Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Chemistry in the Kitchen


Chemistry is all around us and affects every aspect of our daily lives, but all too often we overlook its benefits. This course examines the chemistry relevant to food and drink preparation, both in homes and in restaurants, which makes what we consume more pleasurable. A high-school chemistry background is assumed, but no more than that is asked of the student other than to bring to class a good appetite and a healthy curiosity.

Good cooking is more often considered an art rather than a science, but a small bit of understanding goes a long way to make the preparation and consumption of food and drink more enjoyable. The intention is to have demonstrations and tastings as a part of every class meeting. We will examine some rather familiar items in this course: eggs, dairy products, meats, breads, vegetables, pastries, and carbonated beverages. We shall playfully explore the chemistry that turns food into meals. It is hoped that those who complete this course will never look at a dining experience quite the same way as before taking this class.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Richard Zare

"Some of my earliest experiments were performed using my younger brother, Michael, when I was about seven and he was four. My mother liked to sleep-in and assigned me the task of making our breakfast. I loved experimenting on Mikey, preparing him scrambled eggs with maple syrup or tabasco sauce, and asking him, 'Well, how was that? Did you like it?' Cooking is one of the few activities in chemistry where you can taste as you go along! This got me thinking about chemical transformations from common foods like eggs and popcorn, and the nature of bubbles in beer and champagne. I want to share my love for cooking, food, and drink and the chemical understanding of what is happening, to heighten the enjoyment of the dining experience."

Professor Richard N. Zare pursues diverse theoretical and experimental interests in physical chemistry and nanoscale chemical analysis. The Zare lab has made a broad impact in analytic chemistry with development of laser-induced fluorescence to study reaction dynamics, and seminal contributions to understanding of molecular collision processes. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and joined the Chemistry Department at Stanford in 1977. He has taught an introductory chemistry class every year since, including developing a course introducing undergraduates to hands-on interdisciplinary research, combining physics and biology to explore how living systems use molecular interactions with light for vision, photosynthesis, and more. His dedication to research and teaching has been recognized in many awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.