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Food science kitchen chemistry cornbread baking Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a food science project and family activity that explores the role of baking powder in baking. In this pair of projects, experiment to see the affect of baking powder on corn bread muffins for a clear visual look at what happens when you use more or less in your recipe. Does a light and airy muffin indicate one with or without baking powder? How does the density or weight of a muffin change in relation to the amount of baking powder used? What happens if you use too much? Or not enough?

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Cooking Caramel: Family Science Spotlight


As this family discovered in their kitchen science activity, making caramel doesn't require much in the way of ingredients, but recipes vary, and timing and temperature matter!

Family Kitchen Science: Making Caramel Sauce
"My younger son wanted to make caramel sauce," reports the mom who sent in these photos. Sometimes a perfect science moment begins just like that!

When the mom told her son that they only needed sugar and water to make caramel sauce, he was surprised and intrigued. Only two ingredients? As he and his mom browsed online recipes, the student kitchen scientist began to wonder: if you only use sugar and water, what gives caramel its color?

At Science Buddies, the mom found "The Sweet Beginnings of Caramelization *," a hands-on science project that gave them a framework for a fun and tasty cooking and food science experiment. They tried more than one recipe, exploring the affect of different ratios of water and sugar on the consistency of the resulting caramel sauce. Like a classic fairy tale, they found one recipe they tried to be too thick, and one to be too thin, but as they experimented, they created taste test spoons at varying stages of the cooking process.

How does the color of caramel correlate with the taste? This family observed a clear relationship between the two—with many taste test spoons to prove it!

Cook up your own batch of caramel sauce and see what you and your students discover.

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project
What did your recent family science experiment or school science project look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send your photos in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook, Google+, and Twitter! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

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The Goo on Gluten


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The above ball of dough has been kneaded. Students can explore kneading as one variable that influences the strength of the gluten in a food.

For many of us, Thanksgiving brings with it the feast mentality and ushers in a season full of special treats and baked items. From familiar pecan and pumpkin pies on Turkey day to dozens and dozens of cookies throughout December, 'tis the season of homemade goodies.

Clever bakers can turn the extra time in the kitchen into a scientific smorgasbord of experimentation. Starting with investigations into the role of baking powder, the use of egg substitutes, the secrets behind flakey crusts, and the quest for perfect chocolate chip cookies, the kitchen can be a hotbed of science (and math)!

But kitchen science doesn't have to be about dessert. Aspiring food chemists can find all kinds of recipes for exploration, even some that let them investigate the science behind human health and nutrition and current eating crazes. For example, what's up with gluten?


Holding It Together

Breads and bread- or grain-based dishes are, for some, the top of the comfort food list, and what you like best about certain foods may boil down to the presence of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. From pasta to pizza dough to giant pretzels, many familiar food items contain gluten. With its connection to wheat, this may sound like a good thing. After all, there's been a strong "whole grains" push in recent years, which accounts for more lunchboxes containing wheat or multi-grain breads. But the words "gluten-free" appear in more and more conversations, magazines, and ads these days.

There is a health condition related to gluten. Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is a genetic disorder. When people with celiac disease eat something with gluten, the small intestine reacts and can be damaged. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten-free is a necessity, not a lifestyle choice. But many people are choosing to follow gluten-free diets.


Making Connections

What's the gluten debate all about? What role does gluten play in familiar foods?

These are questions the student scientist can explore while experimenting with some favorite recipes. The Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most? project lets students investigate the role of gluten in foods. Be forewarned though, this project is completely hands-on in every sticky, gooey way!

After getting a better understanding of the influence of gluten, students can go on to taste-test recipes that contain varying amounts of gluten or no gluten.


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The Science of Too Sour


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Tang, an orange-flavored, powered drink developed by William Mitchell was popularized on board NASA's Mercury flight in 1962. Experimenting with powdered drinks and levels of "sour" can offer kitchen science fun for the whole family! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Born on October 21, 1911: William A. Mitchell, a food scientist who created many classics for General Foods that might ring a bell for teachers and parents, from Pop Rocks candy to Tang. Even Cool Whip and quick-set Jell-O, a duo often used together, lead back to Mitchell.

You may or may not stock Mitchell's foods in your fridge and cabinets, but his list of food-related patents leaves little doubt that he was an innovator with an eye to the ways in which chemistry is at the heart of food science. Showing students the connection between cooking and science can be eye-opening, fun, and creative—plus, it's a great way to spend time together and to make them more independent in the kitchen even as you whet their appetite and curiosity about science.


