Cookie Chemistry

Cookies – it’s as easy as throwing some ingredients in the bowl and popping them in the oven right?  Sure mixing up cookies is pretty easy but the real work begins once you close the oven door. There are actually several fun chemical reactions that happen once your cookies are baking in the hot oven.  Most basic cookie recipes call for flour, butter, eggs, salt, baking soda, and white and brown sugars.  From there creativity abounds as you add flavors and mix-ins.  Each ingredient plays an important role in creating your favorite ooey gooey cookie.

Mix it up:

As you mix your cookies, flour is the most important ingredient of all because of gluten.  Gluten is a sticky, stretchy, strong protein found in wheat.  It is necessary to create structure in breads and baked goods, but it actually doesn’t exist until you start baking!

When flour becomes wet, the gluten inside of it activates via the combination of two proteins (glutenin and gliadin) and your dough becomes sticky and has more structure.  You develop the gluten by kneading your dough, which stretches the gluten and encourages it to form a network.  Bread involves a lot of kneading but cookies and other baked goods require a light hand.  You can overmix your dough and create a tough cookie!

So mix it up and pop your cookies in the oven and get ready to watch all the different reactions that happen to turn your dough in to a delicious cookie.

Heat it up:

As the dough heats up in your 375 degree oven, butter begins to melt around 92 degrees.  Butter is an emulsion, which is a mixture of two things that don’t want to stay together.  In the case of butter, those two things are fat and water.  As the butter melts, the dough ball spreads and loses its structure.  If you chill your cookies prior to baking you’ll actually have less spread.  This is ideal for holiday cut-out cookies, because the cookie bakes and forms a solid structure faster than the butter melts to a liquid.  Chilled cut-outs keep their shape whereas warmer dough yields weird amoebic shapes.

As the water pulls away from the butter emulsion it bubbles and is released from the cookie as steam.  The fat in the butter actually coats the gluten and “shortens” it by preventing it from forming longer strands.  This is simply why you don’t have super puffy, twice-their-volume cookies.

At 144 degrees the protein molecules from your egg begin to uncoil and connect to form a solid structure.  Then at 212 degrees water completely boils off and the cookie dries out leaving wonderful airy pockets.  How did those pockets get there?

Give it a Rise:

There are two ways to give your baked goods a rise:  yeast or sodium bicarbonate.  Yeast is actually a living creature that activates when combined with warm water, starch, and sugar.  As it consumes starch, its “food”, it releases carbon dioxide, giving life to bread and many other baked goods.

Cookies on the other hand utilize sodium bicarbonate, usually baking soda, which creates carbon dioxide when it heats up.  If you’ve ever done a volcano experiment with vinegar and baking soda it’s a similar reaction except the baking soda is reacting to heat rather than an acid! Water vapor escaping from the dough in combination with the carbon dioxide released by our baking soda is ultimately what makes our cookies light and airy.

Why not baking powder?  The main difference between baking powder and baking soda is that baking powder carries an acid with it, which means that it reacts both when it’s mixed in the dough and also later when it’s heated.  Baking powder creates extra leavening and a fluffier cookie.  Many recipes call for either one or a combination of both.

Golden Brown:

The most exciting part about baking is the wonderful golden brown color and delicious flavor created in the process.  Both of these elements happen thanks to the Maillard reaction and carmelization.

The Maillard reaction occurs around 310 degrees when proteins and sugars break down and realign into rings.  The rings reflect light and create that wonderful golden brown color.  White granulated sugar is mostly sucrose so doesn’t participate as well in the Maillard reaction, which is why a lot of cookie recipes call for both white and brown sugar.  Brown sugar has both glucose and fructose, which happily create rich, complex flavors via the Maillard reaction.

At 356 degrees the magic really happens when carmelization kicks in.  Carmelization is when sugars break down with high heat to create a wonderfully rich, nutty flavor.  Carmelization doesn’t occur at lower temperatures so cookies baked at 350 or lower have a more mild flavor and color.  Playing with the temperature can totally change the flavor of your cookie!

So mix up some cookies and observe some chemical reactions first hand.  Best part is you get to eat the results of your labor!  The following basic recipe can be customized with different flavors and toppings.

Basic Sugar Cookie Recipe:

  • 3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 1/4tsp baking soda
  • 3/4tsp salt
  • 1 c. (2 sticks) butter
  • 1 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4tsp almond extract
  • 1 egg

Optional topping:  regular, or colored decorating sugar to sprinkle on top prior to baking

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line pans with parchment paper.
  • Mix all dry ingredients except sugar in a bowl
  • In a separate mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar together until smooth and fluffy
  • Beat in the egg and vanilla and almond extracts
  • Add the flour mixture gradually mixing after each addition
  • Spoon tbsp portions of dough on to your pans.  Flatten each ball with a glass to about a ¼ inch thickness
  • Optional:  Sprinkle the tops with sugar!
  • Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes.  10 minutes for a softer cookie; 12 minutes for a crunchier, more golden cookie.  Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool

Tip:  For roll out cookies you can cut into festive shapes, add an additional ½ cup of flour to the recipe.

HTHT WNC Visits Claxton Elementary School in Asheville, NC!

HTHT WNC Engages Students at Claxton Elementary School on March 27, 2015!

The students in Ms. Sophia’s First grade class at Claxton Elementary in Asheville, North Carolina had the pleasure of doing hands – on science experiments with High Touch High Tech of Western North Carolina’s scientist, Asteroid Amber. Amber spent the morning in the classroom with this first grade class teaching them all about what plants need to survive. She helped them to explore the world’s ecosystems, the five laws of nature, different types of seeds and how they all play a part to nature’s delicate balance. The students got hands-on in this program as they extracted real chlorophyll!! They even got to build their very own greenhouses to keep! 

Look at all those Smarty Plants!!

Asteroid Amber WOWs the students as the balloon doesnt pop when she sticks a needle through it!


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Hear It From A Scientist

3-2-1.  Blast-off!  At a recent, “Zoom to the Moon” program, I had the privilege to teach children about our amazing universe. The first-grade students had an astronomical time making craters. We became crater makers!

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Another highlight of the class was imagining what could have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.  As we experimented by dropping objects from varying heights, we wondered, “Could an asteroid crashing to earth been the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs?”

Of course, you can’t discuss the moon without talking about eclipses. Using a flashlight, globe and tennis ball, we acted out a solar and lunar eclipses.  The students then had the opportunity to demonstrate the ordinary cycles of the earth spinning to make a day, the moon orbiting earth to make a month and the earth orbiting the sun to make a year.  For some students, the idea of orbiting was a new concept.  As they realized they were standing on a moving planet, they exclaimed, “Wow, we are actually spinning right now!  Why aren’t we dizzy?”  I love when students’ curiosity is sparked and they make connections.

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Our final experiment involved touching a “cloud.”  As we discussed how clouds can block the moon’s light, the students got to touch the vapor produced from a cloud maker.  They were surprised that the cloud felt less like cotton and more like cool, wet air.  How often do you get to touch a cloud in school!?! The children were thrilled to go home and tell their families they had touched a real cloud.

One of the best parts about being a scientist is watching students’ excitement as they learn new facts about our universe.  When students make comments like, “I never knew science was so much fun. This is the best day ever. I never want this class to end,” I know that I have accomplished my goal.

The first time I step into a classroom, the kids see as simply a woman wearing a funny, white coat.  By the time class is over, I am Asteroid Amber, the scientist.  With smiling faces, the students give me hugs, high-fives and ask me to come back soon.  Why?  Because when science is fun, students learn. And, they wonder where the next adventure will take them.