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Welcome to CCC’s Curious Kitchen, where we explore the science behind baking! Get started with the posts here, browse by category or tag at the bottom of the page, or visit the blog feed for more recent articles and experiments.

Recent posts

Aging Cookie Dough

In the last couple posts, we’ve seen that the temperature of cookie dough affects its spread and texture, which explains why many recipes chill the dough for a couple hours. But what about chill times that range from one to three days? That’s more than enough time for the dough to cool. These long periods of refrigeration, which are also called “aging” or “ripening,” are meant to improve the flavor and texture of our cookies. In this experiment, we’ll explore how significant these changes really are.

Adjusting Oven Temperature for Cookie Dough Temperature

In the last couple posts, we’ve seen how both oven temperature and dough temperature affect a cookie’s spread and texture. Cookie recipes usually give clear instructions for both. But when we don’t have time to refrigerate the dough, or if we forget to thaw it, can we adjust the oven temperature to compensate?

Chilling Cookie Dough

Many cookie recipes ask us to chill the dough before baking. Sometimes this makes the dough easier to handle and shape. But in other cases, chilling just seems like more time to wait before we can get to our cookies. How much of a difference does it actually make? In this post, we’re exploring how the temperature of cookie dough affects its bake.

What is food?

Fats: An Introduction

Fats are one of the most important ingredients in our bakes. They make light and airy cakes, moist muffins, flaky puff pastry, and fluffy bread. In this series of posts, we’ll dive deep into the roles of fat, including texture, flavor, cookie spread, and aeration. But before we explore fats’ interactions with other ingredients, we should first understand fats themselves.

Starch: An Introduction

As bakers, when we think of starch, we often think of its function as a thickener in custards and sauces. Although starch is indispensable for pie fillings and pastry cream, it also plays a role in the pie crust and choux that hold them. Starch is as important as gluten for structure and texture in baked goods. It feeds yeast and interacts with proteins, sugar, and fats. We use it to form thin, crisp crusts on bread, chewy crusts on bagels, and tall shells of choux pastry. So let’s dive into the science of starch, starting with a description of what it is and an understanding of how it interacts with heat and water.

Sugar: An Introduction

Sugar is a ubiquitous ingredient in baking, and we often think of it as a sweetener. But while sugar undoubtedly provides flavor, it also plays important roles in the texture and structure of baked goods and of candies such as caramel and fudge. In this post, we’ll introduce the chemistry of all sugars, which will help us understand their roles in the kitchen.

Leavening: An Introduction to Gases

What’s the difference between a light, fluffy cake and a short, dense one? A flaky pie crust and a tough cracker? The answer lies in leavening. Leavening agents lift and expand batters and doughs to make fluffy cakes, flaky pastry, and light bread. There are several leaveners: air, baking soda, yeast, and steam are a few of the most common in the home kitchen. In this post, we’ll explore how all leaveners work. Then, we’ll dive deeper into specific leaveners in the next few posts.

Measuring Accurately and Precisely

“Baking is a science.” We’ve all heard it before—in fact, when I get home from my science day job and bake, my brain is still in the same mode. In both cases, we combine specific ingredients in a certain way to make something exact happen. Baking relies on ingredients to interact just so to create a delicious treat. And as we’ve seen in the experiments I’ve shared, changes in the amounts of ingredients, the way they’re combined, or the temperature in the oven lead to changes at the molecular level that translate into a different baked good. Thus, accurate and precise measurement is important to recreate and write recipes. In this post, we’re going to discuss two concepts of measurement that are often conflated, accuracy and precision, and how they apply to measuring ingredients in the kitchen.

Gluten: An Introduction

Gluten is one of the most important molecules in baking. Anything that contains wheat flour, be it a cake, cookie, or bread, relies on gluten for structure. Gluten is also responsible for the difference in texture between a light, fluffy cake and a dense, chewy pizza crust. Thus, understanding what gluten is and how toContinue reading “Gluten: An Introduction”

How do ingredients interact?

Fats in the Kitchen: Tender Textures

In the last couple posts, we explored the chemical structure of fats, learned why fats repel water, and discussed how they melt. Moving forward, we’ll focus on how these properties affect our baked goods. As we’ll see, fats are crucial for the texture, flavor, and sensory properties of our food. Let’s start with a closer look at the molecular interactions that create tender textures in our bakes.