Mouth-Puckering Fun!

One of the great things about science experiments related to food is that kitchen science can be immediately hands-on. Everyone can get involved mixing and baking and tinkering with recipes and ingredients—and then everyone can help taste-test! There are many food-related Project Ideas on the Science Buddies website that are perfect for families wanting to do a kitchen-based science activity. You could bake cookies or boil pasta together, but for many kids, "sour" may be an exciting place to start with food science!

Do your kids have a penchant for all things sour? Do you? Is a tolerance or a love of "sour" something that differs from person to person, similar to tolerance for saltiness or sweetness?

My kids might run a mile from peppermint. They might hide behind the couch at the thought of cinnamon (no Atomic Fireballs here!). But they love anything sour, and today's drugstore candy shelves never fail to offer up the goods. A current favorite (though Mom- and dentist-disapproved) is a lollipop that also has a sour liquid you squeeze directly on your tongue. It's the kind of makes-you-wiggle-all-over super sour they love. But is it something only a kid would love?

It's a question worth asking, and the Do You Have the Willpower to Taste Something Sour? project gives you a way to put the question to the test in your own kitchen. This project, geared toward early grades, is great for a classroom experiment, or families can modify the project (using fewer volunteers) to make it a fun activity for a hot afternoon, a playdate, or an engaging over-the-weekend experiment. As you and your students mix up batches of lemonade with varying levels of "sour," you'll all have fun—and learn something about human biology and food science!


(Science Buddies Project Ideas in Health and Human Biology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation. To view other parent- and family-focused science resources and content, visit our Parent Resources section.)


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Hard-Boiled Science


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Hard-boiling and dyeing eggs offers a number of avenues for families to explore both food science and chemistry. Forgoing boxed dye tablets, the eggs shown above were dyed using natural ingredients like turmeric and beets. Photo: Whiteley Creek, used with permission.


We hard-boiled and dyed eggs over the weekend, and the process opened up unexpectedly fertile ground for scientific exploration in my house. A simple, early-morning Google search clued me in to the fact that for at least a decade, I've been boiling my eggs incorrectly. Not only that, but according to my quick from-the-chair research, it seems that all my life I've been unwittingly eating overcooked hard-boiled eggs. I thought that sickly green layer to the yolk was simply... a fact of a hard-boiled egg. It's not! And the smell? Are you familiar with the sulfur-smell that often accompanies the hard-boiling process (or your Easter morning memories)? Only if you are also a victim of what may very well be the over-cooked, hard-boiled egg syndrome.

Newly aware of the fact that hard-boiled egg yolks should have beautiful sunshine-yellow-orange insides, I scanned a few online sites only to realize that there are dozens and dozens (to the power of Google) of supposedly "tried-and-true" ways to hard-boil the perfect egg. Few of them agree on the specifics, but they all agree that the yucky green color is not the goal.


Weekend Kitchen Science

I tend to be a bit over-cautious about cooking times, and I don't have any reason to willingly eat undercooked eggs, so I was a bit unsure about hard-boiling for considerably "less" time than I've done in the past. (It has since been pointed out to me that when frying eggs... I do leave the yellows slightly runny, so there's no logical reason to defend over-hard-boiling.) Given my food-bacteria-paranoia, and faced with scores of varying approaches, I decided we would try two different hard-boiling methods... and see how each turned out.

Obviously, we had a science experiment in the making! Later, when we dyed eggs, my 10-year-old was quick to understand that in order to evaluate the results, we needed to keep track of which eggs were which, so we assigned one batch of eggs to the orange, red, pink tubs and the other batch of eggs to the blue, turquoise, green, and purple tubs.

Our exploration didn't end there, however. When it comes to raising science questions worthy of Saturday-afternoon family exploration, we were on a roll. When you dye eggs, you're supposed to add vinegar to the mix in order to maximize the intensity of the dye. The pH of the vinegar affects the binding of the dye, but most instructions call specifically for white vinegar. As things often go in my house, my initial search of the lazy Susan cabinet (you know, the one that spins around and has cans stacked two or three high and a dozen or so buried inches back) didn't turn up white vinegar. What I did turn up was two bottles of apple cider vinegar, a salad dressing favorite. Frustrated that I couldn't find plain ol' vinegar, but aware that two kids were waiting to dye the requisite eggs—and trusting that I had what it took to make the process work—it seemed we'd have to give it a try.

