About Ioana Urma

Ioana Urma is an artist and LEED AP (green/sustainability) California-registered architect with a broad range of design experience. She has also taught design & architecture at various colleges and universities. She designed the banner for this website and the posters for the Top Chef Masters episode.
Author Archive | Ioana Urma

TV Poster: Acidity

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

Of note:

Acidity is the experiment I remember best from elementary and middle school science classes: how can anyone forget a strip of blank paper that suddenly takes on color! It’s magic! As I was finishing the Maillard Reaction poster, Carolyn and Kevin got one step ahead with ideas of how this could be depicted: household items along a pH scale strip, also showing taste, and with the logarithmic aspect somewhere above it all. It sounded like a package ready to go!

When I heard logarithmic, the first thing I thought of was this film I saw a long time ago, created by fellow architects Ray & Charles Eames, entitled Powers of Ten. It’s the best experiential representation of just how big a 10x jump really is. So I gave it a try as a means to start. The “7″ levels of the pH scale (without yet looking into it, I thought they increased proportionally from a central zero point, so 14/2 = 7) were one too many for a simple poster. Either they didn’t fit or they decreased down to unnoticeable sizes. I based the colors on the old litmus paper test as a start.

The reactions to this were that, while it was an unusually interesting way of depicting the logarithmic scale, it ran backwards from convention (it would confuse scientists): the scale typically reads from left to right, 0 to 14! And there, I experienced my first professional cultural break: in science, conventions are important; in art and design, you typically try to break them. In this case, it just happened by chance as I was just putting things down to start.

Meanwhile, I was looking for something more to put on the poster (i.e. notes from the underground):

“Here are some other thoughts. I missed that Carolyn said pickling above.

  • Is the link between acidity and sour taste correlated? I personally do not like tomato sauce/pasta dishes because it kind of “hurts” my stomach being so acidic, but it’s less sour than lemons… guess I don’t eat lemon juice either.
  • Is hot food acidic or something else?
  • I think ceviche would be a great example… it’s a big curiosity to understand how it “gets cooked.”
  • Would also be curious about the ripening level of fruits – how they go from sour to sweet, and thus change acidity levels? And how that relates to sugar… moving into how sugar ferments into alcohol… oh, no, it’s for high school students!
  • On the pH scale I think we should show foods… vinegar and baking soda, as I mentioned, are used in household cleaning.
  • When oil gets rancid, does it become acidic?
  • Relation to foul smell/deterioration and acidity?
  • Thanksgiving meal upset stomach… was it the wine?

What I would like to understand about acid is why it is a preservative. I guess because it kills the bacteria trying to flourish… It’s used in lotions, food, and a good example of it is in tabouleh (also jam, but that’s not a quick to make item). Tabouleh uses lemon juice.

In Romania, pickling (pickles, cabbage, green tomatoes, carrots) is done with salt and we always had the feeling that big brands in the US cheat (because it takes longer with salt) and put in vinegar, which doesn’t produce as good a taste, more soury than tasty… I think showing something about the bacteria living condition, what Kevin said about osmosis and cell walls breaking down. I also think it would be good to show that the sugar in something acidic (hot cocoa/milk) can overcome the sour taste and hide the fact that it’s acidic…

Since the square example didn’t fit, I tried to do it with curves (above). Unfortunately, the same issue evolved…“I faked the curves because at 10x bigger with each jump the differences are extreme and the ‘curve’ just looks like a line following the ‘L’ edge of the poster… I feel that hockey [stick] line seems subtle… and the idea is of an explosion… That curve is approximate, but it doesn’t communicate to most people the big idea wise/big visual view that it’s a big change.”

The graph was still partly backwards, but it had to do with my free association: for some reason I felt that acidity must mean negativity (as if sweet things would be +, and sour things -) (refer to ion concentration several paragraphs lower). I guess science doesn’t go by feelings. “I thought bleach was acidic because it burns.” On this poster I had less time to look everything up, since the Maillard Reaction had been so complicated.

Meanwhile, I was wondering what else one could show about this to make it a bit more interesting than just a graph. It didn’t seem as engaging as the other ones where you looked at what happens at molecular levels. I guess the challenge here was to depict the logarithm.

“Does acidity always have to involve water molecules disassociating hydrogens off of them?
Do you always need this water element?
I’m trying to think of what else to show besides the graph of food.”

