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Cooking... with Physics!

By Ross Pomeroy

"The kitchen is a laboratory and cooking is an experimental science."

In an opinion piece appearing in the Jan. 9th edition of Flavour, University of Bristol physicist and teaching fellow Peter Barham argues that science and cooking are made for each other.

"When we cook we generally follow a recipe; we select, quantify and process the ingredients and then serve the food to our friends, family or guests. A good cook (or scientist) will keep records in a notebook of exactly what they do so that they can repeat the experiment (recipe) as required."

Sound familiar? What Barham describes is the scientific method applied to cooking. Think of each dish you prepare as an experiment, and the eaters, your subjects. Each time you prepare the same meal is an experimental replication, and the more you conduct the experiment, the more refined the dish becomes. Either that, or you learn not to make it anymore.

"If taken seriously and applied properly there is no excuse for any scientifically trained person not to become a superb cook," Barham says.

Moreover, Barham argues that science can be excellently taught through cooking. He illustrates the point by conveying the concept of thermal diffusion through potatoes. A potato placed in a constant temperature bath (i.e. boiling water) will slowly become cooked, or gelatinized, Barham says, at a rate in accordance with the expectations of thermal diffusion. The width of the cooked region within a potato increases as the square root of the cooking time, the rate of which depends on the difference between the internal temperature of the potato before cooking and the temperature of the cooking bath in which the potato is placed.

Barham goes on to discuss an issue of immense importance: how to make delicious ice cream. Good ice cream is both creamy and smooth, Barham says, and the best way to attain these traits is to minimize the amount and size of large, solid, extraneous particles in the dessert, often ice crystals. This can be accomplished with additives that prevent ice crystal formation. Proteins that perform this function are commonly found in fish that inhabit cold, polar waters. Perhaps these proteins can be isolated and added to ice cream?

Overall, Barham believes that the most important aspect of blending science and cooking is that it provides a route for people to engage with science in a fun, practical manner. He'd love to see more science classes adopt this approach.

"If [students] can take their experiments home and talk about them while eating them over a family dinner, then the potential benefits to society are incalculable – improving diet to reduce obesity and improve health, bettering social cohesion though combined family activities, and creating a more scientific-literate society are all within the bounds of possibility," Barham asserts.

Source: Barham, Peter (2013) Physics in the kitchen. Flavour, 2:5 doi:10.1186/2044-7248-2-5

Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of Real Clear Science. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.

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