Given that changing the pH of the water is the point of adding vinegar to the dye solution, apple cider vinegar should work, but would it work? Would the color of apple cider vinegar change the color of the dyes? Would the "sweetness" of the vinegar change the effectiveness? Did we really need yet another science experiment in the same day?

Luckily, I had two sets of dye tablets, and so we started out by prepping a set of dye baths for all colors using apple cider vinegar. We waited for the tablets to dissolve. We added the water. We submerged the eggs. A few minutes later, the eggs seemed to be taking on no color at all. It seemed like the apple cider vinegar not only wasn't working... it almost seemed to be interfering with the process. With a bit more searching, voila, I turned up a bottle of white vinegar, and we started again. I prepped a single new dye bath with vinegar, and we watched the reaction as the white vinegar began dissolving the dye tablet. There was pronounced fizzing and bubbling... which we had not observed with the apple cider vinegar.

With a small quantity of household Easter eggs at stake, I made a decision... scrap the apple cider vinegar. I dumped all the initial baths, rinsed the little plastic, egg-shaped tubs, and made new dye baths with white vinegar. Had we truly been going to document our results, we'd have run our trials side by side. But we didn't have that many hard-boiled eggs ready and waiting!

In the end, we had a handful of dyed eggs. They weren't Martha Stewart-worthy, and even with white vinegar, we didn't get the dye intensity we'd hoped for. It's something we'll explore again though! And next year, maybe we'll try more natural dyes, like the ones you can achieve using turmeric powder, beets, cabbage, and other natural plant-based ingredients. (I wish I'd seen these eggs earlier!)

In reality, the apple cider vinegar should have worked. Science Buddies staff scientist, Sandra Slutz confirmed for me Monday morning that using it in place of white vinegar should have been fine. "Making the water more acidic is what matters for increasing the dye uptake," she told me. I was maybe too quick to give up. If we'd had pH strips on hand, we could have furthered our informal study by comparing the pH level of the two vinegars. All things considered, it sounds like our dye experience is a good starting place for a longer, more controlled experiment.


The Proof is in the Yolk

And how did the hard-boiling turn out? We didn't know until the next day when we cracked and peeled eggs from each "method." Was there a difference? You bet! We had one set that sported the well-known sickly green ring. And we had one set with sunny, yellow-orange yolks. We noticed something else, however... the sunny ones were much, much harder to peel cleanly. (Okay, they were impossible to peel cleanly. Do you have a guess as to why? Have a hypothesis? Any thoughts on what you'd need to do to ensure your testing is controlled?) There's definitely room for some further exploration of hard-boiling and of the difference the "age" of an egg makes on the end result. And obviously there's room for a more formal experimental process! But we were excited about what we did—and about how things turned out.


Making Connections

With the egg hunt in my house over (and, ironically, we hunt plastic eggs—we dye eggs out of a sense of "you're-supposed-to" tradition), I poked around on the Science Buddies website today to see if we had a project that would have given me the golden key to perfect hard-boiling. What I discovered is that we have a project that deals with soft-boiling. So if you're interested in eggs... you might just find an egg-citing project in Egg-cellently Cooked Eggs: The Process of Soft-Boiling an Egg. Or... create your own variation with hard-boiled eggs. Or... tackle the dyeing process and see what it takes to get dazzlingly bright dyed eggs!

Something else came to mind, as I watched the dye tablets react with the vinegar in our little plastic containers. The dispersion of the color was immediately clear, and you could watch the tablet as it fizzled down, smaller and smaller until it disappeared. As I watched, I thought about a set of projects on the Science Buddies site that create a pretty amazing visual display of chemistry... a swirling, color-changing display, in fact. The projects are a duo involving the Briggs-Rauscher (BR) reaction:


What's really interesting about these projects is that the reaction is what is called an "oscillating" reaction. It doesn't simply go from A to B and then stop, as many reactions do.

From the project:

Most chemical reactions ... move in one direction, from reactants (starting chemicals) to products. In this chemistry science project, you will experiment with a rare and exotic reaction that oscillates. The reaction products appear and disappear for a number of cycles. Because the products are colored, the solution appears alternately blue, then yellow, then clear.