As I added more items to the graph (including body fluids: stomach acid, saliva and blood, since they interact with the ingested food, we are familiar with them, and probably curious), I started playing with how the logarithmic scale is represented. “I put the squares back because as Julia mentioned, they make more of an impact than that skinny curve.”

Meanwhile, I wondered whether the exact pH numbers of the individual food items were important, or even correct. “I also am not sure about putting the numbers because they are the average off the internet… so not 100%.”

While adding more and more food items, I was amazed to discover that almost all foods are acidic: even potatoes, bananas, maple syrup, cheese, avocados, milk, and butter! “Been reading about how egg whites and egg yolks change pH levels due to travel, storage, and maybe in response to Salmonella… That’s the only basic food (except maybe also dates) that I’ve found, and of course baking power/baking soda.” In this light, the graph idea/layout was beginning to seem like it had something.

Since most foods are acidic, that is what we are better fit to taste. Kevin noted that our taste buds, when they detect sour, are actually measuring acidity, but that they are not equipped to detect basicity… it is just less tasty, bad, somehow, but hard to define, somewhat soapy and bitter. This gave me the idea of adding a tongue map. “I’m putting in more science info and possibly the tongue to show that taste exists for the sour stuff.” But after some research, I changed my mind. “I’m not showing the tongue because apparently the zoning of it is just a blown up “myth”… so much for my 8th grade science fair project…”

With development, the colors of the scale began to vary. Detailed pH scales and tests come in an array of colors; not just red to blue. The traditional litmus red-blue test only tells whether it’s an acid or a base, but is not very specific. “Looking for pH test kit colors, I see that in fact they often cover the whole rainbow, and it may be more appropriate to show it that way. Like the image of cabbage posted earlier. People might even be familiar if they use them for testing their soil or pool water…”

In all of these I was still assuming that 7, being neutral, represents a zero point of some sort (see how in all the graphs above the colored area starts big on one end, goes to a zero in the middle and then grows big again). Reading more about how the scale represents ion concentrations, it finally clicked that I had been drawing it wrong. The scale shows a continuous increase (or decrease) in + or – ion concentrations. The “zero” point in the middle is not “zero” at all, but a point at which the + and – ions are balanced or in the same amount: it’s more of a 1:1 point.

An ion (also the Romanian the masculine version of Ioana) is an atom or molecule that has an unbalanced proportion of electrons (-) to protons (+), leading it to carry either positive (+) or negative (-) charge. Acids contain more positive (+) ions and bases contain more (-) ions. Each number on the scale represents a jump of 10x more or less the number of ions.

“BTW, I just realized I didn’t know what pH stands for and when I looked it up it said ‘potential Hydrogen’ which totally makes sense and so I’m going to add it!”

The pH name of the scale stands for “potential/power of Hydrogen” because the pH scale and test measure the amounts of Hydrogen ions (H+) [or Hydronium ions (H3O+) as the H+ tends to get attached to an H2O] in comparison with Hydroxide ions (HO-). You can see that in putting together an equal acid and base [H+ plus HO-], you get a neutral H2O, or water. What seems a little backwards to me is that while it is called potential/power of Hydrogen, as the numbers go up on the scale, the amount of Hydrogen ions actually decreases.

These two posters (above and below) demonstrate a final understanding that the scale is about an exchange of +ions to -ions. On one side you have more of one, in the middle there are equal amounts of both, and at the other end there is more of the other.

The poster below highlights the potential/power of Hydrogen idea, in that since you are measuring the amounts of Hydrogen +ions, those stand out as being more prominent (the red triangle). “I think the triangle in the middle works best because it frames the food and you can see more easily how many protons there are at that food level.” The areas (red and blue) are equal.

