Learning the Science of Food

— by Hannah Lee

When I was enrolled in chemistry in college, it was a humbling experience to realize that I do not have the spatial intelligence to imagine organic molecules in three dimensions. However, I am an avid cook, so I was intrigued to register for Coursera’s free online course on the science of gastronomy.

The months of waiting until the start date was announced led me to wonder if the company was waiting for a threshold number of registrants, but by the time it was launched this summer, it was very well subscribed. By Assignment 9, the course had 5,438 students from all over the world, including Germany, Mexico and the Philippines.

More after the jump.  
This course was taught by two professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, so the deadlines for the weekly assignments were in Hong Kong time, 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone. Each week offered about two hours of video lectures, divided into smaller units of 15 minutes or less. The assignments were usually graded immediately on-screen. To pass and qualify for an “e-Statement of Accomplishment,” the student must score at least 70%.

There was a discussion forum for the students’ use. For the assignment on gluten development in dough, students shared ideas on what to do with the remains of the experiment: Their ideas included turning the non-yeasted mass into pizza, short-crust pie, and Christmas tree ornaments. I did not attempt to join a “Meetup” group, but I learned that 185 self-identified Philadelphians were taking a Coursera class.

The topics covered included: energy transfer, hunger and satiety, the sense of taste and smell, the sense of sight and touch, fruits and vegetables, a perfect steak, sauces, and dessert. I loved learning about the chemistry for what we cooks know from experience, and the two professors were thoroughly grounded in the scientific concepts. They also provided plenty of visual graphics, as well as student demonstrations from their campus.

One assignment was on the importance of our sense of smell for our enjoyment of food: Much of what we consider taste actually comes through our nose, which explains why a stuffy nose impairs our sense of taste. Another fun experiment was on how sweetness suppresses sourness, as we compared solutions of vinegar and sugar in different concentrations.

The assignment on gluten development was one that I was eager to do, because each of the test ingredients — oil, vinegar, and salt — is part of my regular challah recipe. I demonstrated to myself that each of the three hinders gluten development, yielding a mass with shorter strands of protein than the control portion of flour and water. I suppose they are included in my challah recipe for flavor and texture.

When I registered for the course last January, I noted a list of recommended books. Being the kind of college student who would purchased the books for interesting courses that she did not have time for, I ordered every one of them. I later found that while none of them were essential, they were useful references. If you are a foodie, the following titles are fine additions to your culinary library:

Coursera is a pioneer in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), and since its launch in April 2012, it has rapidly added academic partners, which now total 66 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, and the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. New partners are the University of Chicago, Yale, and Tel Aviv University.

Last March, Coursera announced a milestone number of over 3 million students, enrolled in 325 courses. I have not yet identified my next online class, but I can tell you that two local professors will be featured on Coursera: Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania will be teaching a nine-week class on vaccines, and Jonathan Biss of the Curtis Institute will be teaching a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Both classes will start on September 3rd.

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