Science and Cooking

Wow! It has been a looong time since I have updated this blog thingy. I have been keeping myself busy over the past few months but not writing about it at all.

I learned plenty of new cooking techniques thanks to a food science class that I signed up for online. The class is called Science and Cooking: from haute cuisine to soft matter science. It was offered through a free online education community called edX. edX offers classes through several universities and there is a variety of interests to chose from. You don’t have to pay for the courses (so you do not earn credits) but you do receive a certificate of completion if you score a certain percent on homework, lecture questions, labs, etc.

Science and Cooking is an introductory class at Harvard University. As far as I know, this is the first time it was offered in the Harvardx online setting. A few professors from Harvard were the main instructors but there were also lectures from (pretty famous) guest chefs. America’s Test Kitchen also stepped in every week to give at least one cooking example and explain how they tested a specific technique. The “textbook” that is used is On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, who also spoke in the lectures from time to time.

Overall, this was a great experience and I would recommend taking a course through edX. I do have to say… there is no slacking off. The Science and Cooking class demanded as much time as any college course. I had to watch all the lectures, complete a homework set and perform and write up a lab every week. I was very happy to have a science background before diving into this… I was never super excited about chemistry, but I was glad to have the chemistry background. It really helped me complete the cooking class successfully.

So what did I learn?

Here’s an overview of what we learned week-by-week:

1. The history of science and cooking and a bit about the components of food (proteins, carbohydrates and fats). I know what proteins, carbohydrates and fats look like at molecular level- I learned that in Biology class – but this lecture made me think about the molecules and what happens to them when they are being cooked, mixed, digested, etc.

2. Energy, Temperature and Heat – I found out that my oven was 9-10 degrees lower than what the dial shows… so I know that I need to turn it up a little when I am baking. I also make ricotta cheese! Yes – it was so easy and delicious.


3. Phase Transitions (solids to liquids, liquids to gasses) – a lot of examples using liquid nitrogen… no matter how many times you get to use liquid nitrogen… it never gets old. I made my own ice cream in a bag. I actually do this in school with the kiddos that I teach – another thing that never gets old, it’s always fun.


4. Elasticity – Resistance to force – How does food change when you cook it? Does the texture change? Does is become increasingly more tough, or does it become more tender?


5. Diffusion and Spherification – How long does it take for that marinade to penetrate to the center of you meatball? How can you make crazy little spheres of food – that are gelatin  on the outside and liquid on the inside – of olive oil, pea juice, and whatever else you heart desires….


A little bit about chocolate. mmmm!

6. Heat Transfer – I thought this lab was going to be awesome because I got to make molten chocolate cake… unfortunately, my cakes were hard and not very molten.



7. Viscosity and Polymers – Some of the chefs in this week’s lectures made some really awesome things like olive oil jelly candies. I’ll be attempting this when I get my hands on some of the correct gelatin sheets… I also made four different batches of mac and cheese.


8. Emulsions and Foams – I made garlic aoli by hand (whisking like crazy) this week. Which was fun but I have to admit that I am not that crazy about mayonnaise….

9. Baking – This was actually one of my favorite weeks! The pastry chef from the Boston bakery Flour, JoAnn Chang, gives extremely clear tutorials and explanations about how the ingredients in baking recipes work and interact with each other. Baking is extremely scientific and you have to be precise… I sometimes don’t have to patience to measure and weigh everything. I think now that I understand what’s happening in my cake batter at a molecular level, I won’t mind taking my time.

10. Fermentation – I think my most favorite topic! I am currently trying to ferment pineapple vinegar. I don’t really know how its going yet but I will write an update in about 6 weeks and let you know…

We were also required to chose our own final projects. The final project had to be an extension of at least one of the topics we covered. I chose to answer the question: Can you substitute avocado for butter in a simple white cake? I’ll let you know what I found when I did my experiment in my next post!