Cooking with Chemistry

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Students Take to the Lab to Discover the Science Behind Great Food

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Jordan Balke used to be a purist when it came to steak. Until this fall, she wanted her meat grilled, seared, and cooked medium-rare. Then “I learned how to make a better steak,” said the senior majoring in biochemistry. “It’s called sous-vide [French for “under vacuum”], and it’s basically just a giant water bath where the food is held at a specific temperature for a very long time. The result is a more tender steak than any other you can find.”

Balke learned this lesson in Chemistry 317: Chemistry of Food and Taste, which she says made her and her classmates look both at cooking and chemistry in a new light.

Precisely measuring and slowly raising the temperature of the steak using the sous-vide process, which tenderizes the meat, was just one item on the course’s menu. Students investigated using the acidity of citrus juices to prepare ceviche. They calculated the physics of heat transfer during baking molten chocolate cake. They flash-froze ice cream with liquid nitrogen to create a smoother dessert with smaller crystalline structures and fewer fats than traditional methods. And they experimented with suspensions, colloids, and emulsions, like the gels and foams popularized at trendy restaurants.

Despite the rise in “foodie” culture, there remains a steadfast need for better science in cooking, said professor Barbara Colonna, a senior lecturer in organic chemistry, who created the course. “Cooks may not know why a particular method works, or how a food is fundamentally changed as it is processed,” she said. “And while scientists understand how and why the changes occur, they don’t necessarily know what makes good food. There’s a real need to close that gap.”

Thus, after a semester in Chemistry of Food and Taste, junior Joshua Bitran has begun to appreciate the science behind what’s on his plate. “Now whenever I look at food, I really look at it differently,” the biology major said. “I have more of a respect for it, because it’s so complex.”

At the end of the term, the students presented their final research projects on different foods. For example, the chemists-turned-cooks analyzed the molecular traits of flavor compounds in peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches, described the sequence of physical-state changes in the various cooking methods for making matzo-ball soup, outlined reactions that change flavor and texture during bread fermentation, diagrammed the structures and compared the efficacy of vitamin supplements, and explained the processes and biological reactions that create specific antioxidants in teas.

Bitran, whose final project involved comparing the chemical structures of flavor compounds in order to create a novel amuse-bouche of caviar on a white chocolate cracker, also appreciates the new culinary skills he has picked up in the course. “It’s really the first class I’ve taken here that has immediate practical use, because I’m cooking more,” he said.

Sampling the experiments after studying the science reinforced the physical manifestations of technical concepts, students agreed. And, more simply put, such sampling was a taste treat. “We showed up hungry, because on most days we would have some demo that involved eating,” Balke joked.

Demonstrations also sparked a community partnership with the Whole Foods Market in Coral Gables, which supported the course with donations of food and lab materials. “It was definitely a unique topic that piqued our interest,“ said Melissa Jacobs, a marketing coordinator for the store. “With the University of Miami being one of our neighbors, we were excited to assist by offering fresh high-quality ingredients for the students to learn more about food and science.”

At present, Chemistry of Food and Taste is limited to 30 science majors who have taken advanced chemistry. But Colonna hopes to expand the course and offer it as a general science course in the future.


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