Bookbag: Chemistry 89S: The chemistry and physics of cooking

May 14, 2013

The catalyst: Assistant professor of chemistry and physics Patrick Charbonneau and visiting chef Justine de Valicourt not only share a history (Charbonneau and de Valicourt first met in their native Québec), but also a passion for cuisine. After a year of brainstorming, they are hitting the kitchen to cook up a freshman seminar class that infuses scientific savvy into tasty payoffs.

The gist: As a specialist in soft matter, a subdiscipline of chemistry that deals with the physical aspects of liquids, gels, and other biological matter, Charbonneau lectures during the first half of the class, which focuses on scientific theory and food-centric demos. In the second half, de Valicourt supervises the kitchen as the students apply the concepts learned in the lecture to their own culinary creations. “Not everything tastes great,” says Charbonneau, “but everything is scientifically interesting.”

The twist: Charbonneau knows that strict science can limit freedom in art, but he thinks it doesn’t apply to cooking. “People ask if I think I am killing art by bringing science into it,” says Charbonneau. “I think the opposite. I think science puts you more in control and allows you to focus even more on things like smell, taste, and presentation.” Freed from the confines of a recipe, Charbonneau finds that students gain more confidence in their kitchen experiments.

“Not everything tastes great, but everything is scientifically interesting.”

Assignment list: Students are assigned weekly problem sets, which test their ability to understand the blend of chemistry, physics, and biology taught in class. For the midterm, students must engineer a creative dish using scientific concepts learned throughout the semester. Fortunately, there won’t be a taste test: Students will be graded only on the scientific soundness of their recipe.

What you missed: Cooking experiments range from the seemingly simple to the outright peculiar. In one class, students calculated the optimal amount of time to cook a lava cake—keeping a warm, gooey center with a fluffy outside—using the concept of heat diffusion. In another, students used a meat-gluing technique to create a checkerboard design with salmon and flounder.