Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69 (left), as an undergraduate at Furman University in South Carolina.
Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69 (left), as an undergraduate at Furman University in South Carolina. (Special Collections and Archives, James B. Duke Library, Furman University)
Kitchen chemistry

A new book by thermodynamicist Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69, reveals the hard science behind the culinary arts.

In 2014 Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69, taught a class called The Chemistry of Cooking at Mills College. A former dean and provost at Mills, Greer had noticed that undergrads seemed intimidated by their required science courses. “I wanted to have a science course that would be fun,” she says. “The class filled immediately.”

Greer could not find a textbook that was exactly what she had in mind, so she taught from her own notes. Now she has adapted those notes into the textbook Chemistry for Cooks: An Introduction to the Science of Cooking (MIT Press, 2023).

Each chapter ends with a recipe analysis section, where students can gain practical experience with heat and temperature, acids and bases, colloidal dispersions, diffusion and osmosis, and more. Greer, who grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, has adapted several recipes based on dishes her mother and grandmother used to make, including this one from the chapter on carbohydrates.


Collard Greens

By Sandra Greer, AM’68, PhD’69 
Adapted from Louise Childress Thomason

This recipe is from my mother, a classic Southern cook. Her old-time method cooks the greens for a long time so that they reach a soft texture and produce a lovely broth, or “pot likker.” This also works for other kinds of greens, such as turnip greens or beet greens. Collard greens can be grown in the home garden, even in the winter in mild climates, and provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals to the diet.

You will need

2 pounds (1 kilogram) fresh collard greens
6 strips bacon


  1. Fresh collard greens need to be washed carefully to remove any soil. Fill the sink with water, put the greens into the water, and rinse each leaf.
  2. Tear the leaves from the ribs and into pieces about 3 inches across.
  3. Put all the torn leaves into a large pot and add an inch or two of water.
  4. Put the pot on the stove burner and bring the water to a boil.
  5. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the greens for about an hour.
  6. Taste the greens to see if you are satisfied with the texture or if you want to cook them longer.
  7. Cook the bacon in the microwave: Put a layer of paper towel on a plate, put the bacon on the paper towel, put another layer of paper towel over the bacon, cook on high until the bacon is crisp (about one minute per strip of bacon).
  8. Break the bacon into small pieces.
  9. Remove the greens from the water with tongs and put them into a serving bowl.
  10. Sprinkle the bacon over the greens.
  11. Serve with a pickled relish on the side.
Collard greens “with ham biscuits and bourbon!”
Collard greens “with ham biscuits and bourbon!” Greer wrote in the email accompanying this photo. (Photo courtesy Sandra Greer, SM’68, PhD’69

Kitchen Hints: Carbohydrates

At room temperature, sugars do not oxidize in air and (when dry) are not attacked by bacteria, so they are very stable over time and do not need to be refrigerated.

Brown sugar turns into hard clumps when it loses its adsorbed water. Keep your brown sugar in a glass container with a lid and keep a slice of bread on top of the sugar. The bread will release water to the sugar and dry itself out, so it will need to be replaced now and then.

Add acids to cooked vegetables only at the end, because they make the cooking take longer and they can cause color changes.

Never refrigerate tomatoes because the cold inhibits ripening and damages the textures.

You can cook and eat the skins of most vegetables, even the skins of potatoes and sweet potatoes. Beet skins are not tasty, however.

Boiling vegetables makes them lose flavor and nutrients. Steaming or roasting results in less loss of flavor and nutrients.

You can control the flavor of raw onions and garlic by the way that you cut them: finer mincing leads to stronger flavors. A sharp knife bruises less and keeps flavors milder.

Reprinted courtesy of the MIT Press from Chemistry for Cooks: An Introduction to the Science of Cooking by Sandra C. Greer.

Read more about Greer in the Fall/23 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine.