The Science of Sweet

by Sarah on June 19, 2011 · 9 comments

While I was making my way back to Austin on Wednesday, I was also in the middle of a very exciting twitter conversation with Addie, Queen of the Austin Bloggers,* about my magical watermelon-picking abilities.
*A title I have bestowed upon her, which I know she would deny.
She suggested we meet at Central Market on Thursday to film a little video demonstrating my eccentricities and superstitions about picking a watermelon to put on the Austin 360 blog. As this might be the closest I’ll ever get to being “Austin famous,” I was, of course, ready for my close-up.
Although you wouldn’t know it based on this awkward picture.The man standing with me was Patrick, head of produce at the Westgate Central Market store. After Addie had filmed me being incredibly awkward and talking about watermelons* (while, yes, wearing my green, white, and pink striped ‘watermelon’ dress), we struck up conversation with other team members at the store.
*Don’t worry, I’ll totally let you know when it’s online.And that led to a demonstration of this little gadget:
That, my little scientists, is a refractometer, which, if you didn’t already know (and if you did, who are you and why aren’t you working as the head of produce at a grocery store?*) measures the sweetness (Brix) of fruits and vegetables.

*Unless you already are, and then we know why you knew what a refractometer was.You cut a piece of fruit, and drip the juice onto the refractometer….…then hold it up to the light.Inside there is a scale, and you read it like a measuring cup, with the blue line reaching to the Brix number, or sugar content.

“Hey, Sarah, put your arm down.”
“Why, so it doesn’t look like I’m naked?”

Patrick had me use my skills as a “Watermelon Whisperer” to pick out what I thought would be a good watermelon. This was an intense amount of pressure, especially after he told me my superstition about looking for a nub of stem was perhaps an inaccurate way of telling if the melon is ripe, since it can indicate it was picked too early. [Oh, well, it always works for me!]I thought I did pretty darn well, as the watermelon you see above registered a 9.5 Brix, with 10 being very sweet, and a good aim for watermelon. Of course, we couldn’t settle for only testing watermelon. This led us to testing sugar melons (which you saw above), that I learned are INSANELY sweet.

See my surprise!
[This registered a 13 Brix on the refractometer.]
See my joy!

We then had to test one of these “oh my goll, y’all” delicious tomatoes sold exclusively at Central Market and grown in Bastrop.Although it tasted like the essence of tomato…it only registered a 4 on the refractometer.

[Thanks Suzanna for taking all the photos of me without me even realizing it first.
That’s the sign of a fellow food blogging friend for sure.]

This was all incredibly joyful and fun, but my inner scientist now cannot cut into any fruit without thinking, “I wonder what the Brix of this is?”

Looks like a 9.
Tastes like a 9.
But is it really a 9???

Meanwhile, back at the ranch–well, fine, at another grocery store—there was an entirely different type of science going on: a little CHEMISTRY.*

*Fine, the Brix measurements are technically food chemistry. But whatever. I’m not talking about loooooove people.That’s right…look who popped up in a $1 bin at HEB?A boyfriend for Goldie! I’m pretty sure he’s saying “sweeeeeeeet” in a laid-back surfer dude way. [And yes, Lindsay, I finally took your suggestion and redrew the smile on Goldie…and gave her eyelashes. I figured now that she had a boyfriend, she’d need to bat them at him every now and then.]


As we’re talking about the science of sweet (and isn’t the love of two plastic fish-shaped food containers sweet?*), we should probably talk about the science of sweets, and something that has puzzled lazy bakers like me for years. [Mostly because I can never remember it every time I look it up.] What is the difference between baking powder and baking soda? (Other than the fact that until a few days ago I didn’t have baking soda and just used baking powder instead.)
*If by “sweet” you mean “strange”….Well, both are leavening agents, meaning they produce carbon dioxide and help baked goods to rise. The difference is that when you combine baking soda with an acid–like lemon juice, yogurt, honey, or chocolate–it results in a bubbling eruption of CO2 (remember volcano experiments in elementary school?). This happens immediately, so if you are using baking soda, it must go directly into the oven. Baking soda has an acidic “agent” in it already. It releases some gas at room temperature, but more as it is heated. Baking soda cannot be used in place of powder, but you can use powder to sub for soda.

And now I will proceed to forget all of that. Good thing exists.


Another little science experiment that went on in The Smart Kitchen involved the massive amounts of melon I had left in my fridge prior to making my trip back east two weeks ago.I queried the twitter world about whether I could freeze honeydew* and the resulting thought was: “Sure, why not?”
*I would have eaten it all, but I was starting to feel like I was in a melon-eating contest and my stomach wasn’t having it.
It seemed like it had worked out OK, but when I thawed it overnight…
…well, it became quite small and flimsy soft. The science teacher in me has deduced that most likely all of the melon moisture froze and then when it thawed was released into the drain, thereby leaving the remaining honeydew as just a shell of its former self.Or something like that.

I will end our science lesson with this:

It is scientifically proven that you will make your friend happy if you bring her sweets

…in the name of Margarita and Mexican Vanilla cupcakes, as a belated “Happy Birthday” present.
And you will also be happy if you buy five additional cupcakes for yourself.

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SouthAustinFoodie June 19, 2011 at 9:05 am

Ahhh, the Watermelon Whisperer! :)

Maybe you can puree those previously frozen melons for smoothies for fruit soup.

sarahMTSBB June 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm

you are so funny…and fyi refractometers are more commonly used to measure the concentration of urine. i'm a lab tech and most human hospital labs have much fancier equipment nowdays, but in the vet clinic that's the old school way of doing it :). it's one way of telling if the kidneys are working…or failing.

Monica December 14, 2016 at 4:17 pm

They are also commonly used in grape production for wine. They have many uses.

Sara June 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I had the same issue with grapes, after freezing then thawing them. It was very disappointing.

teabagginit June 19, 2011 at 4:57 pm

re: sara's post! i love eating frozen fruit! i don't thaw them – just eat them frosty!

Missy June 19, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Loved every smidgen of this…especially the new Goldfish boyfriend. That's totally a male. And by the way, a grocery find destiny meant for you.
You have a grocery store gift, I tell you. A gift.

atastelife June 20, 2011 at 9:17 am

I've frozen honeydew before…but only because I was going to make a daquari. Muahahaha.

Nicole@HeatOvenTo350 June 20, 2011 at 10:46 am

You're so funny. I think picking a 9.5 is pretty good! June 20, 2011 at 8:46 pm

**nerd alert** I soooo need a refractometer! Too bad you can't test it on melons before purchasing them, sigh. You need to come to Washington just to give me an in person tutorial 😉

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