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A scientific way to cook

Vijeta Raghuram

When someone learns to cook, they also learn some rules that are never to be broken. Are these rules backed by science? Can we test them using some simple experiments? What can undergraduate students and faculty learn from these experiments? Why are they valuable to science education? In this article, Vijeta Raghuram, the Programme Manager — Education at IndiaBioscience reflects on these questions based on her experiences at a workshop.

Cookingscience title
Photo: Vijeta Raghuram

The art of cooking food has been passed over centuries from generation to generation. Most of us have learnt the basics of cooking from our parents or grandparents, whose voices may ring in our minds for years to come: Don’t cook the lentils along with anything sour, they will not cook properly”. Always add lemon and coriander leaves in the end”. Serve this dish hot, it will taste better”. Is there science behind these pieces of advice? Can we test them using simple experiments?

Jayanti Mukherjee, a member of the faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences at Azim Premji University had similar questions in mind. Although I am a biologist, these questions continued to linger in my mind, but I never got the time to explore my love for cooking in a scientific way”, she said in an email interview. So she joined hands with Yasmin Jayathirtha, a chemist with a similar curiosity in cooking, to organise a workshop for undergraduate students and faculty, aimed at exploring some of these questions. 

The workshop, titled The biology and chemistry of food”, was part of the Science Undergraduate Research Conference held at Azim Premji University from 8 to 9 December 2023 on its campus in Bengaluru. The conference was a platform for undergraduate and postgraduate students of science from across the country to showcase the original research that they are part of. In addition to talks and poster presentations by students, the conference included workshops that engaged them in inquiry-based learning. Mukherjee’s and Jayathirtha’s workshop was one of them. 

I was attending the conference as a member of IndiaBioscience, hoping to find new ways to engage with educators. I didn’t want to miss this chance to do something fun. So, intrigued by the title, I decided to join the workshop, though it had been nearly two decades since I graduated from college.

In groups of two or three, we set out to find answers to several questions:

  1. What happens to the level of vitamin C when food is heated?
  2. Why do lentils foam?
  3. How does the addition of baking soda, salt or vinegar affect the time it takes to cook vegetables?
  4. Does smell influence taste?
  5. What happens to the flour when we knead it?

The experiments were simple and needed only the basic lab equipment, if needed at all. And while understanding the science behind cooking may have been the focus of the workshop, it was not its only goal. 

In trying to answer these questions, students learned how to design experiments, how to test the influence of individual variables, and the importance of controls. As Jayathirtha put it, this workshop was a way of making the idea of science accessible to all students. We all eat and know food, so it is not intimidating”.

Unlike most chemistry experiments, where one tends to be extra cautious about not coming in direct contact with chemicals, the experiments in the workshop engaged all the senses.

My idea was to show that science weaves itself in our lives. Can we be alert to it? Can we watch our lives and enjoy thinking about the science?”, asked Jayathirtha. 

Participants found different levels of gluten in maida (left), regular whole wheat (centre) and emmer wheat (right). Photo: Vijeta Raghuram

Indeed, such a workshop helps one view the mundane in a new light. One of the participants rubbed some oil on her palm and then rubbed the same area with the froth released upon cooking lentils and noticed a reduction in the greasiness. Others marvelled at how gluten can be separated from a well-kneaded dough with just a wash under running water. Yet others (like me) had fun watching blindfolded participants try to guess what they were eating while smelling something completely different (care to taste an apple that smells like garlic, anyone?). 

A student tries to identify the taste of a food item while smelling the scent of something else. Photo: Vijeta Raghuram

The ultimate goal, I would say, would be to inspire students to understand the evolution of culinary diversity in different cultures. This [workshop] was just the beginning”, said Mukherjee.

The wonder and curiosity that the workshop generated seems to have lasted long afterwards. I noticed saponins being one of the components in my Ayurvedic shampoo, but I didn’t know it would be so easy to extract”, said Mrunali Sundar, a participant of the workshop, when I asked her to share her experience many days later. Saponins are compounds present in legumes and they derive their name from their ability to form soap-like foam.

Workshops like this are also useful to biology educators who are interested in engaging students of introductory biology and chemistry in simple experiments. Mukherjee suggested that the experiments carried out in this workshop can be used to demonstrate the structure and function of different types of nutrients in food (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), chemical bonding, and biochemical reactions in a classroom. 

The biggest takeaway for me was how such activities can dissolve disciplinary boundaries. Is cooking an art or a science? Well, as I found out from the workshop, it needs to be both if you want a lip-smacking plate of food. Slurp!

Written By

Program Manager-Education, IndiaBioscience. Assoc. Editor, i wonder... (2020-2024) Vijeta did her PhD in biophysics at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad and postdoctoral research in molecular neuroscience at the Vollum Institute, Portland, Oregon, USA. Her strong interest in …