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Chemistry in the kitchen: A different kind of laboratory

Professor Richard Zare cooks steak during class

Professor Zare cooks steak on a hot plate as students observe during his class, "Chemistry in the Kitchen."

Photo Credit: Binhong Lin
Feb 9 2018

Posted In:

Faculty, Students

By Stefanie Pietkiewicz

“I’m not exaggerating. It’s one of the best things I’ve had in my entire life,” one student declares as he bites into a seared strip of steak cooked on a hot plate during his freshman seminar.

As the rest of the class chuckles softly, Professor Richard Zare reminds his students that the meat changed color due to an important chemical reaction. “There is a special name for this reaction called the Maillard Reaction, which is a form of non-enzymatic browning,” Zare explains. The Maillard Reaction is a reaction between amino acids and sugars that gives browned foods, like biscuits, toasted marshmallows and steaks, their unique flavor.

At first glance, it may appear that Zare is teaching a cooking class, but, in reality, he is leading a new science course for Stanford undergraduates titled Chemistry in the Kitchen. Over the course of the class, students delve into the science of cooking through culinary demonstrations, lectures, and food tastings. Zare teaches the class in the Sapp Center for Science Teaching & Learning in a special room quarantined from those who work with chemicals.

Students during Chemistry in the Kitchen class

“The beauty of these labs is that the students get to eat what they make. Working with food violates the normal rules of what goes on in a chemistry lab, so we’ve set aside a special place in Sapp for this class,” Zare says.

Next week, the lab will cover enzymatic browning, a process that turns fruits like bananas and avocadoes brown when they are left out for several hours. In previous classes, students have learned why it is important to pop popcorn in hot oil instead of boiling water, how to make cheese from whole milk by adding lemon juice, and why egg whites become stiff when they are beaten with a whisk.

“I think it’s great how we learn and then put what we learn right into use. It’s an hour of chemistry lecture, and then we cook right after,” says Brandon Lutnick, a first year student.

Richard Zare turning on the hot plate

Through this unique hybrid class, Professor Zare hopes his students will better understand the connection between chemistry and food. “A regular chemistry course is very much interested in the mastery of chemistry content. I am more interested that students come away from this course with positive feelings about chemistry and food. If they can look at certain foods and never see them again the same way, I’ll be delighted,” he explains.

 

Zare would be happy to know that his course has had the desired effect. “Before taking this class, I thought chemistry was all acids and elements, but I’ve learned that really there’s chemistry in what we do every day, including eating,” says freshman Camille Dawson.

 

Geared toward students who are non-science majors, the new course has proven to be extremely popular amongst undergraduates, with over 150 students applying for just a dozen spots. The class lures individuals who have an appetite for delicious, home-cooked meals and a healthy curiosity.

Kadin Hendricks, who hopes to double major in Aero/Astro and Music, says he looks forward to coming to class every day. “One of my goals for freshman year was to take an intro seminar, and this was my top choice. It sounded like a really exciting and interesting way to get to know chemistry a little better, while also having a great time and eating a lot of good food,” he says. “This class has honestly exceeded my expectations. Every time I remember that I’m going to this class, it makes my day a lot better. I just want to say that I’ve very much enjoyed my Stanford experience so far, but this is one of the highlights of my year.”