New Intersession Course Explores Chemistry of French Cooking

Wednesday, Jan. 9 (WASHINGTON, Pa.) – In a new Intersession course that blends elements of chemistry, cooking and French culture, 18 Washington & Jefferson College students are broadening their palates while gaining a better understanding of the science behind gourmet cuisine.

Called “Basic Chemistry Through French Gastronomy,” the interdisciplinary course examines everyday chemical reactions and their relation to gastronomy, or the art of eating good food. Students learn fundamental scientific concepts relevant to food chemistry, such as how beating egg whites produces meringue and how combining flour and water makes bread. The week-long lab experience culminates in a five-course dinner of traditional French foods.

“French food is such a great topic for teaching students about both science and culture,” Jennifer Logan, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, said. “It’s a hands-on application where understanding the chemistry of a particular ingredient can help one know when a recipe is doomed to fail or what tweaking or substitution can lead to success.  Food science teaches us how to be ‘instinctive’ chefs rather than those who must follow a recipe, word for word.”

Following lab activities and lectures, students spend two weeks traveling through France to immerse themselves in the French way of life. Whether shopping at an outdoor market in Nice or honing their French pastry- and bread-making skills in Paris, Logan says the goal of the trip is to “live and travel like the locals.” The journey ends at the palace of Versailles, where many culinary and gastronomic traditions began.

“The itinerary takes us to Nice, Bordeaux and Paris—three unique regions with their own culinary traditions,” said Katrine Pflanze, Ph.D., associate professor of French, who teaches the course along with Logan. “I can’t think of a better way to introduce students to French culture than through the food, especially if it can be consumed in France.”

Laura Urban, a junior business administration major and economics minor, signed up for the course because she is considering a career in the food and hospitality industry after graduation. “This class taught me how ingredients infuse together—like how yeast makes dough rise and lemon juice causes milk to curdle,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but learning the science behind cooking has helped me appreciate that ingredients can do more than add flavor—they serve a real purpose in the recipe.” 

Urban, along with her classmates, are documenting their experiences this month in a travel blog.

Intersession, a unique three-week January term, features intensive courses with sharply focused topics. Students concentrate on a single course that offers experiential learning and travel, in addition to the traditional classroom setting.