Between that and the final poster, several changes occurred:

  • The graph took on curvature, to hint at the idea that it is not a 1:1 straight increase/decrease, but that it is logarithmic. As discussed earlier, because of the gigantic leaps between one number an the next, actual logarithmic change could not be shown.
  • Diagrams showing ion concentrations were added, since that is what the pH scale measures. To fit and balance the drawing, they were playfully moved around.
  • Hydronium (H3O+) ions replaced the Hydrogen (H+) ions, since in reality the H+ get attached to an H2O water molecule and become H3O+ ions, and that is what you measure.
  • I stuck with the original litmus test colors for: 1. clarity (in order for it to read well, the graph could only be of two color blocks); 2. because red is a prominent food color; and 3. because these colors weren’t yet featured in any of the other posters. I wanted the series of poster colors, and geometries, to be of a wide variety, to make each experiment stand out as being unique.
  • Explanatory text was added. The numbers, plus names, identified the various objects, so that someone really curious can get up close and see. I put a note about the history of the scale, and wish now that I had also mentioned that the litmus test is 700 years old! In the definition of acidity, I tried to sneak in a pun! The quote for this poster (Carolyn) tells something quite revealing that you aren’t consciously aware of: chemicals (materials) are constantly “changing/varying.”
  • The poster was stamped material property, as although the test is a process, the term refers to the property of a material, in this case a chemical property.

(A parallel post exists).

TV Poster: Viscosity

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

Of note:

  • This poster is part of a series featured in Top Chef Masters “Blinded Me With Science” Episode. (Shots with posters: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Photos 15-26). Refer to the post Quick & Easy (Food) Science Posters! to read about the governing process and all the posters involved.
  • I was in charge of the whole design (like being my own client), with a team of scientists for research and advice, though I also did some research and learned everything they threw at me. On this poster, the scientist mentors were Kevin Miklaz, Julia Stewart, and Carolyn Tepolt, and also with a few comments from Heidi Bednar (the Viscosity scientist on the show who came into the process at the end). The schedule only allowed me a few hours to understand the concepts at molecular levels.
  • This is just a selection of the studies produced, by far not all of them.
  • Unless noted otherwise, all quotes are my own, from the discussion with the scientists.

On this poster there was a clear direction from the beginning: compare honey dropping from a spoon to water Kevin said! “If we compare water to honey, can we just say syrup instead of honey to be more generic/general?” And then there were three. “I can show the spoons dropping the liquid: water, honey, and maybe another one (oil?) in between so it’s kind of like a growing graph, rather than one vs. the other.”

Since a lot of the scientists’ explanations dealt with the bonds, or intermolecular forces, that cause a material to be more or less viscous, blow-ups of those clearly needed a place on the poster.

After reading about motor oil and how it is affected by temperature, I thought that might be another level of information that we could add to the graph.

And then there were six. “First I had just the three of them, but since we don’t want people to think it is only a quality of syrups [water based], I thought to include other liquids found in the kitchen…. Which other liquid? Oil I thought since it’s used in cooking. Or the white part of an egg?”

In the lower zone, “I tried to correlate the molecular [zoom] with the liquid pouring, but there are several activities (stirring, mixing, and heating) that are separate of the pure conditions of the liquids untouched at room temperature,” and so that zone had to disconnect from the top graph and stand as its own illustration, showing what makes a material less viscous.

After the poster organization was set, I worked to develop the molecular zooms.

“How is it that water molecules bond to other water molecules (which part, etc.) and the same for the other liquids… what bonds them is complicated…”

“So, after a nerdify-ing attempt at correctly replicating the H2O molecule (yes, I researched atomic diameter and angles of connections), I’ve decided to make them simpler because the atom shapes were distracting from the bond, which needs to be noticed.” Though the bonds between molecules do not visually look like these long extensions and have rather more to do with intermolecular forces, since the poster discusses how the bonds get weaker and break, for simplicity of explanation, they were diagrammatically represented in a form-like way.

On the final version, several changes were made and typos corrected.

Notable changes:

  • The egg white was replaced by chocolate sauce because egg white is not that viscous; other material properties give the drop that long shape.
  • The category “Material Property” was stamped on after I noticed that the science topics fall into distinct categories – properties of materials vs processes – that should be differentiated.
  • The 007 reference was dropped to avoid copyright issues.
  • The background color became appetite friendly. The blue had been just thrown down temporarily, though defended by Conan’s, Jon Stewart’s and Colbert’s blue backgrounds (which I gather highlight skin tones). A simple Google search for the word “food” reinforced guesses about the typical colors of food.

(A parallel post exists.)

TV Poster: Elasticity

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

Of note:

I felt most comfortable with this topic because I studied it in regards to architectural structures. In architecture, you look at the elastic property of a material to understand how far it can bend/stretch (how much force it can absorb) before it breaks or deforms forever, basically before it fails and the building falls down. Materials with more elasticity are used in areas where buildings need to resist more lateral forces (forces coming from the side rather than from the top/gravitational): wind or earthquake. The way that that strength is measured/calculated/compared is through a number/mathematical description called the “modulus of elasticity (E),” which is depicted plotted along a stress (force) vs strain (length of stretching/deformation) graph.

