Culinary Science

Yum, Chemistry!


In a city of tweeting food trucks and Michelin-star restaurants, it was only a matter of time before San Francisco’s fusion-food culture found a way into a chemistry class.

After all, chemistry is what we taste when we bite into a chocolate-drizzled double scoop of destabilized fat globules and Fragaria ananassa. We just call it a strawberry ice cream sundae.

Tami Spector, professor of chemistry, introduced the class, called Molecular Gastronomy, in spring 2011. It focuses on the physical and chemical processes of food and drink preparation.

The idea of the course is to introduce non-science students, many of whom find memorizing chemical formulas and reactions mind-numbing, to the intricacies of molecular chemistry using an accessible and interactive approach. Michelle Cancellier ’12, an English major, said the class helped her and other humanities majors understand the abstract concepts that underlie chemistry—such as polymers, ionic charge, and chemical bonds—which can make the subject so challenging.

Spector incorporates common foods into the science lessons, including an in-class experiment that separates caffeine from tea to illustrate solubility and extraction. Another lesson has students whip up a batch of mayonnaise to learn about emulsions. Working with a palette of flavors from sweet to savory, students have isolated clove oil, created ice cream, pickled vegetables, and baked soufflés.

And they walk away from the course with a scientifically educated palate.

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