Making a meal with chemistry

The Baltimore Sun

Forget the beakers, test tubes and Bunsen burners.

In Peter Craig's Kitchen Chemistry, the required lab supplies include a kitchen knife, tomatoes, onions and a cutting board.

One of about 30 first-year seminars at McDaniel College this fall, Craig's course regularly brings food into the classroom, examining it down to the molecular level to understand its chemistry.

"We're trying to sort of demystify the complex nature of our little subject," Craig said of chemistry. "A lot of the students see the subject as a sort of pre-med, pre-vet, pre-dentistry ... The idea is sort of to bring chemistry into the fold, that more than just chemists should be interested in it because it affects everybody."

The unconventional class is par for the course among the seminar offerings. This semester, new courses include "Comic Strips and the Communication of Culture," and another has students take on roles during important moments in history.

The seminars serve "to give students a course that is really aimed at helping them transition from high school to college," said Gretchen McKay, associate dean for academic affairs, who teaches the new history class.

The courses also help freshmen develop the skills they will need throughout college - such as writing, oral communication and critical thinking - and expose them to the liberal-arts experience, McKay said.

In Kitchen Chemistry last week, salsa was on the lab menu. Craig's students explored what makes the sauce spicy, and then tried their hand at concocting different varieties.

"You're actually going to be making something you will eat," the assistant professor of chemistry explained to his class, as he launched a lesson about chilies, the hot peppers that give salsa its zing. Their next session would involve making guacamole and quesadillas to go along with the sauce, he said.

"What are your general thoughts about chilies?" Craig asked. "Does size matter?"

Bob Becker, 18, raised his hand.

"Isn't it the smaller they are, the hotter they tend to be?" he said.

Yes, Craig said. The chilies contain capsaicinoids, the source of their heat, he said. While large bell peppers are basically harmless, jalape?o, serrano or cayenne peppers usually have people's taste buds screaming.

A closer look at the compound's structure also revealed that water wouldn't douse the fire, as capsaicinoids are not very soluble in water.

"What would you drink to get that burning sensation to go away?" Craig asked.

"Milk," several students replied.

Armed with that knowledge, and a firm warning to keep their fingers out of their eyes, the class split into three groups and set to chopping and mincing.

Alli Johns and Abigail Vickers, both 18, tackled a serrano and jalape?o pepper, respectively.

Vickers carefully cut and scooped out the soft white ribs and seeds inside her pepper - the parts, Craig had told them, that packed its heat. Then she set to chopping the jalape?o into small, and then even smaller, squares.

"Do you think that's OK?" she asked Johns, showing her work.

"Yeah," Johns said, as she reduced her serrano to similar-shaped bits. Minutes later, she said, "This is so much fun, but you don't realize how much work it is."

The promise of fun - and perhaps more importantly, food - drew many students to the class.

"I love to cook," said Sarah Maize, 18, describing her motivations. "It's pretty cool: From doing the class, you learn little tricks, like what to cook [certain food] in so it doesn't lose its flavor." Maize added that she found knowing the chemistry behind each lesson interesting.

Others came with hopes of picking up more than just scientific knowledge.

"I'm not the best cook," said Justin Meinecke, 17. "I thought it might be fun to learn."

Having learned to cook over the summer, Vickers said she wanted to "find out what it is that made things cook." After an earlier class experiment in making pineapple gelatin didn't pan out as desired, Vickers was driven to do something most students try to avoid - extra work - as she went deeper to discover why their attempts failed.

Although he's started out at a basic level, Craig said, each class is moving toward more advanced labs and recipes.

With their final meal, the students could be venturing a bit closer to the traditional Bunsen burner. They will, after all, have to fire up a torch to make creme brulee.

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