Starch in the Kitchen: Flour

In the last post, we discussed the molecular details of starch: what it is, where it comes from, and how it changes with water and heat. Today, we’ll apply those concepts to baked goods with a focus on the starch in wheat flour. Although flour is often noted for its gluten, it actually contains 68–75% starch. So when we consider the chemistry of any baked good that contains flour, be it cake, bread, or cookies, starch always plays a role. And in foods cooked in steam or boiling water, starch helps create textures as diverse as soft skins on steamed buns, chewy crusts on bagels, and crisp shells of choux pastry.

Sugar in the Kitchen: Candies

In the past few posts, we focused on sugar’s roles in baked goods and its interactions with other ingredients. But sugar is also crucial to candies like caramel, fudge, and fondant, for which careful control of sugar crystallization is paramount for texture. In this post, we’ll explore the chemistry of crystal formation in the candy making process.

Leavening in the Kitchen: Yeast

In the last few posts, we’ve been talking about leavening gases, which give our baked goods volume and tenderness. Last time, we focused on baking soda and baking powder, which quickly produce carbon dioxide through chemical reactions. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at yeast. We’ll describe what yeast are, how they leaven, and what to consider when working with them.

Leavening in the Kitchen: Baking Soda and Baking Powder

Baking soda and baking powder are used in all sorts of baked goods including cookies, cakes, and muffins. They can be used independently or in conjunction. And although they both contain the word “baking” and produce carbon dioxide to help leaven our bakes, there are differences that are crucial to understanding how they work in a recipe.

Gluten: An Introduction

Gluten is one of the most important molecules in baking. Anything that contains wheat flour, be it a cake, cookie, or bread, relies on gluten for structure. Gluten is also responsible for the difference in texture between a light, fluffy cake and a dense, chewy pizza crust. Thus, understanding what gluten is and how toContinue reading “Gluten: An Introduction”

Experiments

Sugar in Muffins

In an effort to be health-conscious, it’s tempting to just reduce the sugar in a recipe when we bake. Often, the result is still plenty sweet. But sugar is not just a sweetener, and merely using less sugar will lead to drastic changes in a baked good’s texture and structure. In this post, we’ll explore some of these changes in muffins.

Baking Powder in Muffins

Baking powder is used in such small amounts it’s often overlooked in ingredient lists. But this unassuming powder is crucial for volume and tenderness in baked goods such as muffins, biscuits, cookies, and cakes. In this experiment, we varied the amount of baking powder in muffins to see how the muffins would change in appearance, taste, and texture.

Overmixing Muffins

Muffin recipes often instruct, “Mix until just combined.” Some even caution, “Do not overmix. Batter will be lumpy.” Bakers characterize overmixed muffins as dense, chewy, tough, or stringy due to excessive gluten development, but we wanted to see if we could taste the difference ourselves.

Recipes

Miso Saltine Toffee

Saltine cracker toffee, or Christmas crack, is a popular holiday treat. It’s a layer of saltine crackers coated in toffee topped with chocolate and sometimes with nuts. I enjoyed the rich, buttery taste, but I’d double the layer of saltines and use dark chocolate in an effort to cut the sweetness of the toffee. Even so, I could only take so much. In this version, I added miso for a salty note that elevates the toffee and complements the chocolate. I can’t get enough of it! As always, I’ll share the recipe and then talk science.

Apple Pie

In the last post, we discussed how sugar preserves the structure of cooked fruit. This comes in handy for fruit pie fillings, which often become a mushy and wet (but nevertheless delicious) mess. In this recipe, apples are tossed with sugar and drained. The drained liquid is cooked into a thick syrup that’s added back to the apples and baked. The apples maintain some crunch, not much water leaks into the pie, and the syrup adds an extra punch of flavor. Let’s take a look at the recipe and then discuss the science!

Pumpkin Spice Custard Buns

These buns are a twist on the classic Chinese egg custard buns (奶黃包, nǎihuángbāo). They still have the creamy custard and the fluffy steamed bun, but I added pumpkin and fall spices to both the filling and the dough to create a pumpkin spice version. Notes on ingredient substitutions and the science behind the custard filling, dough, and steaming process follow the recipe!

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