The Columns

Science of Cooking Course Provides Useful Skills

— by on May 5th, 2009

Do egg whites really foam better in a copper bowl? Do powdered egg whites work as well as real egg whites?

If any of Washington and Lee University professor Marcia France’s students in her course “The Science of Cooking” ask her those questions, she won’t answer them.

Instead, she will send them to find out for themselves.

“This is one aspect of the course that I’m really excited about,” says France. “Students will think of their own food-related question, come up with a hypothesis, test it out in the kitchen and write up the results as part of their homework.”

But this isn’t a home economics course. France is a chemistry professor, and the course, designed for non-science majors, will examine the chemicals and scientific principles involved in food and cooking.

The course has attracted a wide range of students. “I want to learn chemistry in an applicable manner and this is the perfect class for me to do it,” says sophomore Maria Gabriela Albuja Bucheli, who rarely cooks. On the other hand, Caitlin Foster, a first year student, says she is interested in learning the science behind the cooking she does almost daily.

They are not alone in their interest in the course.

France originally designed it for just 20 students but has since expanded the enrollment to 26. “It’s definitely more students than I expected,” she says. “I think it has attracted some students who love cooking and think it will be fun.

“Cooking is something they will do for the rest of their lives. The better they understand the cooking process, the better cooks they will be. Making bread is a good example – it’s useful to understand what is happening chemically when you are kneading the dough and letting it rise.”

France adds that while students will need some chemistry background, she plans to limit the chemistry topics to what they need to know to understand cooking processes.

“First, I’m going to introduce the students to the most important molecules in food-water, carbohydrates (sugars), proteins, fats and oils-and how they interact with each other. Then we’ll study different foods such as meat, vegetables, fruits and eggs. What are the chemical changes that happen when you cook them? Why are vegetables crunchy? Why do they go through different color changes during cooking? The material will not just cover chemistry. The students will need to learn about cell structure in order to understand meat and vegetables. They will be exposed to some physics to understand heat transfer in the oven, on the stove, or in the microwave” she says.

Two field trips will add to the fun.

The first field trip will be to the Red Hen, a restaurant in Lexington, Va. The chef is keen on experimenting in molecular gastronomy, a trendy and relatively new direction in cooking. It involves bringing laboratory techniques and instruments into the kitchen, and using an understanding of chemistry to create new and unusual dishes.

“I won’t be discussing molecular gastronomy in my lectures, but I have prepared a handout and I think the students will enjoy seeing the chef demonstrate this new area of cooking,” says France.

The second will be to Lexington Valley Vineyards. “I chose that particular vineyard because the proprietor is a biochemist. He really understands the science behind the wine-making process,” says France.

Some students have opted not to take the Science of Cooking course this year, but to wait for the 2010 version. That’s only understandable since that version of the course will take place over four weeks in Sienna, Italy.

France says that although the lectures will remain similar, the 2010 course will be affiliated with a cooking school that will also give students 12 three-hour cooking lessons. “I arranged it through the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), which helped me with the contacts. They also provide classrooms and living arrangements with kitchens so the students can practice cooking.”

Three daytrips are already planned-to a gelato maker, a cheese production facility and a winery, and to a pastry and cookie factory. She also plans to add a trip to see how pasta is made.

The Science of Cooking course has evolved from a small one-credit class aimed at science and chemistry majors into one that appeals to all students who want to improve their knowledge of what really happens in the kitchen.