As college students, it’s tempting to zap those leftovers in the microwave for a quick dinner, but what if there were a way to elevate those limp chow mein noodles and congealing chicken pieces into a gourmet meal? The key to great cooking is understanding the underlying ingredients.

I recently attended a workshop at UC Berkeley led by world-renowned culinary scientist Ali Bouzari. The event was co-hosted by FoodInno, a student-led club about food entrepreneurship, and the Research Chefs Association, an organization dedicated to food research and development. As the chief science officer and co-founder of Pilot R+D, Bouzari tries to combine scientific concepts and culinary ideas to make food accessible and approachable.  

coffee, tea, beer
Luna Zhang

Recently, he has been using his expertise to work with some of the most innovative chefs and restaurants in California as a culinary consultant. Between anecdotes about collaborating with Michelin-star chefs and his PhD dissertation in food biochemistry, Ali explained there are eight elements that form the foundation of all foods. 

Luna Zhang

Most cookbooks teach us “how to make the perfect ___,” but step-by-step guides don’t always tell us what to do when we’re missing an ingredient or how to reinvent yesterday’s scraps. Ali's new book Ingredients is an illustrated guide that describes the characteristics of the eight building blocks of food: Water, sugar, carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, minerals, gases, and heat. These invisible elements have unique “personalities” which dictate what they can and can’t do.

While it doesn't contain any recipes, it helps readers learn the "rules of the game." Understanding the components of basic ingredients and how the elements interact allows us to recognize universal patterns in cooking. When you know what makes the sauce thick, you can easily make substitutions that complement your dietary preferences or pantry shelves.

cream, milk, dairy product, sweet, cake, pastry
Caroline McCune

Imagine you’re making an egg salad sandwich, but you’re out of mayo. Mayo is thick, creamy, and responsible for binding the spices and ingredients together, but not a vital component in and of itself. When you break it down, mayo is composed of water, protein, minerals, and lipids. So, all you need to do is replace it with an ingredient that has a similar texture and components. Avocado, Greek yogurt, and hummus all fit the bill.

tea, pizza, beer, coffee
Luna Zhang

The book will help even the most novice cook navigate the kitchen. Understanding ingredients is important whether you’re working for a second Michelin star or heating up a Hot Pocket at midnight. (We all have those nights.) Learn the patterns of food and manipulate them to suit your palate and save those leftovers. Remember, anyone can cook. 

milk, cream, dairy product, mashed potatoes, butter, dairy
Caitlin Shoemaker

And if you were curious, his PhD was about making the perfect mashed potatoes. Yes, he is certain, since he proved it with science, and no, he did not share it with us. Maybe if you tweet him, he’ll give you the recipe. Or, create your own perfect mash using your intuition about the ingredients.