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The Art of Culinary Science

Authored By: 
Linli Chin, Science Teacher

One of my favorite places to be is the kitchen, and one of my favorite things to do is cook. I love the sounds and smells of delicious food permeating throughout the home.

You might not realize it, but cooking and baking heavily involve mathematics and science. When teaching the laws of thermodynamics and the concepts of heat, temperature, and thermal energy in my science classes, practical examples can be drawn from our everyday life in the kitchen. Adding salt to a pot of boiling pasta not only adds flavor, but also allows it to cook at a higher temperature so that it can achieve the perfect al dente texture faster. With the addition of salt, we increase the boiling temperature of the water mixture, which also allows it to stay in its liquid state longer and avoid evaporating.

The types of pots and pans we use in cooking also affect the outcome of the meal. Cooking pots with a thick base allow for heat to transfer evenly throughout the base.  This eliminates “hot spots” which can burn part of the food while leaving other parts uncooked. Have you ever noticed how the baking time changes with different types of pans? It relates back to the specific heat of the material as well as the shade of the pan.  Glass has a higher specific heat, which means it requires more energy to heat up compared to a metal pan. A darker pan absorbs more heat compared to a lighter, more reflective pan, which results in a shorter baking time.

A good way for parents to introduce fractions to kids in a non-threatening way is to include them when cooking or baking in the kitchen. Following a recipe is easy enough, but when the need arises to adjust the recipe to allow for larger or smaller portions, we end up working with fractions!  

Another new and trending field that marries science and food is molecular gastronomy. In molecular gastronomy, chefs use physics and chemistry to transform ingredients while cooking.  Food is presented in a very peculiar and interesting manner – some with the help of dehydrators and liquid nitrogen! In this field, chefs study how food tastes and behaves under different temperatures and pressures, and the result is something extraordinary!

So the next time you step into the kitchen or bite into your lunch, think about the science and math that’s involved. Bon appetit!


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