A chemistry course -- with a side order of food
When Jack Goldsmith made the momentous decision to become a stay-at-home dad for his three young sons, he also became the family’s chief cook.
He’s no Emeril Lagasse, but with his background as a Ph.D-trained chemist, Goldsmith turned the kitchen into a laboratory of sorts as he experimented with different foods and ingredients. And thus was born his idea for an Honors College course that’s now in its second popular semester: the chemistry of food.
“I had a chance conversation with Davis Baird [dean of the Honors College] and mentioned this idea I had about teaching chemistry from the perspective of food and cooking,” said Goldsmith, who was an associate professor of chemistry at USC Aiken for nine years. His wife, Edie, is an associate professor in the School of Medicine’s cell and developmental biology and anatomy department.
The Honors College has offered courses on the ethics of food and the politics of food, so the chemistry of food is a natural fit. The course attracts both science and non-science majors.
“Students enjoy understanding why things turn out a certain way when they cook,” Goldsmith said. “We take a technical approach to cooking and food, which introduces many opportunities to explore chemical concepts.”
In discussing salt substitutes, for example, Goldsmith points to the periodic chart to show why, chemically speaking, potassium makes a suitable substitute for sodium. He also brings in salt shakers with various types of low-sodium and no-sodium salt substitutes so that students can see that chemically, similarities notwithstanding, there are subtle taste differences.
“We talk about the chemical changes that occur when green vegetables are cooked: the chlorophyll is destroyed and the vegetable loses its shiny green color,” he said. “You can raise the pH of the water by adding baking soda, which prevents the chlorophyll from degrading, but it doesn’t take too much baking soda before you are left with a soapy taste.”
Discussions on bread making inevitably lead to chemistry as Goldsmith explains the process of creating a protein network called gluten in the dough (too little protein in the flour leads to little gluten and weak dough). The chemical roles of flour, yeast, salt, water, and oil in bread making also come to the fore, as well as basic gas laws (the expansion of CO2 in rising bread dough) that are a staple of most introductory chemistry courses.
Even the simple act of brining meat like turkey or chicken before roasting or frying leads to a discussion of osmosis and the connection to other colligative properties.
“We don’t go into what drinks are best suited to certain foods in this course but instead look at taste in relation to the molecular geometry and chemical properties of sugars and proteins.”
Goldsmith’s pipe dream would be to team up with a gourmet chef in a demonstration kitchen, explaining the chemistry behind everything the chef was doing.
“Along with CSI type shows, I think food is the big thing on TV,” Goldsmith said. “There are all kinds of food shows emerging; it’s a popular topic and a great way to get students to see the value of chemistry in their own lives.”
And the chemistry of food, it turns out, is attracting its own following in the Honors College.