The Science of Baking Pt. 1

Come learn about what really goes into baking...

Introduction

Have you ever wondered how exactly baking turns a soupy batter or a thick paste into a beautiful cake or cookie? Think no further, this article will soon explain what goes into the magic that is baking and some other cool facts.

How does science play its part?

Baking does a great job of showcasing just how prevalent science is to everyday activities. It combines chemistry, biology, and physics to create the decadent end product. The laws of physics apply to everything, but for baking, those laws are compounded with chemical reactions within ingredients and the processes of biology. The incorporation of many different edible chemicals like baking soda and baking powder to create a cake batter or dough causes reactions like tiny air bubbles forming that are trapped and cause rising. This is where biology also comes in with the culture of yeast as a leavening agent that provides carbon dioxide for bread to rise.

Role of Ingredients in Bake

Every single ingredient that goes into a baked good is there for a reason. Many people know from experience that forgetting to include even a single item on a baking recipe can end in total disaster. But what exactly is each basic baking ingredient doing?

Sugar and Fat

Many recipes will tell you to add the sugar and fat component, whether it be butter or ghee or oil, and there is a very specific reason for that. When sugar is added to butter, the sharp crystalline structure of the sugar slice the butter molecules and introduce air into the mixture. This is why creaming the sugar and butter before adding it to the other dry ingredients causes a lighter and fluffier outcome! Fat also adds that rich flavor by coating the gluten molecules so they do not combine as easily which also makes the product more tender.

Creaming of butter and sugar

Flour

Flour is made up by grinding raw grains or wheats or nuts to form a powder. The protein in the flour, gluten, works to form a web that traps air bubbles and allows the pastry to set in place. Basically, flour makes up the entire structure of the baked good and without it, the pastry would collapse! While the baked good heats in the oven, the starch in the flour sets in order to add and support the structure of the dish.

Chemical structure of starches in flour

Salt

Salt has many functions in normal cooking, but it does in baking as well! It enhances and strengthens the flavors in other ingredients to form the perfect balance. Salt also allows the gluten provided by the flour to form better as well.

Baking Soda

Baking soda, has a very special role in baking as well. It’s scientific name is sodium bicarbonate, and it is a crystalline salt. For the sodium bicarbonate to work it’s leavening magic, it can either be combined with an acidic component like buttermilk to cause an acid-base reaction or can be left to perform with just thermal decomposition in the oven.

This graphic shows the chemistry going on with baking soda

More to come…

As we can see, there is a lot of science that goes into perfecting a pastry. Without the chemistry, biology, and physics, it would be impossible to create any pastries or bread goodies. In the next article, we play with an at-home experiment of varying the type of fat used in one type of pastry and comparing the two different end products!

Sources

Babincáková, Mária. “Leavening Agents: The Chemistry of Baking Discovered with a Computer-Based Learning.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 97, no. 4, Apr. 2020, pp. 1190–1194. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=eric&AN=EJ1250850&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Bodach, Vijaya. Baking a Cake. Perfection Learning, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=nlebk&AN=650384&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Claire, Jillian, “The Chemistry of Baking” (2014). Senior Theses. 23. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/senior_theses/23

SOURCEBaking Chemistry
Ivana is currently an undergraduate at Georgia Tech studying computer science. On a day off, you may find her binge-watching her new favorite TV show, playing with her two dogs, or playing solitaire/doing a crossword.