“But, how to show it… against the stress strain curve? Or a comparison again of this vs. that… I can start some sketches. Chewing gum is a very clear example… might be nice to show things deforming past their (E) like in Dali’s melting clocks… Have you guys come across images of gluten and how it works at the molecular level…”

With the first passes at organization and figuring out what to put on the poster, I suffered from being an “in”: I tried to develop a poster showing the modulus of elasticity of various food items, something quite difficult for someone unfamiliar with the topic to understand. “Steel vs. wood is like wheat vs. corn flour or all-purpose.”

This was based on the notion that it might be interesting to show the non-obvious: that ALL materials have some elastic property, even brittle ones (just very low). (I guessed that from knowing that concrete, which is brittle, has some elasticity). One would tend to think that stretchy/elastic materials have elasticity while other materials, like wood, stone or crackers, don’t, which is false.

(These early sketches are rather ugly. But when you are just trying to get an idea for what needs to be there and where it should generally fall, there is no point in wasting time making it look good. The “diapers” in the sketch on the left represent a material forever deformed.)

Structures aside, I had never thought about it from a cooking or food perspective. Kevin:“Food-wise, elasticity translates into chewiness.” Julia: “Elasticity is the springiness a food has…” Carolyn: “Elasticity measures a substance’s ‘bounciness’…”

And I was worried that the concept was too simple.

“Trying to think how to give it an edge also, like the use of the word extensibility, because this is a topic that most already understand… so much talk about growing old and your skin loosing elasticity (and stretch marks = deformation). Elastic is common word. Would you say the tears on the bread as it expands in the oven are like stretch marks or signs of deformation past its (E).”

There was a long debate about what materials or food items to use as examples. The best example was bread dough, because of gluten, but there was fear that baking on the show was not an option due to the time it takes (mixing, kneading, rising, kneading, baking). Kevin suggested jello. “Jello could be fun. Do you think we can find molecule examples? Is the elasticity also based on a protein? That could be an interesting thing to know, if true, that protein = elasticity…”

Finally, bread dough found its way in as Carlin suggested the possibility of using pizza dough… and that is exactly what her chef partner ended up using as an example on the show.

(Above) Realizing that the graph was too abstract, I thought to show the materials, and their reaction to forces acting on them, in relation to their manipulation by human hands – something more tangible. I used my own hands and finger as models. (That long squiggly line is a quick sketch representing the slinky approach to understanding how gluten in flour “springs back,” from the book “The Curious Cook” by Harold McGee, which Carolyn, who is really into baking, brought up. The zoom-ins are diagrams showing how gluten in bread can stretch.)

Finally some studies later, the graph was given a final rest (below). A comparison to the bread dough, pastry dough, was added to show the difference between bread flour high in gluten (elastic) and pastry flour lower in gluten (not very elastic).

Between that and the final poster (below), several other changes took place that brought the design process to a healthy stopping point:

  • The poster took on the color green, which hadn’t been used yet and is prevalent in foods. Also, as I have a tendency to use primary colors a lot (reds, blues, yellows), I have it on my personal design agenda to try to use more secondary colors (especially greens) and tertiary colors.
  • The pastry was dropped so as to clarify the examples and not get overly worked up over the percentages of gluten in flour, which could get confusing.
  • I really pushed to fit in the gluten composition/breakdown of roles diagram (glutenin + gliadin = gluten), not only because I had spent time researching and trying to understand it, but also because I thought it really was crucial to how it worked. “In terms of how the molecules rip when stretched, what would you say is ripped – would it be the green threads (so show them as dashed lines) or the orange connections between the threads get detached?”
  • Finally, I fixed up the terminology, getting in my initial bit about all materials having some elasticity.

(A parallel post exists.)

TV Poster: Emulsion

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

Of note:

Though I had heard of the term emulsion relating to lotions and photography, I had never heard of it regarding cooking, which may be shocking to the average American, but it probably has to do with EScL (English as a Second cooking Language); I also couldn’t imagine a relationship between food, lotion and photos.

