As post-Halloween sugar highs ebb and trick-or-treat stashes wane, the days of pre-packaged, ready-to-eat treats give way to the smells of freshly-baked bread, pies, cakes, gingerbreads, and a variety of other family favorites. Indeed, as the year winds down and the days shorten, the kitchen can become an epicenter of activity. With classroom potlucks, family dinners, and a string of potential holiday gatherings dotting the calendar for November and December, the making and baking of traditional classics, festive treats, indulgences, and comfort foods becomes a backdrop against which the days - and dinners - unfold.
These activities also set the stage for wonderful moments of cooking chemistry. Whether you are looking to improve a favorite, hoping to boost the health factor of something on the menu, or are just curious about the ins and outs of the recipes being prepared, holiday baking offers an inviting and accessible test-bed for exploring chemical reactions.
Even my youngest, at five, likes to help mix up muffins and baked goods. Cracking eggs is, of course, one of the chief (albeit messy) satisfactions for the youngest of bakers. But curiosity about ingredients and an awareness of how many things "go into" the batter or mixture starts early. For older students and budding chemists, this curiosity can easily be channeled into questioning "why" we use certain ingredients.
What can you substitute in a pinch and why? How precise do measurements need to be? What happens if you leave this out or double that?
The list of questions that might arise as you watch the liquids and the flour mix together in a swirl of vanilla and cinnamon and pumpkin are seemingly infinite. Those questions, in fact, often are the launching point of innovation, of a new recipe, of an updated twist on a classic, and... maybe... of a science moment in the making.
Whether it's over Thanksgiving or Winter Break, just a regular rainy weekend or snow day, or a special Friday afternoon in class, there's a lot to gain from turning the kitchen into a lab. Just be sure and wash hands first!
Heat up the kitchen with the following project ideas:
- Egg Substitutes (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 2-5)
- Sugar vs. Sugar Substitutes: Are They Just as Sweet?* (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 3-4)
- Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most? (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 4)
- Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5)
- Perfecting Pastries: The Role of Fats in Making a Delicious Pastry (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5)
- Yeast Reproduction in Sugar Substitutes (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 6)
- Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 2: Can Baking Soda Substitute for Baking Powder in a Recipe? (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level 6-8)