• Length:
    16 Weeks
  • Effort:
    2–3 hours per week
  • Price:

    FREE
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  • Institution
  • Subject:
  • Level:
    Introductory
  • Language:
    English
  • Video Transcript:
    English

Prerequisites

Basic mathematics concepts (arithmetic, algebra, geometry)

About this course

Skip About this course

During each module of this course, chefs reveal the secrets behind some of their most famous culinary creations — often right in their own restaurants. Inspired by such cooking mastery, the Harvard team will then explain the science behind the recipe.

Topics will include:

  • How molecules influence flavor
  • The role of heat in cooking
  • Diffusion, revealed by the phenomenon of spherification, the culinary technique pioneered by Ferran Adrià.

You will also have the opportunity to become an experimental scientist in your very own laboratory — your kitchen. By following along with the engaging recipe of the week, taking precise measurements, and making skillful observations, you will learn to think like both a cook and a scientist. The lab is certainly one of the most unique components of this course — after all, in what other science course can you eat your experiments?

 

What you'll learn

Skip What you'll learn
  • The scientific concepts that underlie everyday cooking and haute cuisine techniques;
  • How to apply principles of physics, engineering, and chemistry to cooking;
  • How to become an experimental scientist in your own kitchen;
  • How to think like a chef AND a scientist.
Module 1: Molecules, moles, flavor, and pH
Includes a discussion by Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in NYC on flavor, pH, and the secret to his famous duck sauce, and scientific discussions on the major molecules of food, flavor, moles, and pH.
Module 2: Energy, temperature, and heat
Includes a welcome drink by Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax in NYC to toast the course, and a scientific discussion of how to cook a perfect egg. This module will focus on one of the most commons ways to cook - adding energy in the form of heat to increase the temperature of a food and thus change its internal structure.
Module 3: Phase transitions
Joan and Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, recently voted the best restaurant in the world, will explain how they manipulate phase transitions when cooking through techniques like sous vide and rotovapping. The scientific discussion will focus on what causes phase transitions in foods from a macroscopic and microscopic perspective. 
Module 4: Diffusion and Spherification
José Andrés, chef and owner of minibar, Jaleo, and The Bazaar, will introduce us to the remarkable dishes he creates with gelling agents. Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Fransisco will make carrot jerky, and America's Test Kitchen will show us their secret to making excellent scrambled eggs and coleslaw. Scientific discussions in this module will include gelation, modernist thickeners, and diffusion, which make some remarkable dishes possible.
Module 5: Heat Transfer
Carme Ruscalleda, chef and owner of restaurant Sant Pau, will cook steak and other culinary specialties that illustrate the special attention chefs pay to heat diffusion when cooking food. Nathan Myhrvold will share his method for cooking the perfect burger, and America’s Test Kitchen will show us their secret to cooking perfect French fries. The scientific discussion in this module is about heat transfer, and explaining why it is so hard to cook a perfect steak from both a microscopic and macroscopic perspective. We will also explore heat-dependent chemical reactions, and how they impact food taste and texture.
Module 6: Candy
In the final module we will discuss solubility and the science of candy and chocolate. Joanne Chang, from Flour bakery, will talk about the stages of sugar, and Enric Rovira from Xocolaters de Barcelona in Spain will show us some marvelous chocolate creations and we will discuss the underlying science of chocolate tempering and the different phases of chocolate.

Meet your instructors

Michael Brenner
Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics
Harvard University
David Weitz
Professor of Physics and Applied Physics
Harvard University
Pia Sörensen
Senior Preceptor in Chemical Engineering and Applied Materials, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University

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Learner testimonials

“I really enjoyed the course and have a new appreciation for food and cooking. I now make better scrambled eggs and French fries, a great molten chocolate cake and flan, and I love my new way of preparing salmon, using the Maillard reaction!”

“Thank you to the course staff and the chefs who contributed! It was a great experience to delve back into science and math, and a lot of fun to combine it with cooking. I very much enjoyed the content, and the exercise that my brain got in the homework!”

 

Frequently asked questions

Do I need to know physics and chemistry in order to take this course?

Not at all - while some familiarity with these subjects could be helpful, we start each module thinking about how we experience food, then use that to explore the science behind it. The scientific principles are discussed in the videos, and practice problems give you an opportunity to apply them. If you have a desire to understand how physics and chemistry affect food and a willingness to think, you'll learn all the physics and chemistry that you need in the course.

What background knowledge is assumed?

We provide review materials that discuss some fundamental principles in math and science, and familiarity with arithmetic and high-school algebra is assumed.

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Research
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