This semester, Carlow University chemistry majors have discovered that their degree has more applications than first suspected. The proof is in the pudding...and the pie crust...or maybe the lasagna.
"A lot of students think a chemistry degree is only useful if you want to work in a lab or teach," says Monique Hockman, PhD, a Carlow chemistry professor. "They don’t think about all of the other places that they can apply their degree, like, for example, in the food industry."
Hockman now offers Molecular Gastronomy to chemistry majors and minors who have completed their first two years of course work.
"I liked the idea of offering it as a special topics course," she says. "Because it's for majors, I have to make sure they are using chemistry in all of the lab work."
This means that the course is not just about food and cooking. It's also about how molecules are changed during the cooking process, which chemical reactions take place, and how substituting different ingredients in a recipe can lower fat, calories, and the amount of gluten without affecting how the dish tastes.
"One of the first labs we did was to modify recipes for brownies," she says. "We took standard recipes and varied the amount of certain ingredients, like butter or olive oil. We investigated what we could replace eggs with—such as pureed beets, prunes, Greek yogurt, tofu, and even black beans—and sought ways to cut back on calories without affecting the taste."
The class also explores related issues like how the taste buds on the tongue aren't all the same (certain sections have receptors for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). They also discover how a food's color can affect perceptions, and how interrelated the sense of smell is to taste.
"Most people can’t distinguish taste without smell,”says Hockman.
The class is comprised of both lectures and lab work that takes place in a special lab cleaned thoroughly to provide for the safe handling of food. There are 13 students enrolled—five of whom admit they had no cooking knowledge prior to taking the course.
Marissa Zapf, a biology major minoring in chemistry, is one of them. “I hate cooking,” she said. “One of the reasons I took this class was so I could learn how to cook.”
Other students had the opposite reaction. Lab partners Megan Gerst and Molly Pratt, junior biology majors minoring in chemistry, say they were more at ease in the kitchen.
"I love cooking and baking," says Gerst. "Having a course that teaches the science behind it sounded really appealing."
And of course, besides learning, one of the fringe bene ts of the course was the opportunity to eat what they prepared.
"The apple pie we made was really good," says Kayleigh Mille, a senior chemistry major, of the opportunity to make a pie crust that had less gluten in it. "I don’t cook much at home, but now I know how to do a lot more."
But make no mistake—even though the finer points of pie crust creation may be discussed, this is a chemistry course. Formulas for amino acids are written out on the white board. Discussion centers around such topics as the difference between carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the beer-making process, and the science behind soda-making.
Chandler Stockwell, a sophomore biology perfusion major with a chemistry minor, says the course had changed his perspective on the food he eats. "I’ve begun looking at the
individual ingredients more," he says. "There are a whole lot more carbohydrates and sodium in the average American’s diet than we need."
Thu Dinh, a junior biology major, agrees.
"This course taught me how to substitute a lot of ingredients to make food healthier," she says.
For their midterm, Hockman has directed students to pick one of four traditional high-calorie, high-fat recipes for lasagna, buffalo chicken dip, pizza, or macaroni and cheese and come up with a low-calorie alternative, while staying true to the recipe.
"They have to make a presentation to their peers as to why they chose the substitution and describe the chemical reaction involved," says Hockman.
For the final project, students will cook a full meal (meat, side dish, vegetable, and dessert), and describe all of the chemical reactions that occurred
In keeping with the spirit of TV cooking challenge shows, Hockman will spontaneously introduce "secret ingredients" during the dinner preparation that students will have to adapt to on the fly, which should make for both an extremely challenging—and delicious—final exam.
"If all goes well, the plan is to offer this course every other year for chemistry majors and minors, as well as a version that non-majors can take in fulfillment of Carlow's Compass general education curriculum requirements," says Hockman.
Sounds like a recipe for success.
By Drew Wilson