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Inside Harvard’s New Science of Cooking Class

Ten minutes before Science of the Physical Universe 27 — better known as the food/science extravaganza that’s bringing in Ferran Adrià (El Bulli), Wylie Dufresne (wd-50), and José Andrés (minibar, Jaleo) to campus — the doorway was already mobbed. See the press release about the food science class here. .

There’s a seven minute rule at the school. Classes never start on time; students always arrive at least a few minutes after the hour. But this was something different. By the time Applied Math and Physics Professor Michael Brenner pushed his way to the door (see video below), anxious students were ready to charge through the doors.

Finally, I managed to run over to a seat, but not before almost being trampled over. People were sitting in the aisles, standing in the back, and between the seats. Some ended up just leaving in defeat.

The class sounds amazing. You can read through my notes after the jump. Except… it’s being lotteried with no preference for seniors! Even though it’s probably going to be offered again next year (albeit, with different speakers). I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get in, but will be pretty upset if I don’t. Sigh. I’m sure taking intro to Computer Science will take up enough of my energy…

Anyway, if you’re curious about happened in that first lecture, check out my notes.

Notable events: Brenner made some insta-gel using Calcium Chloride. He also fried an egg, had students whisk up some mayonnaise, and promised that we’d make custards, sous vide eggs, molten chocolate cakes and use MEAT GLUE to make shrimp noodles. Man.

Also, there were some bizarrely actor-like chef photos that caused the audience to explode into giggles. Dan Barber of Blue Hill, I’m looking at you.

Why a food science class now?

Catalyst #1: Ferran’s 2008 talk (which was mobbed!)

Catalyst #2: Program in General Education
This was during at ime when Harvard was introducing Gen Ed, and faculty were encouraged to invent new ideas that connect classrooms.

Slide: What could be better than combining Science and Cooking: ex. Joan Roca and Wylie Dufresne.

The Main Idea

This is a science class!

We will cooking and haute cuisine as inspiration to teach science.

Our aim for the material to be so inviting that you want to learn the science that underlies it – and indeed, you learn how to ask and answer scientific questions on your own.

Teaching fellow made a field trip to WD-50

What Science Questions are posed by this recipe? (Nestle toll house cookie recipe)

– What determines the ratios of ingredients
– Why is there baking soda instead of baking powder?
– What is the role of butter. What determines the amount?
– What is the role of the egg?

– Why do you we cook it at 375?
– Does it matter how you beat the eggs?
– Does it matter the order in which you put in the ingredients?
– Why do we bake it 9-11 minutes?


These questions can be answered empirically (trial and error)
OR you could understand the scientific basis of the recipe

This course will undercover the molecular transformations that are the basis of cooking.

We will learn what these transformations are; how they change the properties of the foods we eat; and how our cooking techniques (heats; acidification; stirring; etc) manipulate them.

Structure of the Class: a typical week

Thursday: 1-2:30pm – Lecture by Brenner or Weitz on scientific concept of the week

Tuesday: 1-1:30pm Lecture by Brenner or Weitz on scientific theme.
1:30-2:30pm – Lecture by world-renowned chef, illustrating how the scientific theme influences cooking.
2:30-3pm – Optional discussion with the class and the chefs on science and cooking.

Section/Lab: Every student must enroll in a 2 hr lab.
The first 1.5 hours are a lab, culminating in the cooking and optional eating o the recipe of the week.
The last half hour is a review of scientific concepts underlying class and lab to help you do the homework.

Weekly homework: This functions as a combination lab report and asks questions about science and cooking.

Optional chef office hours: Some of the visiting chefs will have office hours int he lab on Tuesdays to interact with students. Some well known local chefs will also do this. Advanced signup is likely required.

Tuesday: Harold McGee, Ferran Adria, Joes Andres

Brenner’s phase change demo

Instructor takes ice and places it on a hot plate. (visible on large screen)

“So ice has transformed into a liquid! … Now I’m going to use an egg. Let’s do the same thing with an egg. If i mess it up, I’ll get it all over me.”

“So the egg is cooking. The egg is not becoming a gas. It’s becoming a solid. If you take ice, it become a gas, if you take the egg, it becomes a solid. Isn’t that bizarre?”

Week 1: Phases!

Homework 1
Due Thursday Sept. 16th
Theme of the week: molecular interactions determine the phase behavior of materials

Equation: k(b)*T = U(interaction)

Recipes of the week: 3-Minute Custards

You will learn about phase diagrams… and why they are critically important for cooking. We’re going to explain why understanding this is critical for deconstructing recipes.

Tools chefs use to manipulate:
Pressure (pressure cooker)  & température (sous vide)
Lab 1: 7 minute costards and sous vide eggs.

Week 2: Food components-Monomers and Polymers

Thursday: basic food components (carbs, fats, and proteins)


Food polymers and calories

Science concepts connecting “calories” to interactions between food molecules. Calorie is measure of energy stored in the bonds.

