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The Chemistry Behind Baking
Manuel D. Rodarte
Academy High School

Author Note
Manuel D. Rodarte, student at Academy High School.
This research was supported in part by Mr. Baker and his constant support.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Manuel Rodarte.
This paper explores various publishings on the effects of different ingredients in baked goods.
Different recipes in baking call for different ingredients. However, some ingredients hold true all



across the board. Sugar, butter, flour, these are just some examples of what baking requires, and
what will be discussed in this paper.
Keywords: Cream, Emulsion, Lipid

The Chemistry Behind Baking
In the home kitchen, two types of people exist: cooks and bakers. Cooks are free to
change recipes at whim, creating culinary wonders. Bakers, however, are mostly set in their
recipes. Not because bakers are lazy, but because baking recipes have a science to them- a set
way that ensures the final product will be of the highest caliber. Everything plays a role in
baking, from the amount of baking soda to how warm the butter is when added to the



ingredients. Although many people might not see it, baking is, in reality, a culinary science.
Flour is a basic ingredient in almost all baked goods, the exception being flourless
baked goods, such as flourless cake. There are seemingly endless types of flour- all purpose, self
rising, almond, bread, cake, coconut, oat, pastry, rice, rye, and whole-wheat. These are just a few
of the types of flours that bakers can work with. Flour is either one of the first or the one of the
last ingredients added to the batter. When it is added, it begins its first job- bringing the sweet
sludge of sugar, fat, and eggs together to make the raw dough people sinfully love to eat raw.
Starches in the flour absorb water and glue fats and sugars. “As the flour sits with the dough, the
two proteins in wheat flour, glutenin and gliadin will absorb water and combine forces to form
gluten chains, adding a subtle web of proteins for strength” (Cree, 2015). This is saying that
glutenin and gliadin, proteins that are found in flour, combine with each other to make gluten
chains. These gluten chains support the overall structure of the baked good, helping make sure
that it does not fall flat and become too thin.
Butter is one of the key ingredients in any baking recipe. “Butter is basically an emulsion
of water in fat, with some dairy solids that help hold them together” (Moskin, 2008). Emulsions
are a fine dispersion of minute droplets of one liquid in another in which it is not soluble or
miscible. In basic English, butter is a mix of water and fat with some dairy holding the two
substances together. If recipes were a building, butter would be the concrete foundation of the
baked good. There is a downfall to this emulsion, however. Butter melts easily when exposed to
any kind of heat. Once butter melts, the links in the butter are destroyed, and they are impossible
to reconnect.
The sugars are one of the most important pieces in baking. Not only does sugar add the
much loved sweetness, but sugar also provides many other things. Sugar provides difference in



texture. Bonds between sugar and water allow water to be more easily trapped within baked
goods, making cakes and cookies soft and moist. Sugar also helps create tenderness. “Baked
goods get their shape and structure from proteins and starches, which firm up during baking”
(Masibay, n.d.). Sugar, much like baking soda and baking powder, also acts as a leavening agent.
When creamed together with butter, sugar is able to create bubbles that make the baked good
rise, something that is quite necessary.
Brown sugar, while looking and tasting different than white sugar, is indeed white sugar,
just with a bit of molasses added. Dark brown sugar, exactly like light brown sugar, is white
sugar that has had molasses added to it. The key difference, however, is the amount of molasses
added to the sugar. While light brown sugar has just a bit, dark brown sugar has quite a bit more
molasses added. This causes a difference in taste, color, and properties. When using the two
sugars to bake, color is the most obvious difference. Dark brown sugar cookies, for example, will
have a darker color compared to those made with light brown sugar. They will also have a
stronger, more caramel-y flavor than cookies made with light brown sugar.
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar making process. Both sugarcane and sugar beet
juice can be boiled down to a syrup. Afterwards, sugar crystals are extracted from the syrup.
What is left is a dark liquid fondly known as molasses. However, this first boil brings into
creation not just molasses, but light molasses. This type of molasses is the one most commonly
sold in supermarkets. It has a light color and taste, making it very sweet. “Light molasses helps
to make cookies softer and bread crustier, and it can also be used in marinades and sauces”
(Gallary, 2014). The next type of molasses, called dark molasses, comes into creation after
boiling sugar cane or beet juice not once, but twice. Dark molasses is thicker than its light
counterpart, and has a stronger flavor. Dark molasses is what gives gingerbread men their distinct



