Field of Science

Melting Points

Pain perdu - a delicious part of my New Orleans heritage and better known in most of the US as french toast - has a long history. The earliest extant recipe is in Latin and dates to the 4th or 5th century! Friday brought a snow day for my kids, and come evening, some experimental time for me in my favorite home lab.

After a day spent teaching and shoveling in the sleet, I made pain perdu aux pommes from Simon Hopkinson's Second Helpings of Roast Chicken. Think french toast, vanilla custard, apples and caramel sauce. The first step in making the caramel sauce is to melt sugar over high heat. As I stirred the dry sugar in my heaviest sauce pot, alert for the first sign of melting, I flashed back to my days in an organic chemistry research lab. Melting points were used both to identify products (though even then, spectroscopic methods such as NMR were the gold standard) and to verify purity. Taking an accurate melting point required patience - and being attentive to the appearance of that first glistening drop of liquid in the fine capillary tube. It looked almost as if the crystals were sweating.

How is the purity of a compound related to its melting point? An impure sample will tend to melt over a few degree range, pure samples will melt at a sharp temperature. Impurities in a solid will also depress its melting point, in the same way that applying salt to ice (another application of chemistry appropriate for a snow day) lowers the freezing point. This phenomena also offers a low tech way to confirm the identity of a compound. Make a mixture of the sample to be identified and a known sample of (presumably) the same stuff. If the melting point is sharp and the same as the pure compound, the unknown is certain to be what you think it is. This will work even if the melting points of the two compounds are fortuitously the same.

A nice film of a melting in a capillary tube can be found at Wellesley's organic chem lab site.


  1. wow i love these posts! i am taking high school chemistry, and my teacher forces us to find current events articles each month and relate them to the topics in class. although these arent always "current events" my teacher accepts them! :)
    thanks a million

  2. Brings back memories of chem labs. Not every pure substance has a "sharp" melting point though. Some complex molecules such as polysaccharides, proteins, etc., decompose over a range of temperature rather than melt.

    I would love to partake of your french toast sometime.

  3. A nicely written post. You have a way with words, and I was feeling like I was there.



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