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Now You Can Go To Harvard And Learn Cooking Science From Top Chefs

It's one part Food Network, one part Mr. Science, two big handfuls of DIY, and probably going to be a whole lot of fun.

Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science is a free online course from the online university edX, promising to teach you and thousands of your closest friends about emulsions, elasticity and the molecular gastronomy movement's poster child, spherification. (That's turning a liquid into a sphere, for those of you still puzzling over the term.) There are no prerequisites, exams are optional, and you get to do all the tasty lab experiments right in your own kitchen.

But this isn't just some fly-by-night online class. It's Harvard, baby.

"The hope is that by combining these two different perspectives [science and cooking], you will gain a unique insight into how recipes work. Not just the fancy recipes — but the recipes you make in your own kitchen," says Michael Brenner, course founder and applied mathematician at Harvard University, in a promotional video (see above.)

Not wanting to sit out the uber-trendy Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement, Harvard and MIT created edX so students around the world could access high-quality science, engineering, law and business classes online.

This is the first time edX is offering Science and Cooking, although the class concept was born more than four years ago, when Brenner and colleagues noticed an overflow crowd trying to squeeze into a lecture hall where chef Ferran Adrià, considered the pre-eminent practitioner of modernist cuisine, was speaking.

The professors approached Adrià, who liked the idea of teaching science through cooking. He tapped into his chef network for help, and the class — a favorite among Harvard undergraduates — was born. But after three years, including a popular lecture on gelatin by Adrià protégé chef José Andres last year, it was clear there was still more demand than supply.

"We had to turn some students away because we were limited in space," class preceptor Pia Sörensen recalls. Going the MOOC route was "a way to reach more people," she says. Some 45,000 people and counting have already signed up for the class, which begins Oct. 8.

In addition to Spanish heavy hitters Adrià and Andres, Modernist Cuisine's Nathan Myhrvold, David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants, and On Food and Cooking's Harold McGee will appear — just to name a few.

Class "meets" twice a week for an hour. Students watch the chefs create some of their signature dishes, interspersed with clips of instructors "digging into the science" behind the kitchen magic, Sörensen says. "Almost all chefs talk a little about the science, but some more than others," she says. Look for a particularly impressive lesson on entropy and latent heat from New York City chef Dave Arnold, from the bar Booker and Dax.

Students will be able to ask questions and interact with one another online, then go into their kitchens and conduct experiments, like making molten lava cake or ice cream to understand key science concepts.

While there's an inevitable blurring of lines between education and entertainment with a class like this, Sorensen promises there will be lots of actual learning, too.

"You can discover even complicated scientific themes with basic experiments with something as simple as food," she says.

Because the class is designed for a global audience, immersion blenders and sous vide ovens won't be required. In fact, the class is still being fine-tuned, because a large percentage of the students signed up are in India, where ovens aren't common.

So are the students more interested in the food or the science?

"Cooking is pretty cool even without science. It's hard to argue with that. But [the class is] probably helping to make science a little bit cooler," Sörensen says.

McGee agrees. "I've heard from many people something along the lines of 'I hated science classes in school, but I love learning about the science of cooking — why didn't they teach us that?' So food and cooking have made science cool, educators are taking note, and science classes all over the country are getting tastier."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.
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