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The Science of Baking


Baking is a both a science and an art.

In any baking recipe every ingredient has a purpose.

Lets start with one of my favorite cake recipes and learn about why each ingredient is important

2 cups sugar

1 - 3 /4 cups all-purpose flour

3 /4 cup Cocoa powder

1 - 1 /2 tsps baking powder

1 - 1 /2 tsps baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 /2 cup softened butter

2 tsps vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water


Sugar adds sweetness, as well as contributing to the product's browning. This process is called the Maillard reaction.

*Learn more about the Maillard reaction. Sugar tenderizes a cake by preventing gluten from forming. We’ll learn more about the process of forming gluten when we talk about flour. Sugar also holds moisture in the finished product. When sugar is mixed with butter and leavening agents such as baking powder and baking soda, CO2 bubbles are created in the mixture helping to form the structure of the cake.


A fat source is usually included to improve texture (fat gives our cake a smooth texture) and moistness. For this recipe we’ll use butter as our fat source but other recipes may call for oil or shortening, or margarine. *The process of mixing, blending, or whipping together your sugars and your fat source is called “creaming”. During the creaming process is when the air bubbles that determine the texture and moistness of your cake are formed. *If time allows, have each member of your group make the cake recipe using a different fat source. Have a taste test and chart your thoughts.


Chemical leavening agents release carbon dioxide gases within the cake mixture during the baking process, helping the batter to rise into a porous structure. Examples of chemical leaveners include baking powder, baking soda and cream of tartar. *Our recipe includes two leavening agents. What do you think will happen to our cake as it bakes?


Flour is at the heart of a cake, forming its main structure Two proteins called glutenin and gliadin occur naturally in flour. For a cake, you want enough protein to create structure so it doesn’t fall to bits but not so much as to make it chewy. When you add wet ingredients to cakes, the glutenin and gliadin combine to form a new protein called gluten. Gluten is a stretchy protein that expands when it gets hot in the oven. *There are 7 different types of flours that are used in modern day baking. All purpose, cake, pastry, bread, self-rising, whole wheat, and gluten free. What is the difference in the flours? Our recipe uses All-purpose. Do you thik that is the best choice for this recipe?


Eggs are multifunctional in a cake being good binders, moisture retainers, and air traps. Eggs binding agents helping to stick all the ingredients together. The egg yolks, specifically, are good emulsifiers meaning they keep ingredients that don’t usually mix well from separating, such as fat and water. **You can separate the eggs and whip up the whites. Then fold into mixture carefully, so as not to knock out the air. This allows you to make a cake without any additional raising agent or even any fat.**


Salt is used to enhance the flavors and sweetness of other ingredients in food. If salt is omitted or reduced, other spices or flavorings in the recipe should be increased slightly.


Liquids are necessary in baked goods for hydrating protein, starch and leavening agents. When hydration occurs, water is absorbed and the chemical changes necessary for structure and texture development can take place. Liquids contribute moistness to the texture and improve the mouthfeel of baked products. When water vaporizes in a batter or dough, the steam expands the air cells, increasing the final volume of the product.

Milk contributes water and valuable nutrients to baked goods. It helps browning to occur and adds flavor *Our recipe also calls for boiling water. What job is the boiling water doing?*

Now that we know what role each ingredient plays, its time to mix and bake.

Pre-heat your oven to 350 ****Why do we pre-heat the oven?**

In a mixing bowl, sift together flour and cocoa powder ****Why are we sifting our dry ingredients?***

In a second mixing bowl combine sugar, butter, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix until creamed and fluffy ***Why are we creaming our sugar, fat, and leavening agents?***

When creamed and fluffy, gently fold in your eggs, milk and vanilla extract. ***Why are we gently folding instead of continuing to vigorously mix?****

When combined, gently fold in your sifted dry ingredients **Why are we adding dry ingredients last? Why are we gently folding them in?***

When well combined add in boiling water and gently stir until combines **Why are we adding our boing water last?***

Choose your baking method

One Pan Cake: Grease and flour 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Heat oven to 350° F. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes.

Three Layer Cake: Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans. Heat oven to 350°F. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes.

Bundt Cake: Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan. Heat oven to 350°F. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes.

Cupcakes: Line muffin cups (2-1/2 inches in diameter) with paper bake cups. Heat oven to 350°F. Fill cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake 22 to 25 minutes.

***Share your cake and your new knowledge with your group, your family, and your friends. As the enjoy your cake, teach them all about the science of baking****

If you’d like to take a more in-depth dive this is an excellent resource

NF94-186 Functions of Baking Ingredients (