color and flavor. However, dark and light molasses can be used interchangeably with one
another, so long as the recipe does not specifically ask for one. The third and final type of
molasses comes from, you guessed it, the third and final boiling of the molasses. It is the
strongest flavored one of the three, and the thickest and darkest one as well. As blackstrap
molasses is the most bitter of the three molasses’, it is not recommended to substitute one of the
others with this one. The only time to use blackstrap molasses is when it is required in the recipe.
Eggs are a staple ingredient in baking. If butter is the concrete foundation, eggs are like
the beams that hold everything up and together. Eggs provide structural support in many ways.
“Egg yolks are mostly made of lipids with a small amount of protein and water. Lipids,
are fat and act like it, adding flavor and color to a cookie. The small amount of protein in
the yolks will coagulate in the presence of heat, helping hold the cookie together. The
protein in an egg yolk can’t compare to the protein in a egg white. An egg white is
primarily made of water and albumen, a long-strand protein that unravels and interlocks
in the presence of heat. In a cookie, this protein helps create the structure along with the
gluten. But it comes bundled with a lot of water, which can make the dough sticky and
wet if too much is added. Once baked, the additional water turns into steam and becomes
trapped by the extra protein, giving the cookie a cake-like texture” (Cree, 2015).
Vanilla tastes awful. The smell is magical, yes, but the taste is bitter and horrendous.
There is no argument there from those who have had the displeasure of drinking some. However,
when added dough, something wonderful happens. We can no longer taste it, Like magic, it
seems to have vanished. In reality, the vanilla is still in the dough, but we can’t truly detect it.
This is because vanilla’s sole purpose in a recipe is to enhance the flavors of other ingredients.
Salt, cinnamon, everything else in a recipe gets an extra kick with the help of vanilla. Now, the



kick is subtle, but there none the less. “Its rich flavor enhances other sweet flavors and it
shouldn't be taken for granted” (Durand, 2008). Good quality vanilla will usually cost $5-$8 as it
is made from vanilla beans extracted from their pod. However, there exists the cheap alternative
to real vanilla, imitation vanilla.
Baking soda and baking powder both have the same basic properties. The only question
that remains is which came first- the soda or the powder? The answer to that would be baking
soda. Baking powder is baking soda, just with an extra acid that makes it unique. Both, however,
serve the same basic purpose: to leaven the baked good. Baking soda is a weak base that, when it
comes in contact with something acidic, releases carbon dioxide. Although baked goods do not
taste acidic, the flour and sugar are acidic enough to activate the properties of baking soda. The
best example of this would be science fair volcanos. This creates air bubbles in the baked good,
making it rise. Here, kids create a mache volcano and mix baking soda and vinegar together to
create an explosion of imitation lava. The acidic property of the vinegar reacts with the baking
soda much like in baked goods, just on a smaller scale. The same process occurs with baking
powder, however, it is when baking powder comes in contact with a base, as baking powder itself
is acidic. “Baking powder is made of baking soda mixed with an additional acid that doesn’t
become soluble until it reaches temperatures above 140 F” (Cree, 2015).
Oil serves the same purpose as butter. However, oil coats the proteins in flour in a much
better way than butter does. This provides an explanation as to why oil-based cakes and such are
moister than butter-based cakes.
Salt works in the same way as vanilla. It contributes to the overall flavor of the baked
goods, strengthens the effect of the gluten protein in dough, and, in bread, controls the



fermentation rate of yeast. As salt adds flavor to the baked good, it is not recommended that salt
be omitted from the recipe, unless, of course, your doctor recommends a low sodium diet.
The final, and possibly one of the most important ingredients of all, is air. Air is the secret
ingredient that no one ever truly thinks about. Air, or lack thereof, in baked goods is a key
difference for the outcome. There are three ways of incorporating air in the baked good:
mechanically, chemically, and physically. In the “mechanic” sense, creaming is the way to go.
When you cream butter and sugar, the beater blades scrape sugar crystals through the butter,
creating air pockets in the fat. When butter and sugar are creamed, the mixture gets more fluffy
in texture and lighter in color. This is due to the fact that air bubbles have been incorporated into
the butter/sugar mixture. Chemically is just how it sounds. Leavening agents, usually baking
soda and baking powder, add air into baking goods. Baking soda, like stated before, releases
carbon dioxide when it comes in contact with water and acid. This way, as the baked good bakes,
it receives an extra boost of air to reach that heavenly height. Physically means while in the oven
itself. While in the oven, the water in the butter and the eggs turn into steam. This last boost of
steam puffs up the baked good.
Alternatives in baking exist. As sad as it is to think about, not everyone can experience
baked goods in the same way. People affected by celiac disease cannot consume gluten, a protein
found in wheat, rye, and barley. If they do, intense discomfort occurs in the small intestine, and
the villi, which absorb nutrients, are damaged (What is Celiac Disease, n.d.). This disease has
prompted bakers all over the globe to create baked goods that do not contain gluten, and it has
also prompted men and women without the disease to eat a gluten free diet. People who are
vegans can also not consume many baked goods, as they have animal products incorporated in
them. Eggs are one of the main things that inhibit vegans, as eggs come from animals. Flax seeds



exist in the baking world as a way of combating this. As stated before, the purpose of eggs in
baking is to create structure and support. Flax seeds do the same, with many added health
benefits. Flax seeds are high in Omega-3, and they contain fiber. There are many other ways to
substitute other foods for ingredients in baked goods, such as pureed bananas for oil. However,
as there are too many to list at once, the best way to find foods that can be used to substitute
ingredients is to search for them.
Baking is an amazing passion that people enjoy partaking of. Everyone, whether it be
people that love eating baked goods or people that love creating them, can have a part in baking.
Baking is not only a cultural and spiritual experience, it is a scientific process.

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