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Learn the Science of Cooking through Online Harvard Course

Charlie Chung

Are you interested in how cooking actually works? It affects just about everyone on this planet, and yet the actual science of what is happening when we cook food. We caught up via email with Prof. Michael Brenner, the Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics at Harvard who is offering the free course Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, which starts June 17 on edX. It is being co-taught by Pia Sorensen and David Weitz. Below, Prof. Brenner discusses cooking, science, and the course.

Intro Video

Class Central: What level of math or science background should they have? What level of familiarity with cooking?

Prof. Brenner: The course is targeted for people who are interested in how recipes work and why they are designed as they are. We will assume basic knowledge of high school physics and chemistry, though our hope is to bring you with us independently of where you start. No knowledge of cooking needed.

Class Central: What are some of the relatively recent things we’ve learned about cooking?

Prof. Brenner: It is amazing how little we know about why recipes that we use every day work as they do. We know the basic physical principles underlying cooking, but how they fit together to lead to the delicious dishes that we eat every day is still largely mysterious. Much has been learned in recent years from pioneers like Ferran Adria (who has used scientific principles to invent entirely new foods) and Nathan Mhyrvold (who has used modern technology and scientific method to discover and refine aspects of everyday cooking).

Class Central: What is the difference between everyday cooking and haute cuisine?

Prof. Brenner: Both are quite similar in that they transform the same raw ingredients into something delicious. Haute cuisine often involves pushing the boundary and inventing things that are entirely new, using ingredients that aren’t necessarily in the grocery store. These ingredients are entirely natural though and it is an accident of history that we don’t usually cook with them.

Class Central: When you talk about this topic, what things surprise people the most?

Prof. Brenner: How simple scientific principles can explain diverse aspects of cooking, and how dishes that are entirely different (i.e. cooking a steak; making ceviche; making molten chocolate cake) are based on the same basic physics.

Class Central: What are some of the interesting things you’ll have learners do in the kitchen?

Prof. Brenner: Calibrate their oven, weigh a cup of flour, and make molten chocolate cake. We have a mayonnaise making contest where people try to make as much mayo as possible from a single egg. Learn more about how your recipes work and why and this will make you into a better chef!

Class Central: How will learners become better at science through this course?

Prof. Brenner: They will see how the rules of thumb and detailed recipes of everyday cooking are rooted in basic science. This will give a new perspective on cooking and how choices are made when cooking. It will also make people understand that science is strongly rooted in every day life. The thought processes of high end chefs are not so different from those of leading scientists—both are involved in using materials to create novelty.

Class Central: Are there any types of insights into science or engineering that are best demonstrated by cooking?

Prof. Brenner: Yes, the way we cook is strongly rooted in basic science and engineering. This is what appeals to us as using cooking as a medium to explain how scientists think.

Class Central: Have there been any recent trends you’ve noticed in how people think about food and cooking?

Prof. Brenner: Certainly there is increasing interest in thinking about cooking from a scientific point of view. This has helped create a revolution in the types of dishes that are created in high end restaurants, and also has provided a unique exposure to scientific thinking for people who don’t think of themselves about scientists.

If you are interested in learning more, you can sign up for Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, which starts June 17.