After the scientists explained it, using terms such as “suspended particles,” “stable/unstable structure,” “surface energy,” “polarity,” and “micelles,” it became quickly clear that the concept was neither complex nor complicated. It could best be demonstrated through a this vs that (emulsion vs non-emulsion) comparison, using mixtures of a hydrophilic (water-”loving”/water soluble) liquid and hydrophobic (water-”fearing”/water insoluble) liquid.

This first sketch (above) shows all the elements agreed to go on the poster (which stayed to the end): the two mixture comparison, the zooms into molecular scale, and diagrams of hydrophilic and hydrophobic molecules.

After the content was decided, I took time to develop it more clearly as a system of parts (below). Being interested in languages and word origins, I had some fun with the terms and the way they were visually highlighted/broken up, inventing my own for the micelle: bi-polar!

Next came the question of what real world examples to use.“Would you say all nonpolar molecules are hydrophobic… if so, it seems they’re not just limited to oils. Maybe it’s ok for the cooking discussion to limit it to oils?” And what to put in the “what here” areas. “Maybe in the ‘what here’ I can talk about other ways of binding aside from the micelle?”

Augustine suggested to put examples of stable mixes in the “what here” area. I had forgotten that butter has water… it’s not just pure fat… So, most foods are probably always going to be a water-oil combination held together by one or more emulsifiers, right?”

Besides this, other changes observed on the poster above are:

  • The “wine” colored water (balsamic vinegar) was changed to whitish-blue, for clarity that it is some water based liquid. I also moved it to the front column since it is a more common liquid than oil.
  • The “bi-polar” micelle got a better abstract name – amphiphile (“Should we call them micells or emulsifiers… is there a difference? Or maybe amphiphatic (both suffering ;) ) molecules?”)
  • I gave the sketchy look a try (see the lines on the glasses and the water molecule), but on realizing it would require too much time to resolve throughout all the posters I eliminated this direction.

Then (below), delving deeper into color sweetness overload (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory style), the poster marked a clean turning point in the way the micelle/molecular level emulsified mixes were drawn: more geometric, to better fit the poster design.

Many more color combinations later (below), the posters consisted of several big and small changes:

  • Vinaigrette and mayonnaise stuck as examples. They are easy to visualize and familiar to people.
  • I simplified the color backgrounds and related them to the food: pink for the vinaigrette, yellow-tone orange for the mayonnaise (couldn’t be white or any light color). Notice that the water and oil backgrounds were represented in a color-coded way from the beginning).
  • I drew all the food elements more nicely: the glasses became oil and vinegar decanters, to be more realistic and easier to recognize, the vinaigrette and mayonnaise and their zoom-ins were greatly improved.
  • My granular emulsifier (lecithin) example was removed, since no one could figure out what it was.
  • We agreed on how to represent the oil molecule: diagrammatically/generically, since they either vary (depending on type, might not be perfectly non-polar) or they would be too long to fit.“Which cooking oil molecule would you think best to represent? Ethane is not really an ingredient [for cooking]… I looked at olive oil but it seems to have some polar ends and is quite long (might not fit).” The important aspect of the oil molecule is its overall structure and lack of polarity, since the length could vary (more “middle units” could be added or subtracted).
  • I started to add a quick one or two line definition of the topic next to the title, for reference and clarity, which was kept throughout the rest of the posters.

After some more reworking, I arrived at a final design (below):

  • Augustine reworded the wording several times over until it was just right.
  • The 007 reference (shaken or stirred) was dropped to avoid copyright issues.
  • The poster was stamped “process,” since it is a product resulting from a process (mixing), not the property of a material.
  • The colors finally found peace, or some elegance.

(A parallel post exists.)

TV Poster: Maillard Reaction

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

Of note:

There are a lot of complex things a scientist or engineer takes for granted that not even another scientist or engineer readily knows, if it’s outside her/his field. Science is LARGE! This was the case with the Maillard Reaction. There were probes into why things happen, but in the end it took lots of conversations and learning A LOT of chemistry. I had never heard of the Maillard Reaction before working on this… I imagined it as something French and, because of the word “reaction” and in the context of cooking, involving some heat.

“The most helpful direction I found is from reading in the Curious Cook where it was mentioned that Nitrogen and Sulfur give taste to the C, H, and O. This made me think that it is because you are removing tasteless H + O (water) and recombining the N, S, & C that you get the taste. As Michael said and I put at the top, the purpose is to understand why cooked food tastes better than raw.

