I can hardly think of a more appealing nexus of the sciences, for most of us and for obvious (and delicious) reasons, than food. Add a kind of engineering to the mix, and you get the study of cooking. Back in 2012, we featured the first few lectures from Harvard University's course Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter. Their collection of rigorous and entertaining presentations of that which we love to prepare and, even more so, to eat has since expanded to include one- to two-hour lectures delivered by sharp professors in cooperation with respected chefs and other food luminaries on culinary subjects like the science of sweets (featuring Flour Bakery's Joanne Chang), how to do cutting-edge modernist cuisine at home (featuring Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote an enormous book on it), and the relevance of microbes, misos, and olives (featuring David Chang of Momofuku fame). You can watch all of the lectures, in order, with the playlist embedded at the top of this post.
Alternatively, you can pick and choose from the complete list of Harvard's Science and Cooking lectures on Youtube or on iTunes. Some get deep into the natural workings of specific dishes, ingredients and preparation methods; others, like "The Science of Good Cooking" with a couple of editors from Cook's Illustrated, take a broader view. That lecture and others will certainly help build an intellectual framework for those of us who want to improve our cooking — and even those of us who can already cook decently, or at least reliably follow a recipe — but can't quite attain the next level without understanding exactly what happens when we flick on the heat. One school of thought holds that, to come off as reasonably skilled in the kitchen, you need only master one or two showcase meals. When asked to cook something, I, for instance, have tended to make paella almost every time, almost out of sheer habit. But now that I've found Raül Balam Ruscalleda's talk on the science of that traditional Spanish dish, I can see that I must now, on several levels, raise my game. View it below, and feel free to take notes alongside me. You can find Science and Cooking in our collection of 900 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.