Week 3: Texture and mouthfeel – viscosity and elasticity

Viscosity: how easily a material flows
Elasticity: How squishy or soft it is

Both can be manipulated by food thickeners and additives

Recipe of the week: fruit jellies.

Week 4: Heating, cooling and tempering

Thursday: Timescale for heating different foods.
Critical temperatures for phase transitions. (egg, meat)
Critical temperatures for tempering chocolate.

Tuesday: Heat, temperature, and chocolate
Enric Rovira (Master Chocolatier)

Recipe of the week: Molten Chocolate Cake (image of choco goo with wires strapped to it)

Week 5: Electrostatics and Self Assembly

Thursday: Interactions between complex food molecules; Electrostatics is the most controllable interaction.
pH, Charge, Coulomb’s Law under water – Milk, Cheese.

Lab: homemade ricotta cheese!

Week 6: Foams and Emulsions (I)

Tuesday: Emulsions, concept of stabilizing oil and water
Nandu Juvany (Con Jubany)

Tuesday: Emusions are mixtures of materials that do not want to mix. Two methods for doing this: vinaigrette (kinetic slowing down), mayo (molecular stabilization)

(Instructor gets two students to make mayo live)

Lab 6: Vinaigrette & Aioli (Mayo)
Recipe for Mayonnaise:
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
2.5 tsp. lemon juice

Week 7: Gelation

Tuesday: Cooking miracles with Gelation
Joe Andres (miniBar, Jaleo)

Thursday: Physical process of gelation
Chemical Gels (i.e. transglutaminase)
Physical gels (i.e. alginate, gelatin, eggs)

Recipes of the week: Spherification (make your own!

He squirts alginae into tank of NaCl. (Ends up as blue water. Woohoo.)
Then squirts it into CaCl2. It forms gels, he pulls it out, room breaks out into “woahhhh.”

The Physics of making a Gel.

Polymer solution (liquid).   —> Crosslinked network (solid).

Week 8: Complex phase change, advanced concepts

Tuesday: Browning and the Maillard reaction; caramelization
Carme Ruscalleda (Sant Pau; Sant Pau de Toquio)

Thursday: Controlling heat and chemistry to manipulate food and flavor.
Chemical transitions occur at target temps.
The Maillard reaction
Advanced gelation agents (transglutaminase)
Advanced methods for stabilizing foams and emulsions

Tuesday: meat glue MANIA!

Lab 7 : Making shrimp noodles!!! (a la Wylie Dufresne. OH MAN. So excited.)

Week 9: Soil and microbes

Tuesday: Cultivating Flavor
Dan Barber (Blue Hill) Accompanied by bizarrely hunky, seductive photo of the chef. Um, what.

Thursday: Microbes and microbial science
Guest lecturers: Roberto Kolter, Harvard Medical School

Recipe of the week: Final projects!

Week 10: Foams and Emulsions (II)

Tuesday: Dessert! (!)
Bill Yosses (White House Pastry Chef)

Tuesday: The mechanics of solid foams
Mousse; meringue; cakes; breads
flour products of various textures

Recipe of the week: final projects!


Weekly assignments: 20%
Sections and lab: 20%
Midterm: 15%
Final project: 25%
Final exam: 20%

Other announcements:

1) Look on course web site later today for details about lottery
2) Look on course web site in next day for Math review lottery
3) math review session will be held on Wednesday night 7-9pm in Science Center


10 Responses to “Inside Harvard’s New Science of Cooking Class”

  1. Hey, great site! Does the Harvard Culinary Society do outings to foodie spots? I’m looking for those hidden hole-in-the wall nuggets of foodie goodness. New to Boston, looking to eat.

    Do you know if the lectures for Science & Cooking will be streamed? The box office people had mentioned it, but there are no further updates. :(

    Posted by Peter Nguyen | September 7, 2010, 4:07 pm
    • We do! It’s up to the whim of our members and what they’d like to organize – I also organize outing myself for just the board. (Our events are open to everyone, but we have internal events for bonding and food fun.)

      The lectures should be recorded; not sure where they’re streamed. Anyway, I got waitlisted… sigh.

      Posted by Lingbo Li | September 8, 2010, 5:15 pm
  2. Wow! I’ve never seen a class so in-demand!

    Posted by Simply Life | September 15, 2010, 7:55 am
  3. 10. Hi, I actually included you in my list as one of my preferred blogger because you speak your own language in appropriate and somehow easy for us to comprehend in vernacular.

    Posted by Letha Stoeke | October 12, 2010, 5:09 pm
  4. Did you make it into this class? If so, do they podcast or have video recordings? I’d be really interested in those!

    Posted by Sarah | January 18, 2011, 8:40 pm
  5. implentar excellent cooking classes.

    Posted by wilber | como seducir a una mujer | December 1, 2011, 12:36 pm
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Lana Lingbo Li

I'm a world traveler / enthusiastic eater who's now blogging and producing videos over at HelloLana.com. Visit me there!

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