The Chemistry of Cooking

Medill sophomore Sierra Boone donned a chef’s toque, served up small plates of fried chicken and German waffles with maple syrup gravy, and smiled as she successfully completed a Natural Science distribution requirement.

Chemistry of Cooking, a weekly, three-hour Allison Residential Community seminar taught by Chemistry Associate Professor of Instruction Owen Priest, had its delicious finale and final exam in the Allison main lounge the evening of March 7.

Allison residents and a panel of judges tasted the 12 students’ dishes, which exemplified what they had learned about the science behind cooking during the course, from experimenting with ingredients and technique while baking cookies and scones to making a variety of fresh pasta.

“I learned a lot about gluten levels during the course, and my family’s from the South, so that inspired chicken and waffles,” Boone said. “I worked with a compact and dense German waffle which is very low in gluten.”

Priest, also Allison Faculty Associate, worked with Allison Faculty-in-Residence Renee Engeln to develop the course as a fun, practical way to connect students and faculty members. Engeln also regularly hosts dinners for students and faculty and puts on popular events that bring the Allison community together, like Valentine’s Day card-making.

Last June, Priest began reading cookbooks and planning recipes that would teach the basic concepts of chemistry, which students would implement after a short lecture during the cooking portion of the class held in Engeln’s kitchen.

“Some schools have bonafide cooking classes, but Northwestern doesn’t have anything like that,” Priest said. “There are lots of students who otherwise never want to go near a Chem lab and I thought this could force feed them chemistry, pun intended.”

Allison residents applied and were randomly chosen for the course through a lottery, and had a wide range of skillsets, from students who had never cooked an egg, to students that prepared food regularly at home.

“It was a lot of fun,” Priest said. “There were lots of good laughs, mishaps in the kitchen—which always became teaching moments—and really high success rates for the recipes.”