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Kitchen Chemistry

A new chemistry course has turned up the heat and transformed a campus kitchen into a lab that analyzes one of the oldest applications of chemistry and chemical research: Cooking.

Kitchen Chemistry 1
Kitchen Chemistry class in the T-Dubs “laboratory”

Dr. Benny Chan’s “Kitchen Chemistry” course is a hands-on, experimental class that has senior chemistry students donning aprons instead of lab coats, as a way to breakdown chemical principles such as extraction and denaturation.

“I’ve always had an interest in cooking in general,” Chan said. “Chemistry and cooking just go together. And teaching this class really lets students see the science behind something that is so basic and comprehensive.”

Inspired by programs on the Food Network, especially Alton Brown’s show “Good Eats,” Chan let the idea of a scientific cooking class simmer on the back burner for a couple years. After a Spring ‘13 School of Science colloquium about the intersection of science and food, however, Chan became seriously motivated to launch his self-designed class for the Fall 2013 semester.

“Since this is the first time this course is offered, I restricted it to be open to only senior chemistry majors,” Chan said. “After this semester, though, I plan to unleash it to the general public as a non-major’s course.”

Kitchen Chemistry 2
Cheese making

The class that meets in the T-Dubs kitchen, usually opens with a very brief lecture about the objectives of the lab ahead, then proceeds to the students breaking into small groups to get their hands dirty and mouths watering. Chan described that his teaching style is evolving into student-centered methods, and that this class is the perfect platform to facilitate these desires. Students decide what aspects of the recipe they want to study and then find resources to explain the science behind the recipe. They then propose hypothesis driven experiments to further understand the recipe.

“It’s a lot different than any other class,” chemistry major Tina Berlingieri (’14) said. “You have the book lab, but then you’re hands-on in the kitchen and you get to see the science live.”

Kitchen Chemistry 3
Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

Students are required to read various articles about upcoming experiments, as well as Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” Every week there is a new topic, such as the science of bread leavening or food safety techniques, and the reading materials provide preliminary insights for the labs.

Although cooking pizza to learn about thermodynamics and baking cookies to study the different crystal structures of chocolate very much captured the attention of the students, it was Professor Chan’s “tripping parties” that really stole the show. “How taste works is a really interesting part of the class; it was one of the first things we did,” Chan said. “So to experiment with our taste buds, we drank a tea that blocks your sweet receptors. And then later, we studied the miracle berry, which makes sour foods taste sweet. This was a lot of fun, we called it ‘tripping parties.’”

The tea, provided by Dr. Jeff Erickson in Biology, is derived from the plant Gymnema sylvestre and suppresses the students’ sweet taste buds to experience foods like sugar, salt, and candy in a new way (Kanetkar et al., 2007). Eating a bar of chocolate after sipping on the tea, showed students the chalky, bitter side of the usually sweet treat. On the other hand, the miracle berry, derived from the plant Synsepalum dulcificum, had students devouring lemons and limes by the handfuls. A glycoprotein, miraculin, in the miracle berry bind to the tongue’s taste buds and cause sour and acidic foods to taste sweet (Koizumi et al., 2011).

“This is a very fundamental class,” Chan said. “I want the students to see how chemistry impacts such a basic part of life. I give them a recipe, they break it down using the scientific method. And right in the kitchen they are discovering something that really interests them as science majors, as well as people who eat good food. I can’t wait to offer this class to the rest of the campus.”

Chan further noted that “this class would not have been possible without the tremendous support and partnership of TCNJ’s dining provider Sodexo and dining services office.” In particular, Chan, the Chemistry Department, and the School of Science are particularly grateful to Patrice Mendes (General Manager), Meghann Perry (Director of Retail Dining), Christopher Ott (Executive Chef), and Karen Roth (Director of Dining Services).

Kitchen Chemistry 4
Molecular gastronomy powders; Caramelized bananas with Nutella powder

By Emma Colton

References Cited:

  • Kanetkar, P.; Singhal, R.; Kamat, M. J. Clin. Biochem. Nutri., 2007, 41, 77-81. Click here for the online article.
  • Koizumi, A.; Tsuchiya, A.; Nakajima, K.; Ito, K.; Terada, T.; Shimizu-Ibuka, A.; Briand, L; Asakura, T.; Misaka, T.; Abe, K. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2011, 108, 16819-24. Click here for the online article.

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