We’ve all seen the cooking shows – a famous chef grabbing a pinch of this, a bit of that, a handful of the other, making a mouth-watering dish. They make it look spontaneous and carefree…and the meal always looks delicious. It’s important to know that a great deal of culinary math and science training came before that celebrity chef was able to simply “toss” a meal together. Intuitive cooking takes study and practice.
Math & Science, Meet Kitchen
Chefs do so much more than simply combine ingredients to make appealing meals. In fact, a chef has a great deal in common with a mathematician or a scientist.
They’re relying on key scientific principles – especially when it comes to baking – and using math for a range of functions, from measurement to ratios to conversions. You need passion to become a successful chef, but you also need a solid grounding in math and science principles.
Math = Cooking
According to the popular online resource for educators – Math Central – math exists on every recipe card in every kitchen. And mastery of culinary math is a key to success in the industry.
For example, you’re making a recipe at a restaurant in the U.S., but the original was created by a chef from London. How do you convert metric measurements to imperial – assuming you don’t have an app on your smartphone…?
If you’re a professional chef, you have to think beyond needing ¾ cup of milk in a cupcake recipe…imagine you’re working at a bakery and you have to increase a new recipe for a dozen cupcakes to twelve dozen…
Perhaps you’ll have to reverse-engineer a recipe based on the available ingredients. How many cupcakes can you make with 2.5 cups of milk?
And how much baking powder will you need now that you’ve adjusted the liquid?
Baking is less forgiving than cooking when it comes to measurement and ratios, because…
Chemistry is King
Cooking and baking are, for the most part, a series of chemical reactions.
Take a chemical like Sucro as an example, which is often used to combine liquids – it’s called emulsification.
Spherification? You’re using sodium to control how and when a liquid congeals. It’s a great skill to master if you want to achieve a certain texture in your dish.
The rising popularity of sous vide exposes an area of chemistry involving heat and vacuum pressure.
Even a flambe involves a chemical reaction between the alcohol, sugar and the heat source.
Knowing how to apply the reactions is helpful…understanding why they work takes your culinary skill to the next level and will open up the doors to greater creativity.
And at a time when food allergies are on the rise – along with a more deliberate appetite for healthy food – understanding both the chemistry and the biology of your ingredients will give you an edge in the industry.
Biology Abounds in the Kitchen
We know you dissected a frog in Grade 10 Biology class…that’s enough of that, thank you.
But biology plays a huge role in the culinary arts, including ways to identify a flavor profile or combination of ingredients that are more appealing to a certain dining audience.
It’s a key to molecular gastronomy – a culinary fad that has led to the invention of such novelties as transparent ravioli and ice sphere Mojitos.
When you’re trying to appeal to a health-conscious consumer or work around food allergies, understanding the biology behind food intolerances, health trends and culinary preferences will inform your choices when developing or adapting recipes.
Biology has permeated cooking to such an extent that Harvard University taught a science cooking class in 2015.
If you didn’t excel in math and science in high school – or you’ve forgotten everything you learned two decades ago – don’t despair. A well-rounded culinary education will include a solid foundation in culinary math and science.
Did you find this article useful? You might enjoy these, as well.
- The Importance of Measurement in the Kitchen
- How to Build Complementary Menus and Minimize Waste
- Interesting Uses For Dry Ice
This article was originally published on February 3, 2016, but has since been updated.