So I tried to show this across a temperature graph. The question is, are my assumptions correct. Then, how to proceed from here… I’d like to keep it simpler than showing all the various chemical combinations, or maybe just show one, because it takes time to understand the structure and people will not have time. They will need simple recognizable images/symbols to respond to (refer to other posters). We can show images of the ingredients that undergo this reaction and maybe one example of it at chemical close-up.

In terms of the color, why does it turn brown?”

(Above) In these early sketches I put down notes into the graphic to understand what the reaction is about and what is important to show, because there were still many unknowns. One thing that was hard to establish is at what temperature this reaction takes place and what happens at the various degrees. “Just realized the water loss also makes sense as to why this happens at temperatures above 212 where water evaporates.” “Maybe when it burns it loses taste because you are destroying the tasty N & S and it’s just Carbon?” Different sources quoted different degrees for the Maillard Reaction and there was even an article Kevin found which said it can occur at room temperature. We agreed to use the number from Michael.

The difficulty was that there is no one place on the web that explains the Maillard Reaction thoroughly – typically just the detailed chemistry is shown – and I didn’t have time to read through books. The hours of conversations with Michael opened the topic into many more directions, because it does involve a lot of topics, which made it too large and wide open for the purpose of a simple educational poster. So I listened, translated, and conducted some of my own research.

“The Amadori rearrangement is begging a role in Ocean’s Fourteen… Looks like a structural plan…”

The issue with the Maillard Reaction is that it requires an understanding of basic biology (of the thing you are cooking) and organic chemistry, together, and also, tangentially, a bit on the human digestive system & nutrition. The Maillard Reaction involves the breakdown and recombination of the molecular structures of water, amino acids (building blocks of protein, which are complex), and sugars, notice the s! The reaction happens at this molecular level with actual atoms moving around and relocating. In order to fully understand it, though, you also need to look at the bigger perspective, the structure that these molecules belong to. The amount of information that this piles up to is too big for a simple poster.

(Below) The following notes, based on my conversations with Michael (put down several days later, after they settled in my brain and I had time to do some research) served as the basis for the poster design. Since this topic was so seemingly complicated, it was more efficient to get the explanations through a live conversation rather than in writing back and forth, though Michael did write some long essays.

“To recap for others. Basically the Maillard Reaction takes place where there are enough amino acids and sugar and some water. Water, through hydrolysis (maybe I got this wrong), helps to break down the bonds… so that this reaction can happen at low temperatures as well but it would take forever. If you want cooked food, you need to break bonds and recombine molecules/elements at faster rates. As you can see, baking a meat takes longer than frying it (to produce a Maillard Reaction tasty coating) because of this temperature element. Roasted things best depict the good flavors produced by the Maillard Reaction (meats, coffee, bread crust).

That’s one thing. The other part is that the various flavors that can be produced have to do with the amount of ‘information’/ingredients going in: the more complex and rich the amino acids going in, the more flavors you will get coming out. You can think of it as a kind of reshuffling: the more elements you have to play with the more combinations you can make. This is why chicken tastes different/less than lamb… lamb probably has a more complex amino acid base.

Third, most all food ingredients have both protein (amino acids) and sugars (in the form of glucose which is present in every living cell, or starch or another type of sugar AND the ‘sugary’ twisting sides of the DNA, and also in RNA) which means that this reaction can happen within many food items. It is probably best detected in foods rich in proteins because, again, you have more elements to play with and thus the flavor combinations produced are of a greater variety.”

… followed by an example of how our conversation went a bit far and off (#1), and how chemistry “shorthand” was required to understand the reaction (#2).

A bit more, just to put it all down in writing…

1. Water breaks down table sugar (sucrose/di-saccharide = two sugars) into something we / our body can use (glucose & fructose, the former of which can be used by any cell, the latter of which can only be metabolized in the liver).

For this reason, energy drinks contain glucose. This is also why high-fructose (lots of fructose) is bad for your liver. It puts too much strain on it to metabolize (convert) the sugar.

I actually had this happen while cooking. The sugar wasn’t ‘melting’ into the butter. I intuitively knew water melts sugar so after stirring forever I added just a bit of water and that dissolved the sugar so it could recombine with the butter. There is another sugar called ‘inverted’ sugar that I should have used… for making candy, but this worked!

