Baking Science 101

Posted by Lauren | Comment

We’ve all heard it a million times: You need to be very precise when it comes to baking because “baking is a science.” And after all, our mission here at Drop, and why we created the Drop connected kitchen scale, is to take care of all that science stuff so you can focus on the joy of baking.  

For my own curiosity - and your enlightenment - I decided to do a little homework and see what this whole baking science business is about. As it turns out there is some very cool, very real science that takes place when you use a kitchen scale and correctly portion your ingredients.  So if you want to know what’s happening in your oven, keep reading.

Flour

Flour provides the structure in baked goods. When liquid is mixed with flour gluten/protein networks are formed. These become the framework for whatever it is you’re baking. Different flours have different percentages of protein that put them on a spectrum from hard to soft. It’s important to use the right kind of flour for what you’re baking and for more on that, check out my earlier post, the scoop on flour.

Oil and butter

These are fats and they play a bigger role in baking than just making things taste delicious and rich. Fats actually coat the protein molecules in the flour, which makes it hard to form a strong protein network. This is a good thing when you want tenderness like in a croissant or brioche (hello butter!) but it’s not what you want in a chewy sourdough boule. Capiche?

Baking soda vs. baking powder

These are both chemical leavening agents. These chemicals react with liquid and heat to produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles, which makes things rise. Kind of important when you’re making, say, a cake. There is one key difference between the two: baking soda needs an acidic ingredient in the mix order to work, while baking powder already has an acid mixed in. Typical acidic ingredients you’ll find in baked goods include molasses, buttermilk, yogurt, honey and chocolate. If you have any of those you should be good to go with baking soda.

Yeast

Speaking of leavening, yeast is a biological leavening agent. How is that different than chemical? Because it’s ALIVE! And it’s hungry! Yeast eats sugar to produce the carbon dioxide bubbles that leaven a baked good. Yeast works more slowly than a chemical leavener, so it needs a strong gluten network that can hold the gas its producing for a while. That’s why you’ll see it used in a tough, chewy bread rather than a tender, melt in your mouth cookie. Why bother with yeast? One big reason is that it tastes a whole lot better than baking powder. Yeast is what gives sourdough its tang.


Eggs

Let’s give it up for eggs! They play so many important roles in baking! First, they are also a leavening agent, only they are what’s known as a physical leavener. When heat is applied to whipped egg whites, steam is produced which causes the air pockets in the whipped whites to expand. Can you say soufflé? Heat also causes eggs to form a network of interconnected proteins that provide structure to whatever it is you’re baking. This is quite important if you’re a fan of flan! Don’t forget the yolks, these yellow orbs of wonder provide not only richness in flavor but additional liquid to help spur on those chemical reactions in your baked goods. Last, but not least, egg washes are a fantastic way to add appeal to a crust or loaf of bread. Painting a bit of egg, usually thinned with some liquid created a caramelized or browned (and if you include the yolk, shiny) appearance to a crust. This is due to a reaction between the sugars and the proteins called the Maillard reaction. I’m not even going to go there, as that’s a topic for Baking Science 102!

Now that you know a bit more about how some of the most common baking ingredients work, I hope it’s clear why having a bit of precision with quantities makes a lot of sense. Too much of one thing can easily overwhelm another, and that’s where a handy-dandy Drop connected kitchen scale can save the day!

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