank your lucky stars for modern oven temperature dials, which are way better than the old method of sticking your arm inside to test the heat. Before temperature technology existed, Slate says, bakers would hold an arm inside the oven to see if they could stand it for more than 30 seconds. If they could, it wasn’t hot enough yet.

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What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

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How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

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iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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