Here is more on the many types of sugars present.

2. The chemical convention for reading these compound diagrams typically exclude Carbon (and Hydrogen) because they are so prevalent in organic chemistry. So if you see something like this or this it means that at every joint where nothing is written there is a Carbon atom + possibly a Hydrogen atom or more.

A Carbon atom needs to have four atomic bonds in order to be stable. One line that goes to it means one bond. Two lines means two bonds. The third and fourth bonds then are always going to be Hydrogen, which is also not shown.

a. corner with two lines meeting up – not shown = 1 Carbon + 2 Hydrogens.
b. corner with three lines meeting up – not shown = 1 Carbon + 1 Hydrogen.”


Here are really good image descriptions showing how amino acids are formed (that the 20 essential ones have the same structure and parts + one part that is different) and how chains of them form proteins.

You can see how they have polar ends (one positive, one negative) and that when they are added together water is a by-product. The peptide bonds are formed by “dehydration synthesis”… and so more on how hydrolysis breaks them down.

For hydrolysis you need an enzyme. The Maillard Reaction is non-enzymatic and so I understand that heat plays a role instead of the enzyme… when there is no heat I’m not totally sure…

Well… maybe they’re not all polar… that makes it more confusing…

Our body produces some, but not all the ones we need. These 8 we need to get from outside sources:
Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Valine

Still trying to figure out how to represent this simply and quickly…”

The color for this poster could not have been anything but brown. This attempt (above) included the following ideas:

  • The temperature bar across the top showed not only where the Maillard Reaction (the creation of flavors without spices) takes place (in cooking, because under special and time consuming conditions it can also happen at lower temperatures), but also that caramelization, which is sometimes confused with the Maillard Reaction, is a completely different and separate reaction that happens at higher temperatures. “I could take out the fact that it can also happen at smaller temperatures. I put rot there because since it takes days to occur, I assume the food would rot. But the idea is it can also happen at smaller temps.”
  • Under that, the baked meat on the left and fried meat on the right showed that the Maillard Reaction happens on the outer layers only (because the heat required is at the right temperature on the outer layers, but lower inside), and so the inside remains flavorless (from the M.R. perspective). The food examples to the right of those correspondingly showed what happens at higher temperatures, for comparison and fuller understanding.
  • Farther down, sort of like “zoomed out” of the center, the reaction was broken up into details, showing what is required for it to occur: 1. Protein (shown as a chain of amino acids) plus 2. Sugars (shown where they are found in living cells, because there is no need to “add” any sugar) plus 3. water (also internal to the living cells, not added) plus 4. heat = a bunch of molecular recombinations that we call flavors, plus the color brown. “It’s not just the protein +… that’s important… also the sugar is not an added sugar and it’s not table sugar. The cells already have it in there. That’s another important point. I’m gonna say (mono)sugar so people quickly see a difference… It’s actually a reducing sugar… maybe I should put reducing in there… I don’t want someone to think you are ADDING sugar… that’s a big point. Or ‘internal’ sugar… the water is internal too… You’re not putting them in water! Just adding heat.”
  • Along the bottom the idea was to show the amino acids in the two examples (those are just placeholders), and how they are recombined to make a certain number of flavors. “We could say ‘few flavors’ next to the caramelized onions and ‘lots of flavor’ next to the beef. The thing is, we don’t have space to show all the exact various combinations and they are so detailed as molecular compounds that they’d make people dizzy… In the blank top left area I can show the basic parts of an amino acid and how they differ from one another.”

(Above) In the development of the poster, some elements were added and others subtracted to clarify the story:

