Many believe that baking is a science while cooking is a forgivable endeavor because it doesn’t require as many scrupulous calculations. However, Harvard University would beg to differ. In fact, Professors Pia Sörensen, Preceptor in Science & Cooking, Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Michael Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, assert that approaching a recipe from both a chef and a scientist’s perspectives are the keys to unlocking some phenomenally tasting dishes.
Founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012, edX, offers a vast array of free online courses. In observing the growing, universal interest in food, the former has released a 3.0 version of its culinary program entitled Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. Science & Cooking offers anyone the opportunity to “learn secrets behind highly regarded culinary creations by some of the world’s most prominent chefs.” Special guests include Chefs Daniel Humm, Dave Arnold and Dominique Crenn.
The course has two goals: first, the professors arm you with the “scientific concepts that underlie everyday cooking and haute cuisine” and second, to empower and give you confidence to discover the answers and “science behind the dish” in your own kitchen. And no, you need not be a rocket scientist to take this six week course—the program initially began as a general education class. Currently, the pace and language is tailored towards those who may only have a high school science background.
The total course length is about a month and a half, with an effort of five to seven hours per week. Although it began on January 18th, those interested are still encouraged to sign up. All course material will be accessible until mid-May, 2017.
The Harvard team explains what entails the “science behind a recipe,” which includes understanding how molecules influence flavor and how heat affects cooking. Those who embark on this gastronomic journey end up debunking several food science myths. To whet everyone’s appetites, Professors Sörensen and Brenner shine a light on a few myths that the course explains in more detail.
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False — According to Professors Sörensen and Brenner, no such thing occurs. Instead they state the following, “When you sear steak over high heat for instance, the meat is actually undergoing the Maillard reaction—whereby you’re browning the protein. What’s happening here is that the heat causes the surface moisture to evaporate and results in a chemical change which creates intense aromas and flavors.”
Complex flavors arise from the Maillard reaction, hence seared meat’s taste. The Maillard reaction also explains why the surface of meat always must be bone-dry: once a moist piece of meat hits the hot pan, it will steam up instead of browning.
False — Professor Sörensen states the following: “Avocados contain an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. If the fruit comes in contact with the oxygen in the air, it causes avocados to turn brown. So lemon juice alone will not prevent this from occurring.” She then adds that students will have opportunities to test this theory for themselves. What they will learn is that unless they have a vacuum-pack machine that can eliminate oxygen contact with the flesh of the avocado completely, the most effective way to prevent browning is to coat it with a thin layer of oil, place the pit back and plastic wrap the rest of the exposed flesh.
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True — “When you whip heavy, full fat cream, you’re creating millions of small bubbles within the liquid—what you’re essentially doing here is whipping air to create a structural form,” says Professor Brenner. At the point where it teeters between liquid and frothy, you shouldn’t stop—otherwise the cream would become uniform again and deflate.”
Brenner explains the mechanics of what is going on: “However, if you continue to whisk, you’re actually stripping away the protective membranes on the fat globules. When you do this, you make way for air—and what you end up with is essentially an emulsion whereby air is suspended in liquid and made stable by the fat in the cream.”
False — According to the professors, since the statement is fairly vague, several variables must be considered. Firstly, the boiling point of ethanol (the intoxicating component in drinks such as beer and wine) is 78°C and lower than that of water. Secondly, proteins begin to denature around 60-70°C. So, according to the professors, depending on the amount of, say, wine you add, theoretically it would take several hours to completely cook out the ethanol—which is a) not done when you sautée or flambé, and b) not desirable because the ingredients would break down and not be appealing for consumption.
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False — Contrary to popular belief, washing the grit and dirt off mushrooms using water is harmless. In fact, Professor Brenner says that aspiring home chefs can test the theory out for themselves. He hypothesizes that you could probably weigh a few mushrooms before submerging them in water for various lengths of time, then weigh how much water the fungi retains afterwards. He states that unless you plan to leave mushrooms in water for an extended period of time (they are porous, so they can be subject to liquid absorption), washing them briefly will not cause them to leach out nutrients or be diluted in flavor.
Main photo by Luis Sinco via Getty Images
Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel, and science writer.