Measure, mix, shape, bake, savor – as far as most of us are concerned, that’s all it takes to put delicious holiday cookies on your table for family and friends to enjoy. But there’s a lot more happening at a molecular level that we’re not always aware of.
When you bake cookies, you are doing science! It takes a certain balance of heat, and the right ingredients have to react, so that you can bake those biscuits to perfection. If you’re inspired to create some culinary masterpieces of your own after visiting Gingerbread Lane at Orlando Science Center, you might be interested to know about some of the chemistry that you are putting into action.
When water is added to flour, the proteins in the flour bond to form a new protein (gluten). Gluten hardens as the dough is baked, which gives the cookies or breads the texture we’re accustomed to.
Depending on your recipe, you might add yeast, baking powder or baking soda to your dough mixture. These different ingredients use different chemical processes to cause the dough to rise. For example, baking powder releases carbon dioxide once it gets warm enough in the oven, and those gas bubbles puff up the dough.
Caramelization & the Maillard Reaction
When the cookie is almost done baking, its sugars start to break down. During this process, the sugars undergo a color change (a classic sign that a chemical change is occurring) and the cookie gets its dark brown color, a process known as caramelization.
After caramelization, something called the Maillard reaction occurs inside that cookie. The Maillard reaction, discovered by a French chemist in the early 1900s, is when sugars and amino acids get heated to the point that they meld together. Caramelization and the Maillard reaction work together to give your cookies their baked-to-perfection taste.
Before you start your holiday baking extravaganza this year, check out this article from NPR about the science of baking to pick up a few tips on how to achieve the perfect cookie!
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