Have you ever sat down and thought about the chemistry that goes into creating those delicious treats on your favourite bakery products list? Chances are like most of us you were too busy enjoying the fluffy texture of that perfectly baked cupcake or surreptitiously eyeing that second creamy chocolate eclair to notice.
No sweat, the knowledgeable team at Crustique bakery restaurant has rustled up an easy reference guide that will tell you all you need to know about the science behind the crumb. This is truly the one situation where you can have your cake and eat it…
For the purpose of ease and brevity we will assume that you are baking a cake. Here’s the skinny of what is going on while you follow the recipe:
1. Every ingredient has a job
They’re not hanging out there for the fun of it. Flour is in the mix because it contains proteins that become gluten, which provides the structure; baking powder and -soda are there to ensure that the final product is nice and airy; eggs bind everything together; fats like butter and oil ensure a soft texture; and sugar makes it delicious, while milk, water and other liquids provide the moisture.
2. Adding wet to dry starts the party
The actual party only starts when you combine the wet and dry ingredients. This is when the proteins in the flour bond to create gluten and the baking powder and -soda release carbon dioxide, which bubbles and allows the batter to expand. Pro tip: Always add the dry ingredients in the exact order called for in the recipe you are using – each dry element competes for moisture and if you mix up the order you are messing with the pecking order so to speak. The water in your mixture will naturally favour the stronger competitor and the batter tends to clump if the wrong guy wins.
3. Curb your mixing enthusiasm (somewhat)
As soon as your cake batter flows you can be sure that the hydration throughout the mixture is consistent. It is however important not to over-mix the batter. On a molecular level, once the gluten molecules align, it does so in strands. If you keep mixing after this stage you disrupt the networks that had formed, which means the strands break and your mixture will become overly runny, resulting in a cake that won’t have the structure to rise.
4. Once we hit the oven the game is truly on
When you add dry heat to the mix your ingredients change again. With some help from the sugar, the starch portion of the flour gels to create a web-like structure that traps moisture, while the CO2 from the baking powder creates bubbles that pushes up and expands the cake. The gluten that was created in the mixing phase holds these bubbles in place and the fat from the oil or butter lubricates the whole exchange. This is why a cake falls flat when you take it out of the oven too quickly – the gluten structure didn’t have sufficient time to harden and set.
Cool stuff, right? Here are a few more interesting facts to bandy about next time you pop out for tea with your mother-in-law and run out of polite chitchat:
- The process of browning baked goods to create extra flavour is called the Maillard reaction. In layman’s terms it means that heat helps to speed up the conversion of sugars and amino acids into flavour- and colour molecules.
- An egg is essentially one giant cell, albeit 1000x larger than the average cell we have in our bodies.
- Artificial sweeteners were discovered completely by accident. Constantine Fahlberg was working at Johns Hopkins University in 1879 when he spilled a chemical on his hands. He forgot to wash his hands before having lunch (a bit worrisome, but okay) and he noticed that his sandwich tasted unusually sweet. This led to further experiments and the development of the first artificial sweetener. The use of saccharin did not become widespread until sugar was rationed during World War I, and its popularity increased during the 1960s and 1970s when diet soft drinks became all the rage.
- The first use of flour dates back 10 000 years. Grinding stones from Italy, Russian and the Czech Republic have been found embedded with starch grains, suggesting that 30,000 years ago people processed roots from cattails and ferns into flour.
Now that you know more about the chemistry behind all those tasty morsels you see in bakery pictures around the web, you are one step closer to recreating it at home. Knowing the ins and outs regarding common ingredients and how they behave greatly increases your chance of success in the kitchen. Pro tip: Before you try your hand at baking that first delicious loaf of bread, read our blog on the 6 simple rules that will allow you to bake perfect bread every time.