Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

At last, the edible science fair

5 min read

Harvard students use imagination to stretch the limits of cuisine

Hot ice cream. Solid soup. Glow-in-the-dark gummy bears.

Such foods may sound like science fiction, but they were just a few of the final projects on display Tuesday (Dec. 7) for the SPU27: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter” science fair. Illustrating the tenacious bond between science and cooking, students used physics, chemistry, and biology to manipulate recipes and create foods that stretch the imagination.

“This is the kind of science class I knew I wouldn’t have if I went anywhere else,” said freshman Matt Menendez, as he stood in front of his display on how to create perfect whipped cream.

“Now when I go to the grocery store, I can pick up a pint of cream, see that it has carrageenan and mono- and diglycerides in it, and a). know why they’re in there, and b.) decide if I want them in there, or if I’ll buy cream without them.”

The class has drawn widespread interest. About 700 students applied for the 300 or so spots in it. Lectures held each Monday have been packed. News articles about the class have appeared in publications across the globe. Led by David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, students were introduced to scientific principles that were then linked to cooking. For example, a lesson on measuring and changing viscosity led to the creation of fruit gels, while a lesson on chemical reactions resulted in the cooking of caramels.

“The science makes it more real,” said Kate Caputo, a junior concentrating in engineering and astrophysics. “I can make cookies from a recipe, no problem, but if I want to manipulate the recipe or change it, I need to understand the science behind what’s happening.”

Understanding the science led Caputo and her team to create the glowing gummy bears. Though the team originally envisioned using bioluminescent algae, most of them are toxic and not suitable for ingestion. Quinine, which glows in the dark due to its molecular structure, proved to be a good alternative. Using tonic water (which contains quinine), the team experimented to determine the right ratio of gel and flavors so that the candies glowed, set, and tasted good.

A team composed of top chefs from around the world was on hand to judge the student projects. Many had lectured in the course during the semester, and some had provided students with project ideas based on particular challenges they’d faced in their own kitchens.

For example, Chef Wylie Dufresne, of wd~50 in New York City, told students about his challenges in creating a noodle made entirely of Parmesan cheese. While the kitchen had a suitable recipe, the noodles took far too long to dry and crumbled when boiled. A team composed of Katie Chang, history and literature senior, Cody Evans, an economics junior, and Sophie Wharton, a psychology and neuroscience senior, tackled the problem, looking at the protein structures of various cheeses, and hypothesizing that stronger protein chains would lead to better noodles. They then combined the Parmesan with RM, a meat glue that contains sodium caseinate, which has proteins that aided in the cohesion of the noodles.

“Finding the right ratio of RM was a challenge,” Wharton said. “We made noodles that were like rubber bands. They were nothing you want to put in your mouth.”

Ultimately, the team found a winning recipe: a chewy, stable cheese noodle that looks and feels like pasta but has an intense Parmesan flavor.

“We’ve been working on this for a year, and they did it in two weeks,” said John McCarthy, a chef at wd~50 who was on hand to judge the student projects.

Likewise, James Beard Award-winning chef Barbara Lynch turned to the SPU27 students to help her find a better, gluten-free pasta for her Boston restaurant Sportello.

“We set out to try different binding agents to add to the pasta in order to recreate the taste, texture, and properties of traditional pasta dough,” said junior Erica Seidel, who worked on the project with junior Michelle Burschtin and senior Jennifer Kusma.

The students experimented with different binding agents and sorghum flour — a staple in gluten-free cooking. They then performed a series of experiments that established a correlation between the breaking point of a noodle and its mouth feel. Their research earned them a top spot in the science fair, and a trip to Spain’s Alicia Foundation, which collaborated with Harvard in the class. The trio will be joined by Bethania Bacigalupe, who also won for her work researching adding gels to soup stocks so they are stable at higher temperatures.

“What Harvard is doing in the teaching of food and science is incredible,” Lynch said. “It’s going to make a big difference in cooking evolution and helping health factors. We don’t have a lot of chances to spend time on the science of food in the kitchen, so putting chefs and students together on a project has been really rewarding.”