There's definitely room in this project for a "wow that's cool" reaction from a class or a group gathered for an informal science experiment!


[Science Buddies encourages adventures in family science, even when they don't turn out as expected! For tips and suggestions on making more room for science exploration and discussion at home, check out our Science Mom's video appearances. And be sure to browse our list of science projects perfect for the weekend.]

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Madeline Sides, 2010 Intel ISEF participant and Science Buddies intern

Greetings, fellow "Science Buddies!" My name is Maddy, and I am working this summer for Science Buddies testing project ideas that appear in their directory of more than 1000 science projects. I've been testing anywhere from 5-12 projects a week, so I am constantly busy making messes "in the name of science."

My favorite project this week was Burning Calories: How Much Energy is Stored in Different Types of Food? The basic goal of this project from the Cooking & Food Science interest area is to build a homemade calorimeter to determine the energy (measured in calories) found in foods like cashews, marshmallows, crackers, and even dog food.

The project idea seemed interesting and straightforward to execute, so I dug up some aluminum cans, assembled my food items, and got to work. Of course, the opportunity to eat some of my "extra" food items got me interested as well... Within 15 minutes, I had assembled a nice-looking calorimeter. I had a can for water attached to a wooden rod, an old vegetable canister on which to hang the water can, a cork and wire platform for food items, and a digital thermometer.

I began my testing with the cashews. To determine the energy content of the nuts, I had to light one on fire and calculate the change in temperature of the water in the can hanging above the little flame. With some practice, and a few matches, I developed a technique for igniting a nut and quickly placing it under the water can. As I sat back and took in the "sweet" smell of science, the phone rang...

"Hi, Mom...Oh yes, I'm just burning some food items on your countertop. Nothing to worry about, I promise..."

She wasn't too pleased with the news.

After relocating my project to the garage, I was able to test the rest of the food items and complete calculations to determine the calorie content per gram of each.

I think this project idea is cool because if you follow the directions, you end up constructing your own scientific device that returns reliable results. My only advice? Ask a parent for permission first!


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Lip Balm Science

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Have you ever noticed how many kinds and brands and flavors of lip balm appear in the cosmetics department at your favorite store? Why are there so many variations? Which one do you like most? Why do you like it? What kinds of differences do you notice between types?

It might surprise you to discover that lip balm is something you can make at home. In fact, just like mixing up a batch of cookies, making lip balm follows a basic recipe. And, just as there are many recipes for cookies and many ways to alter the basic "formula" for making cookies, there are many ways you can alter and customize the "formula" (or "recipe") for making your own lip balm.


What's On the Inside

A look at the ingredients list on the side of your favorite tube of lip balm might show a number of ingredients. "What" goes into each formula and "how much" of each ingredient is used changes the consistency, scent, flavor, creaminess, and emollience.

The ingredients list on the lip balm I have in front of me reads this way:

Beeswax, coconut oil, sunflower oil, tocopheryl acetate & tocopherol (vitamin E), lanolin, peppermint oil, comfrey root extract, rosemary extract.

This is a lip balm manufactured by a well-known company that creates "natural" lotions, soaps, and balms, and yet I see in this list the basic ingredients of any lip balm... an oil and a wax.

This company has come up with its own combination of ingredients and made choices about which oil and which wax to use in its custom blend of balm. I like the choices the company has made. You might like something creamier. Or you might prefer something without a mint. Or, you might find that you like lip balms best that use a different wax or a different oil. Each ingredient contributes to the way the balm feels, tastes, spreads, and lasts.


Kitchen Chemistry

Do you know what emulsifiers are? Do you know what an emollient is? Maybe not. But when you mix up your own lip balm, these concepts come into play. Making lip balm can be fun and practical, but it's also chemistry.

In the Potions and Lotions: Lessons in Cosmetic Chemistry Science Buddies science project, you can try a few basic recipes for lip balm and then do some product testing with a group of friends or volunteers to see which ones are most popular. Or you might evaluate which blend lasts longest or spreads most easily.

After you try a few basic recipes, you can experiment with other ingredients, change percentages, or combinations of ingredients, and expand your research to come up with your very own blend of lip balm—your perfect formula.

If your lip balms are a hit, you might also consider making your own lotions or even your own perfumes. These two project ideas can help get you started on a fun science fair project or on your own line of lotions and balms to give away or to sell!


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