Back when I was doing my undergraduate program in chemistry, there was an underlying saying: A good chemist is also a good cook. Although it could be a broad generalization, it holds true for many (not for physical chemists for sure, but they are good at coding, so there is that). In many ways, synthetic chemistry resembles cooking (or rather baking), in which precise measurements of the different components of the dish or reaction, proper handling of all the elements (equipment, cookware or glassware, etc.), and recording your results (or enjoying your meal) is essential for improving this craft.
The first step is finding or creating a recipe. This involves reading many protocols and procedures, see the list of ingredients (or reagents) they ask for, check the availability you have for those, and putting some of your own knowledge and criterions on what you know works. As a chemist, one of the best resources we have to explore different synthetic options is Reaxys and, funny enough, it shares the same color palette as allrecipes. This method is not only useful to recreate things that others have made, but also as guidelines to produce your novel and groundbreaking recipe of your own.
Once you have made up your mind, it is time to set up the experiment. Initially, you start with a modest sample size and try your new recipe. Usually the first batches are far from perfect. Depending on the result, you have several options: Let’s say it was a disaster. You followed the procedure word by word, and still got something terrible. Then it is time to go back to the drawing board and find a whole new recipe. More often than not, the result is not great, but neither completely terrible, with a lot of room to improve. This is when the optimization game begins.
There are many variables that can be changed: The proportion and order you add ingredients, using different new additives, playing with the temperature, cooking / reaction times, etc. This part can be laborious and take several attempts, but the results are usually worth it. Finally, once you have achieved a good method, you write it down in your recipe notebook (or lab journal), and keep it dearly for the next occasion you would need it.
In the image above we can see a couple of cooking achievements of my own. On the left, we have a pure foamy compound that took several tries to get pure in reasonable yield. On the right, my chocolate-cinnamon rolls with cream cheese topping. The former took 3 different attempts, making small changes each time until I got them just right. One of the advantages of cooking is that you don’t need to purify your products, which is arguably the least satisfying part of the process in the lab. At a given time in the lab we had a baking competition. The group consists of a great variety of scientists from different fields, but most are chemists. Needless to say, the competition went above and beyond with the flavors, textures, and mixtures delivered in the cakes they made.
Chemistry and cooking intermingle quite a lot, and in recent years a whole new branch of science has developed precisely in this area. Food science mixes the deeper understanding of chemical processes and the art of cooking, to provide and develop new fascinating techniques and products. Are you in need of super smooth ice cream? Just use some liquid nitrogen for flash freezing. Thinking about how to turn oil into a powder? Just add some maltodextrin. Do you need a perfectly non-overcooked steak? Vacuum-seal it and put it in highly-controlled temperature water bath. All these techniques are just a small sample of what science and arts can do when they join forces.
As a final remark, I don’t think I would be cooking and innovating with beakers, flasks, pipettes and rotary evaporators in my personal kitchen, but certainly it is a nice dream to have. In the meantime, I will be working with these instruments in the lab and keep making science.
By Angel Santorelli, PhD student at Aarhus University in the Gothelf Lab