A Geek Girl’s Guide to the Science of Baking

While I am a huge fan of all things magical and fantasy, I have another side that not a lot of people get to see. I’m secretly a science geek. Sure, I suck at the math of science, but learning how the world’s “magic” works is really exciting to me.

Baking isn’t much like cooking. Most of the time, you can’t Bob Ross a little fuck up. Baking is, in fact, the magic of chemistry. Measurements have to be precise in order to obtain a desired rise, glaze, or crumb in your baked good.

Surely, this is why I’d rock at Potions at Hogwarts.


We start with flour. That’s kind of obvious in most cases. Usually we work with All Purpose flour which has a middle of the road gluten. This is great for cookies, quick breads, and the such as it won’t become too tough if you treat it right. There’s also cake flour which simply has a finer texture, high protein flour for chewy breads, and alternative flours like almond meal and rice flour.

Most of these have wheat which means they have gluten. This is a kind of glue that pulls together your baked good. This is produced by adding moisture to the flour and mixing correctly. Like Hermoine teaching Ron the correct Swish and Flick technique, there is always a trick to gluten. Never over mix because you’ll end up with a tough bread or a runny batter.

Another very important aspect of baking is the rise. In some cases you don’t want a rise at all, like pie crust. In other cases, like cookies and bread, we need a chemical that will react with the other ingredients and cause pockets of air to form within the product. This is where yeast and baking powder/soda come into play.

Yeast is a fickle creature, an actual live bacteria. It needs just the right temperature to wake up and a decent amount of sugars to get going. Sounds a lot like myself. The best way to awaken the beast is by adding it to luke warm water with a dose of sugar or honey.

Baking Soda, or Sodium Bicarbonate, is a base. This leavener requires some kind of acid within the recipe to work. Think back to your elementary school days when you made the volcano. What did you put in it? Baking soda and vinegar (the acid). Most times the acid comes in the form of brown sugar (who knew?), buttermilk, or lemon juice.

Baking Powder, on the other hand, is a mixture of baking soda and cream of tartar (a dry acid). Sometimes it has cornstarch as well, but not always. This is nowhere near as strong as baking soda, but it is a base and an acid that activates itself once wet. This means that you cannot simply mix and forget a baking powder batter. It will activate once more once heat is applied to the mixture.

Other ingredients create structure. Eggs are moisteners, tenderizers, and binders all at once. An egg means things are going to keep together as you bake. Milk often provides moisture and tenderness. Oil and butter keep the product from going stale by coating the flour and protecting it from the air.

It all seems like magic when you beat together strange things, add heat, and come out with a solid product. Sometimes I feel like a witch brewing up things in my kitchen. Other times I feel kind of like a mad scientist. Either way, I try to enjoy myself in the kitchen. Knowing a bit more about the how and why of baking might ease some of your kitchen worries and let you have a little more fun, too.