In the beginning, it seems just like any chemistry class. Looming on the PowerPoint slide is the molecular structure of sucrose: a double sugar broken down into the simple sugars glucose and fructose. The question professor Owen Priest asks his students, however, is quite unexpected: which sugar holds onto more moisture when baking?
This quarter’s Chemistry of Cooking class, exclusive to Allison residents, has a syllabus that includes double chocolate cookies and handmade pasta so students get to experiment with the science behind food – and eat it, too.
What made you want to bring such a unique chemistry class to Northwestern?
My favorite thing to do outside of working in the chemistry lab is cook. I’ve been cooking for years and I’ve taken lots of cooking classes. I’ve also noticed that every decent organic chemist I’ve ever met loves to cook and is also really good at it. I think that’s because you can correlate working in the lab and mixing chemicals to working in the kitchen and mixing ingredients. There are a couple of other schools around the country that teach serious Chemistry of Cooking classes, and I thought it would be fun to try to start something like that.
How did your love of cooking start?
When I was a kid, I was always involved in soccer or band or chorus, and I was never home for dinner. And my mom would say, “Oh, you missed dinner. There’s food in the fridge. Make yourself something.” So probably from the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I started learning how to cook, because my mom wasn’t going to do it for me. Then I just kind of got into it when I was in college. Cooking is therapeutic for me, and it also tends to better, healthier food.
What’s your goal for the students in your class?
To force-feed them chemistry. Pun intended. Because chemistry is cool, but most of the students in this class might go through their entire Northwestern career and never take a chemistry class. This is a way to try to get them to appreciate chemistry and understand how much chemistry is in the world around us. And also, if they do understand a little bit of chemistry, I think it will make them better cooks.
What does the Chemistry of Cooking final assessment entail?
Pretty early in the course, the students have to think about designing their own dish. And during reading period, everybody will be set up at their own station in the Allison lounge, and people will get to go around and sample their food. There’ll be little comment cards to fill out and put in boxes. It’s not going to make or break anybody’s grade, but it’s a fun way to have them showcase what they’ve learned this quarter. When someone asks about their dish, they’re also going to have to explain how the chemistry plays out in what they prepared.
Have there been any mishaps in the kitchen?
Everything’s been running pretty smoothly, but we’ve had some unplanned chemistry experiments. Partway through baking scones, somebody said to me, “Why are we using egg wash?” And I said it would seal the top of the scone, help hold moisture in and give it this nice sort of brown crust. And then somebody else said, “Oh, we were supposed to add egg wash?” But in a way, that’s OK, because we got to see that some of the scones came out of the oven with the golden-brown color on the top, and some of them were a more pale white color and had a different texture. It was a nice accidental way of looking at what you should do depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
Interview has been edited and condensed.