Why did my peanut butter cookies turn out hard as rocks? Why do I have to knead bread to make it light and fluffy? Why does chicken turn white when it’s boiled but brown when it’s cooked in a pan or baked? DMSE alumni Mingyu Yang ’19 answers these food science questions—and more—as part of a new series on YouTube.
Now a PhD student at the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences & Technology, Mingyu and a group of fellow engineers have created “Kitchen Matters: Materials Science of Food and Cooking” to answer the questions we all ask while cooking our meals or favorite treats and to teach the public a little about materials science and engineering at the same time.
Yang says he was inspired by classes he took at Johns Hopkins with Tim Mueller, assistant professor of materials science and engineering. In particular, he recalls Mueller demonstrating how to temper chocolate, bringing to delicious life concepts taught in that professor’s kinetics class. That, along with a food science seminar he attended at MIT-Harvard, showed him how cooking could be used to introduce materials science to anyone.
“Watching others gain an appreciation for the field of materials science and engineering through the lens of food helped me realize there was a lot of potential for reaching a broader audience,” said Yang,
“With lessons featuring common foods like chocolate or chicken, we want to expose viewers to materials science and help them realize that while it’s a lesser known branch of engineering, it regularly plays a part in everyday life.”
In their videos (six so far), members of the Kitchen Matters team are faced with the same challenges and ask the same questions that we all ask while cooking or baking, but they apply the scientific method and materials science concepts to find answers.
In one video, “Nucleation and crystal growth,” they take a look at the processes of making rock candy and fudge. Both involve manipulating sugar (heating, cooling, etc.), but what is it about those processes that makes rock candy hard and crunchy and fudge chewy and silky? (You’ll have to watch the video to find out; no spoilers here!)
“Ultimately, materials science engineers are interested in how structure and processing affect the properties and performance of the materials in question,” said Yang. “In that way, bakers and chefs share a lot of the same goals for the food they make.”
Like any experiment, making a new recipe can present challenges and raise questions. Yang hopes to show viewers not only how to work through setbacks and develop problem-solving processes, but also that even brainy engineers can make mistakes.
The Kitchen Matters team started this project last winter in the midst of the biggest surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. to help parents and teachers looking for creative and accessible experiments to do with their children and students at home. Now, though, Yang and his team are taking their project a step farther, fostering a relationship with schools in the local Cambridge area, and working with teachers to design curricula around the videos: all aimed at expanding awareness about the field of materials science.
While Yang says learning new skills to create the video series has kept him entertained throughout the pandemic, he also has always had an interest in teaching, mentoring and understanding how others learn. His time as an undergrad studying with Mueller, DMSE professor Hai-Quan Mao and associate teaching professor Orla Wilson, not only helped him realize the best route to teach others materials science runs through the kitchen, but also that education and outreach are his true calling.
“I really am passionate about research and STEM but also about how we can create more inclusive environments in higher ed,” said Yang.
He and the Kitchen Matters team look forward to the time when they can work together in the same room to produce these videos.
“Because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to meet in person,” he said.
Here is the newest episode of Kitchen Matters, “Science of tempering chocolate” – don’t forget to like the video and subscribe to their channel! You can also find Mingyu on Twitter @Mingyu_Y