Inside USD

Chemistry 101 Recipe: Science of Food and Cooking

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The heated temperature for the pot of developing panir cheese curds was working perfectly as University of San Diego students stirred them on the kitchen stove. All the while, a natural connection between food preparation and science was also at its boiling point for the better.

“There’s a national movement now to use the chemistry of food and cooking to look at basic principles of science,” says Peter Iovine, PhD, associate professor of chemistry who for the second Intersession in a row, is teaching Chemistry 101: Science of Food and Cooking, to USD students. “This is a most appropriate class for non-science majors because it teaches them how to think critically about food, cooking and underneath, we hide all of the good science. They learn a good deal.”

Iovine, who first taught the course to 25 USD sophomores in a Second-Year Experience Study Abroad trip to Florence, Italy, is enjoying teaching to the nine USD students who signed up for the on-campus version. Still in its infancy, the idea of bringing food and science together is also an-campus collaboration. Iovine enlisted USD’s Dining Services to open its farm-to-table-inspired restaurant, La Paloma, so students could cook in a natural kitchen setting and prepare different foods each Thursday during the three-week course.

“It is very exciting to see USD offer a food and chemistry class,” said La Paloma Manager and Chef Heather Lang. “Something everyone uses on a day-to-day basis is food chemistry. Knowing how things cook and giving students an opportunity to make things they otherwise wouldn’t and to know what is happening is great.”

Students, after reading and learning about basic food molecules — water, fats, carbohydrates and proteins — and about sugar and chocolate, made candy at La Paloma. Last week, it was cheese. Iovine, who had his Italy-visiting students make regional cheese, had his current students make a low-fat, Indian panir. After following the recipe’s process, the proof of the students’ work was all in the taste. Their cheese was used liberally in a delicious Panir Tika Masala curry dish prepared by a La Paloma chef and served at the end of the class. This week’s experiment will be a hands-on lesson in molecular gastronomy.

Bringing chemistry and food together in a palatable course offering has definitely enhanced the knowledge of students, freshman English major Megan Neeno and senior business administration major Chris Barrett.

“I’ve always loved eating healthy,” said Neeno, who described herself as a pescatarian (a person whose only meat source is fish). “But I thought it was really interesting to have a class where you could combine food and chemistry together. It doesn’t seem like it goes together until you take the class and realize that it is. Wow! Everything from how you melt the cheese and how you make chocolate, it’s all such a scientific process. You wouldn’t have thought that people so long ago who were inventing these food would have ever thought about what was going on at a molecular level.”

Barrett said he needed to fulfill a science requirement when he enrolled, but what he’s learned in class, he said, will resonate long after it concludes on Jan. 24.

“I think I can speak for 90 percent of guys when I say that I like food and I love grilling,” he said. “When I saw this class was a requirement, I thought it would be fun to learn to cook some things in different ways. Maybe I’d learn about food in ways such as how to make beef tender. But I never thought I’d be making cheese or the other stuff. It has been interesting to take what we’ve learned and apply it (in the kitchen).”

Barrett said it has also helped him from a fitness standpoint. “Learning about proteins has been my favorite part because I love food, but I work out, too. I buy stuff like whey protein or casein protein and I didn’t really know what they were. But now, I can look at food nutrition labels and understand the different proteins and about saturated and unsaturated fat. You learn what’s bad for you and what isn’t so bad. When you can understand it from a molecular level, you understand it’s not everything that people make it out to be. It’s actually something way different.”

Iovine said students are also doing food experiments at home. “I want them to be citizen scientists at home. I want them to go the extra mile and measure something, think about food in a quantitative way, an analytical way.”

Seeing something from a different point of view is ripe for deeper understanding. Iovine’s recipe of food, cooking and “secret” ingredient of the science proves it.

“Students are absorbing the material. It isn’t just chemistry. They’re building a foundation in science to talk with each other and myself about food and cooking at a deeper level. The goal is that this knowledge base won’t just make them better cooks in the kitchen, but better consumers. It will make them think more about nutrition and think about it when they’re buying things. What does organic mean? How much saturated fat is in it? Everyone is thinking more critically. What happens when you make cheese? Something curdles. What, at a molecular level, is going on? It’s not just that you see this curd, but what’s actually going on with the protein? What’s a protein? This class is a good vehicle to talk about science.”

And there aren’t many classes that can, at the same, satisfy one’s hunger.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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