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The Science of Baking

by added on 17 December 2014, Comments Off on The Science of Baking , posted in Blog

This is a great time of year for baking, and baking is a great way to sneak in some kitchen chemistry! When your little one asks “why?” while baking cookies or bread this winter, here are some answers you can arm yourself with.

Eggs
Eggs help contribute liquid to dough and batter. Egg yolks are almost 50% water, and egg whites are 88% water. This liquid will be absorbed by the flour while it bakes, and that combination will help form your baked goods. One drop of water can expand into 1600 drops of steam due to the heat your oven provides. This will allow your cakes, muffins, and cookies to rise while they bake in the oven.

Eggs also provide structure to a baked good due to the protein in the egg. When you take an egg out of the carton, the proteins inside the egg are all tightly wound up, with bonds formed between molecules of the proteins. Cooking the batter relaxes those bonds, and the proteins unwind a bit (for a kid-friendly visual, watch what happens when you take a packet of ramen noodles and heat them in warm water). As the proteins unwind, they then form new bonds, and these new bonds help to provide structure to your baked goods.

Baking Soda
Most people have experimented with the reaction that happens between baking soda and vinegar (if you haven’t, this is a GREAT experiment to do with children). When mixed, the two react quickly, and carbon dioxide gas is formed and released – making the mixture bubble. This is similar to what happens when baking soda is used in baking.

The alkaline component of baking soda will react with acidic compounds within the dough or batter you are making to produce carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide bubbles will work quickly to help your dough or batter rise. They are particularly useful in baked goods where the dough needs to rise quickly, such as biscuits and cornbread.

Yeast
When you buy “active dry” yeast from the grocery store, you are purchasing live yeast that are in a dormant stage. The yeast are activated by the addition of warm water, but be careful the water is not too hot! If the water is too warm, you will kill the yeast. If the water is too cool, you may not activate the yeast, or you may need additional time to allow the yeast to develop proper taste/texture.

Once activated, the yeast will begin to feed on sugars in flour, and as they feed they will release carbon dioxide. Much like in baking soda, this carbon dioxide will allow bread to rise. Unlike baking soda, the reaction happens much slower, meaning that breads that are using yeast as a leavening agent will need a longer period at room temperature in order to rise.

Want to learn more?
Here’s a great resource to learn about the science of cooking:
http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/index.html

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