Pass the Cheese, Please!

“Chemistry class in the kitchen?” “At my Professor’s house?”  “What on earth does “Bonding with Food” entail?”  “If we have to cook for class, do we also get to eat?”  “I’m hungry.”

These were the thoughts of the new group of students on the way to class this past Thursday afternoon. No one could quite figure out what the next few hours and coming weeks would entail.  I would be lying if I said none of us were nervous.  Even as a senior, I was uneasy with this new type of class setting, but as we pulled up to Professor Miller’s house everyone put on a brave face and marched inside.

We began the class seated at the table with an assortment of pantry food and began the task of organizing the food into groups. We organized based on food types, how healthy they were, the ingredients…the list goes on. We then discussed what we knew about the food, what we thought we knew and what we hoped to learn about food from the class. It was interesting to compare notes among classmates. Each of us coming from different backgrounds, majors, and classes meant that we all had something to offer to the discussion.  After some serious inquiry and of course a lot of laughter we were feeling comfortable with our new surroundings and finally got the chance to enter into the kitchen.

By this time, bellies were grumbling for some homemade cottage cheese.  We began by pouring a gallon of skim milk into a large pot and heating the milk to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  After the milk came to temperature, we stirred in ¾ cup of vinegar.  The milk felt thicker and began to bubble quickly forming curdles.

Stirring milk and vinegar

Stirring milk and vinegar

These curdles where a result of an acid-base reaction occurring between the acetic acid of vinegar and the basic properties of milk.  These basic properties stem from the proteins within the milk which possess amino acids with acidic side chains.  The reason acidic side chains cause the basic properties is that at neutral pH these side chains possess a negative charge and when the pH of the solution is lowered (by adding the vinegar) the acidic side chains move into their protonated state, thus removing their negative charge.  The curds were the precipitate formed from this reaction.

Cheese Curds

Cheese Curds

With these new formed curds, the class suddenly took a new path in cheese making.  Instead of making cottage cheese, the class tried out a new process for all involved to discover the joys of mozzarella making.  In this process, the curds were squeezed to remove water and stretched through a massaging motion.  After each stretch the curds were refolded to align the fibers.

Squeezing water out of curds

Squeezing water out of curds

Stretching and folding cheese

Stretching and folding cheese

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After what seemed like eternity to our hungry bellies, the mozzarella was finished and to all of our surprise the cheese we had formed actually looked like mozzarella string cheese. However, the response to the first taste was not quite as positive, “wow it tastes horrible!” We had forgotten one important ingredient…salt.

Mozzarella Cheese

Mozzarella Cheese

With the addition of some finely ground salt, the mozzarella began to taste better, but the class favorite was without a doubt the melted form.  Just a few seconds in the microwave produced the best reaction of the experiment: “this tastes like cheese!”

Melted Cheese

Melted Cheese

We ended the day with a little organic chemistry refresher: the carbohydrate game, my personal favorite, which allowed us to look at the breakdown path of some carbohydrate molecules in food. For example, when heated (or cooked) fructose breaks down into lactate and glyceraldehyde, piperonal can be generated from piperine (a pungent compound in black pepper), and gingerol (major flavor compoenet of ginger) can be cooked to generate zingerone, which is milder and sweeter, or dried to produce shogaol.  Our final activity was to watch an episode of Good Eats called “Water Works II,” all about how great water is and how to keep it tasting delicious and healthy in your home.  The host Alton Brown was brimming with excitement and enthusiasm that the rest of us could only hope to have when talking about water, although I must say, at least it was not a dry topic.

The show offered the class a little look into how we might present our upcoming food projects with pizazz for all ages. I’m excited to see what my classmates come up with our future projects when the time comes, but for right now we all must put our noses to our cook books, keep our minds open and bellies empty for next Thursday.

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