March 2011

Exploring science through food


Courses that explore the science of cooking help students learn chemistry, molecular biology and physics.
Joseph Provost teaches a liberal studies course at Minnesota State University Moorhead called The Science of Cooking.

Using food and cooking to teach science to a wider audience is a growing trend. Since the Food Network is becoming more popular with the 18- to 34-year-old demographic (the network draws 44 million viewers to its cable shows, and its website posts 12.8 million unique visitors in a month), there is a ready-made audience for science education in the context of food. For those unfamiliar with the topic, the science of cooking is not about nutrition or food safety. Rather, it falls under the discipline of molecular gastronomy, a scientific approach to cooking pioneered by French physical chemist Hervé This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti. A science of cooking course can be very chemistry oriented or multidisciplinary in nature.

A smorgasbord of courses

There are many successful examples of courses that utilize the science of cooking to teach students chemistry, molecular biology and physics. One of the first courses to combine food and science was taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Kitchen Chemistry. The class, created by Patti Christie, was taught in a small seminar format and combined hands-on cooking with current scientific literature. In a similar course taught at Harvard University, top chefs are brought into the classroom to present molecular cooking to undergraduates. The course teaches about gel foams and the molecular nature of haute cuisine. Marcia France at Washington and Lee University teaches a course that covers science basics in lecture and takes students on field trips to restaurants and vineyards. Brenda Kelly and Brandy Russell at Gustavus Adolphus College teach a four-week course that involves laboratory experiments and covers a wide range of materials from oxidation of food to food color and fermentation. While many of these courses incorporate laboratories into their pedagogical approach, Deon Miles and Jennifer Bachman at Sewanee had a good experience teaching the science of cooking in a lecture-only format.

The missing offering

What’s missing in this spectrum of courses is one designed for nonscience majors with an inquiry and lab or lab-like experience. To fill this need, I created a liberal studies course at Minnesota State University Moorhead called “The Science of Cooking.” The class is taught to a large, mixed-major audience of up to 150 students per semester and incorporates 12 hours of laboratory experience. The lab portion of the course is designed to be conducted either within the lecture hall or at home, negating the demand for separate laboratory sections to meet the large class size.

The general format of my class is to start with a particular food or cooking technique and to cover all the scientific topics needed to understand the molecular nature of that food or technique. For example, under the topic of hot sauces, students are introduced to botany, evolution, chemistry and neurochemistry, all while learning how to make a fantastic pineapple-mango salsa. The Science of Cooking starts with an introduction to the basic biochemistry and molecular biology of food and covers a range of topics from milk and cheese to meat, chocolate, breads and beer. The course makes heavy use of video clips from Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” to emphasize the application of science for each topic discussed.

Some of the recipes Provost uses in his science of cooking class include mango pineapple hot sauce, lemon pan sauce chicken breast and poached pears with caramel sauce.

The laboratory portion of the course involves frequent in-class experiments and taste testing. One example is freezing point depression and ice cream making. Students work in groups using various salt solutions to measure freezing point depressions, create secondary plots to determine trends and analyze the impact of salt and sucrose on making ice cream. Other in-class experiments include using convection, microwave and induction cooking to explore the physics behind heat transfer. Because of the large class size, students also are expected to work on experiments at home. One of these is an inexpensive and safe experiment in which students make mozzarella cheese with and without a calf or goat lipase. Students must examine the nature of cheese making at the molecular level and predict and describe what is happening to the chemical make-up of the cheese when lipase is included in the recipe. Another in-home experiment focuses on the enzymatic activity of tyrosinase and its impact on the browning of fruit. All of these experiments provide a fun and tasty way to engage students.

The Science of Cooking class closes with a two-day, science-based meal where the science behind the food and the recipes are provided and the class cooks and eats its final project. Lemon Pan Sauce Chicken provides a chance to understand some of the maillard reaction, marinated shrimp allows us to talk about acid denaturation of meat and the impact of free amino acids on taste, biscuits are used to discuss chemical leavening agents and cheese soufflé is a great way to examine both protein denaturation and gas laws.

Teaching materials for this course can be a particular challenge. There are several interesting books that incorporate science and cooking, but few of them are written to be used explicitly as textbooks. In my class, we use Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” This is a great book and is well received by the students. Supplementary materials on biochemistry and the science of taste, smell and flavor also are provided, along with good PowerPoint presentations, learning objectives and many other student resources. Creating test questions and study questions also has proven to be particularly challenging.

For more information

• MIT’s Kitchen Chemistry course 
• The Science of Cooking course website  

This past fall was the first time the Science of Cooking course was taught, and there already are 130 students enrolled in the spring 2011 semester, making it one of the largest classes taught at the Minnesota State University Moorhead. Student evaluation of the course has been very encouraging. Initial assessment shows that the course helped them learn basic scientific principles. Students particularly favored using the “Good Eats” videos as a supplement to the course materials. However, more work is needed to develop laboratory materials. While they liked the experiments, students felt less enthusiastic about defining scientific problems and testing hypotheses. Creating graphs and analyzing trends also was difficult for some students. To adjust for this, short YouTube tutorial videos will be created for the class website. The course is a work in progress and likely still has a lot in common with “Hell’s Kitchen.” However, the materials are very interesting, and the course provides a great way to inspire students to see the world around them through new, scientific lenses.

Joseph Provost ( is a professor of chemistry at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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