Baking is considered a science because chemical reactions take place among ingredients making them act in certain ways. Baking combines wet ingredients with dry ingredients in a specific order to create a batter, dough, or mixture. The batter is then formed in some way or spread into a specific pan and baked. The combination, order, and amounts of ingredients along with baking times and temperatures will determine the outcome of a baked good, whether it be dry, moist, dense, chewy, light, flaky, or airy.
Baking is much different than cooking. Let’s say you are making salsa and accidentally add ½ cup of diced onion but the recipe only calls for ¼ cup. Your salsa will indeed have more onion flavor but it will not be ruined. However, if you are making cookies and make the same mistake with butter, your results could be disastrous. In cooking, ingredients and amounts can be adjusted throughout the process. In baking, they cannot. Once your dough or batter is mixed and goes in the oven it’s out of your hands, so accuracy and proper measurements matter!
Baking is serious...fun, but serious. In my Science of Baking Class you will learn all sorts of interesting information and facts to help you a become a better baker. I highly suggest you enroll, but for now let's find out exactly what happens to all these ingredients while making a typical chocolate chip cookie recipe in a not-so-serious manner!
1. You decide to make chocolate chip cookies because you are, of course, hungry for chocolate chip cookies.
2. You measure one cup of unsuspecting unsalted room temperature butter, 1/3 cup white granulated sugar, and 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar and add them to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
3. You turn the mixer to medium speed and beat the butter and sugar together (you already know this is called creaming but you want to tell someone to spread your wealth of knowledge). The sugar crystals audibly grind and crunch against the side of the bowl. That's a happy sound! Well, the butter isn't thrilled. The sugar crystals didn't come to party nicely. They have a job to do. They are here to cut and slice into the integrity (and structure) of the butter. We all know party goers like this. Sweet on the outside, disastrous on the inside, but they are doing a great job creating leavening by producing thousands of teeny air bubbles. The butter may not be happy now, but don't worry, butter will get its revenge!
4. Next, you add one egg to the mixture and beat again. The egg white brings moisture and structure to the party. The lecithin in the yolk binds the ingredients together, like a big hug, and provides some fat content.
5. You add a splash of vanilla extract next, which does nothing more than add flavor. So little is necessary that it doesn’t really aid in moisture content at all.
6. Dry ingredients come next in this recipe sequence. You obediently and properly measure 1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1 level teaspoon of baking powder and sift them into the dry ingredients.
7. The dry ingredients hit the wet ingredients, and everyone in the bowl starts freaking out. The mixer blade starts turning, and the party gets real lively! The flour tries to take control and greedily starts sucking up all the moisture it can. It also tries very hard to create gluten bonds and strands all over the place. It achieves its goal in making gluten but the butter can't let the flour get away with this and fights back, shortening the strands because it doesn't want to be a dense, hockey puck of a cookie, that’s why. It wants to be a light and tender cookie. (Little did flour know, butter always wins in the cookie dough battle!) The salt happily dissolves in the water content of the egg white, enhances the flavor of the flour, and leaves everyone else alone. The baking powder starts fizzing and creates thousands of carbon dioxide bubbles while the mixer circulates them evenly throughout the dough.
8. One cup of chopped chocolate chips is added to the fun. The chocolate chips evenly disperse and very briefly mingle at the party.
9. The mixer turns off and everyone relaxes for a brief moment…until, the baking powder realizes that unless it gets into a hot oven quickly it's going to DIE! Literally, those thousands of tiny carbon dioxide bubbles that the baking powder worked so hard to create are going to pop and the cookies are going to deflate and shrivel like old balloons. Okay, that’s a little drastic, but they will definitely not rise as they should!
10. The baking powder is now screaming at the baker as loud as it can to hurry up and drop the cookie dough (by 1 ½ inch spoonfuls) onto the cookie sheet and put them in the oven. If the miniature whispers are heard, the baker will work quickly to get the cookies into a preheated 350°F oven.
11. The baker accepts the challenge, turns to load the cookies in the oven, and realizes it’s not preheated. Smiles turn to frowns, and sadness and tears take over. Now the baker is sad, the cookies are upset, and the day is ruined. Let’s pretend this didn’t happen — DON’T FORGET TO PREHEAT THE OVEN!!
12. For 8-10 minutes the cookies relax and enjoy the warmth of the oven. They emerge, perfectly golden brown on the edges and are left to cool until their delicious demise. Those who aren't immediately eaten should be stored in an airtight container. Keep tabs on them, they mysteriously disappear. ;)
What Just Happened?
On a greater or lesser scale, the same sort of reactions we just discussed are taking place in all baked good batters and doughs.
Here's a rundown in very simple terms of what just happened above.
- fat (butter) provides moisture to baked goods and when creamed with sugar creates leavening
- sugar makes baked goods taste sweet
- eggs act as a binder to hold ingredients together
- flour adds structure to baked goods by creating gluten bonds
- leavening agents give baked goods rise
While you are making any baked good recipe be thinking about what reactions are taking place to achieve the end result. The more you do this with different recipes the more likely it will be that you will be able to create your own recipes or make successful substitutions, without researching what they should be!