Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science

This week I started watching lectures and doing homework for a course at edX entitled “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science”. The course was designed by two scientists famous in the field of soft condensed matter, Michael Brenner and David Weitz from Harvard University, along with the preceptor for science and cooking at Harvard, Pia Sorensen. They were also aided by many chefs like Harold McGee, known for his books on science and cooking, and Dan Souza of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen.

Even in the first week, I’ve learned quite a lot of cool stuff. By thinking about how the conformation of proteins are stabilized one can figure out how to make a cheat’s version of buttermilk on the fly. A related trick (in that it also involves denaturing proteins via pH adjustments) involves adding lemon juice or vinegar to red onions or red cabbage to help it keep color.

After boiling a red onion in a pot of water, I was able to use the liquid as a pH indicator. Adding baking soda to the liquid turned it blue while adding vinegar turned it the same red hue as the onion.

After boiling a red onion in a pot of water, I was able to use the liquid as a pH indicator. Adding baking soda (basic) to the liquid turned it blue while adding vinegar (acidic) turned it the same red hue as the onion.

But I’ve clearly only started to scratch the surface. In my classes and in my research I’m learning about how disordered assemblies of stuff like proteins and fats create the textures of the foods we enjoy. These rheological properties, as they’re called in physics, are also critical for understanding the origins of life itself, how the structurally useful properties of cell membranes emerge from the underlying molecular disorder.

If you’d like to learn along with me, feel free to sign up for the class. It’s free, and it’s a very flexible time commitment (if you choose do the assignments, the due dates don’t even start until November). Some of the material can get pretty advanced and is difficult to get right off without some scientific background, but they have an extensive review section that may be able to get you started.

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