Science and cooking combine for fun and tasty Honors course

Lisa Eikenburg

Physics Professor Justin Conroy, at left, teaches this semester's honors course, "Cooking and Science"

By Rebekah Bretl, '13

Most of us don’t consider the delicate science involved in cooking food, which may explain why some of us are great cooks, while others are not. As aspiring chefs or simply seasoned “consumers,” we might wonder why some meals taste so good while others fall short, or why some are healthy, while others clog arteries and stretch waistlines.


Watch video on how to make apple caviar (AKA "The Science of Cooking at SUNY Fredonia) >> 

This semester, students in SUNY Fredonia’s Honors Program are discovering some of those cuisine questions.

Dr. Justin Conroy, a professor within the Department of Physics, is teaching “Scientific Principles of Cooking,” an honors seminar designed to engage students in the science that’s involved in food selection, preparation, and cooking.

The course is based on the general education course developed at Harvard University, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter,” which evolved into a lecture series that brought world renowned chefs and Harvard faculty members to research and explore a range of scientific principles in chemistry, biology, and physics which are involved in food and cooking.

David Kinkela, director of SUNY Fredonia’s Honors Program, was fortunate enough to be at Harvard for the course’s inaugural semester.

“I went to a lecture by New York chef Wylie Dufresne on Proteins and Enzymes,” Kinkela mentioned. “I thought it would be great to help create a similar course at Fredonia so I asked Dr. Conroy - who loves to cook - if he’d be interested in teaching such a course for the honors program, and he agreed!”

Scientific Principles of Cooking is designed to enhance students’ own experience with cooking and deepen their appreciation of science. There is an experimental component to this course in which students perform their own cooking trials. A partial list of hot topics covered include; cooking reactions, fermentation, emulsifiers, and the science of flavor.

“Food and cooking is a hobby of mine, and I’m a scientist, and so I developed an interest in those two things,” Conroy said.

An interesting project recently completed this semester was class demo on creating “apple caviar,” tiny spheres with jell-like external membranes and juicy interiors. This scientific process is called spherification, or jellification, a technique for obtaining a thin membrane, or colloid which easily “explodes” and releases a juice substance when eaten. In this case, apple juice was used to create the exploding substance in the center of the jell membrane in Conroy’s “apple caviar.”

One group of students are investigating coffee brewing and taste based on factors such as water pH, brewing temperature, among others factors. Another group is diving deeper into the scientific basis of chocolate addiction.

“It’s been a great time,” Conroy said about how the class has turned out. “I’ve learned as many things as the students have.”

Dylan Scacchetti, a freshman visual arts and new media major currently taking the class commented, “It’s different than any other I have taken. Professor Conroy blends Science and Culinary Arts together quite well, revealing that there is far more between them than I could originally imagine. This has led to a change in the way I view food, interestingly enough. I suppose that change in perspective is one of the aspects I enjoy about this class.”

The course is currently only available to students enrolled in SUNY Fredonia’s Honors Program.
However, it may become open to any student as a general education course in the future. Scientific Principles of Cooking is designed to jump start a passion for science early in students’ educational careers who are considering a major in the natural sciences.

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