SMC Class Learns the Art and Science of Cooking

The kitchen become a laboratory in this popular Jan Term class

Cooking. It's simple right? You take food, apply some heat and end up with something that is (hopefully) edible. It's all just guessing: a little bit of this, a touch of that and pinch of mystery-essence-bottled-celebrity-chef seasoning. That's all you need, right? Wrong. While on the surface cooking may look like a simple process, on the scientific level there is much more going on.

For January Term, I took a class entitled "The Science of Cooking." This class aimed to explain why cooks do the things they do. Often these explanations go against conventional wisdom.

Take the simple grilled steak. Modern wisdom tells us that we sear a steak to lock in the juices. By using high heat, we are somehow able to block the escape of liquid from the interior of the steak. Unfortunately, this idea is merely a myth touted by countless cooking shows.

Searing has actually been shown to result in greater moisture loss compared to other forms of cooking. But you wouldn't want to eat a boiled steak, would you? Although searing doesn't lock in the juices, it does contribute something essential to good food: flavor. The high heat of searing allows for two reactions to take place: caramelization (the oxidation of sugar) and the Maillard reaction (which is an interaction between amino acids and sugar). The most obvious part of this reaction is the creation of a beautiful, brown crust. Not so obvious is the by-product of this process: the creation of new flavor compounds. Creating these compounds is the main reason for searing.

So, you might ask: Why study "The Science of Cooking?" By applying the scientific method to this everyday task, we learn not only what makes food taste good but how to make it taste better.

For example, the breakfast staple, scrambled eggs, should be a no-brainer. Mix them up, throw them in a pan, cook on high heat. The result is a dry, gray, cakey mess because high heat causes the protein to coil tightly, wringing moisture out of the eggs. Now tweak the process slightly: mix up the eggs, throw them in a pan, cook on the lowest heat possible. This denatures the proteins slowly, allowing for steam to be captured in the curds, resulting in a softer, fluffier scrambled egg.

The students kept individual blogs on all their experiments. These chronicled our many successes…but also our failures. Some class members tried making yogurt. It's a simple process: heat some milk, stir in a spoonful of yogurt and keep the concoction warm for four to seven hours. The bacteria ferment the milk, giving it the tang and curds found in yogurt - or at least that's what's supposed to happen. In practice, the process is more finicky than it seems. The result was more like yogurt-flavored milk than actual yogurt.

Here's where the scientific method comes in: If an experiment doesn't go according to plan, you just repeat the sequence and tweak one of the variables at a time. After multiple trials, we discovered what went wrong: We hadn't kept the milk warm enough.

The culinary world is deeply rooted in art, in creativity. Science is not at odds with art, or with food. Science is merely a different lens through which we can look at food. By looking though this lens, we can not only better appreciate our world's culinary traditions but also innovate and move those traditions forward.

Thomas Vo '11

Photos by Thomas Vo

Read Thomas Vo's blog on cooking.