  • The cooking examples were drawn more realistically and used only for the Maillard Reaction.
  • The molecules were drawn in detail, showing every atom. This was important to do because the reaction is about the actual atoms moving around and regrouping to create new (flavor) molecules. I researched all the atom sizes (their diameters actually vary because the electron cloud is in motion or so) and drew them to the dimensions most agreed upon/the average. “Whenever you look up the Maillard Reaction, even in cooking forums, you see the molecules, so I thought necessary to put them.”
  • I used the standard color conventions for the atoms (probably the only time I will use pure black in an illustration). White = Hydrogen. Red = Oxygen. Blue = Nitrogen. Black = Carbon. Yellow = Sulfur.
  • At Michael’s suggestion to use onions as an example, I put just two of the amino acids he said were more important to onions (leucine & cysteine), because all of them wouldn’t fit. In terms of the sugars, the ones shown are: xylose (plant specific), glucose and ribose. Kevin, who does a bit of home brewing, explained how it works in beer, but that didn’t make the general audience cut. Julia suggested that: “Self-tanners also use the M. Reaction!” And I thought of a new phrase you can use at your local coffee shop: “If your coffee tastes burned, you can say to the roasters ‘Please stop at the Maillard reaction.’”
  • Also of note, the symbol for the sugar was changed to a pentagon, as that is how it is often represented (for the sugars with five carbons). In chemistry, the sugar molecule is depicted two ways: as a chain or as a ring. Here I show it as a chain because it fits better. “FYI for your curiosity (and mine) since there won’t be space for it in detail on the poster: the sugar in DNA [the pentagon]“.

From then on (above), using the onion example, I drew the different flavor molecules that are produced by the Maillard Reaction in browned (popularly mislabled as caramelized) onions. You can see that sulfur (the yellow atom) is in almost all of them (for onions). It took some time to draw them, because I was looking at chemistry shorthand drawings, just lines with the occasional S or O letters in place, but with the Carbon and Hydrogen atoms’ locations/presence left to be interpreted.

As the molecules were quite detailed and seemingly too small, the poster content was “re-shuffled” to give them more prominence and visibility (above). Instead of putting the heat as an ingredient, I simply showed it “under,” as if it’s cooking. The poster reads from left to right: ingredients over fire make flavors.

Developing it a bit more (above), I tried to organize it in a way in which you can see where each piece comes from in the actual food: from the onion strand, to the cell, to the protein chain or DNA, to the amino acid or sugar, etc.

In the final poster (above), the drawing was cleaned up a bit, colors improved, and, to reduce an overwhelming amount of information, the amino acid protein chain and the DNA were removed, using simple arrows to show where the molecules are found in the cell.

I also changed the leucine amino acid for methionine, because it has sulfur and would make a better case for all the sulfur in the flavor molecules; added bread as another example up top; put a legend for identifying the atom types; and since Monsieur Maillard’s handsome portrait couldn’t, for copyright reasons, be present on the poster, added a bit about his discovery. History is just as important as science!

So, from this, what can one understand about the Maillard Reaction?

To summarize it from the perspective of the poster, the Maillard Reaction describes how the atoms of protein, sugar and water molecules (ALL ALREADY PRESENT in the (cells of the) food you are cooking), heated around 250-300F, regroup into (new) flavor molecules. Through the Maillard Reaction, food containing protein, heated the right amount, turns brown and becomes flavorful (separate of adding spices). The reaction is stronger and produces more pronounced flavors in meat and nuts than in vegetables or cereals because of the higher presence of amino acids (more protein). Basically, it’s why roasts are delicious!

“I think bacon must be total Maillard Reaction and that’s why it tastes so good (also fat + salt).”

The reaction generally only occurs along the surface of foods because the interior will typically have a lower temperature.

How this happens – through a non-enzymatic reaction, through hydrolysis – couldn’t fit in this “picture.” But if you’d like to know what that means… non-enzymatic means without enzymes. In your stomach, you break down the amino acid protein chain using enzymes. In the Maillard Reaction, there are no enzymes, and so it takes heat, and water (hydrolysis), to break down the amino acid protein chain.

For cooking, the Maillard Reaction is about how flavors (and browning) are created in foods with protein.

(A parallel post exists.)

Quick & Easy (Food) Science Posters!

by Ioana Urma, illustrator, architect, artist

This post discusses the process behind designing the edible (food) science posters (Viscosity, Emulsion, Elasticity, Maillard Reaction and Acidity) that were featured in the Top Chef Masters “Blinded Me With Science” Episode. (Shots with posters: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Photos 15-26). Basically, I was in charge of the whole design (like being my own client), with a team of scientists for research and advice. The show only informed me of the topics and the 2:3 landscape proportion. I guess they were featured because they liked how they came out.


The schedule for designing these posters was one of unparalleled speed. The educational science concepts illustrations I have worked on in the past typically involve me conducting a lot of research on my own. On this project, there was only a small amount of time for independent learning, though I figured out how to squeeze more and more in on each additional poster. Before starting, I was as familiar with the topics as any average non-scientist would be. The posters come to life.