It’s All In the Chemistry

I have a confession: I have never taken a chemistry class. Never balanced chemistry equations, never made things explode under the watchful eye of an instructor, and haven’t memorized chemical formulas for much beyond water. I can’t say it’s something I regret, exactly, because I never really have cause to use the kind of chemistry that is practiced in, say, high school classrooms, and I’ve picked up most of what I need to know along the way through life.

One of the places where I’ve picked up a lot of chemistry knowledge is one where people might not expect it: Cooking, especially baking. Baking is all about chemistry, and involves a fairly subtle understanding of chemical reactions if you want things to turn out right. Working with leavening requires understanding what is going on with things like yeast, baking soda, and baking powder, and knowing how to use them appropriately in baked goods so you don’t end up with cookies like hockey pucks and bread like bricks, or cakes with strange textures that simply can’t be salvaged no matter what kind of frosting you come up with.

Chemistry explains the magic behind flaky pie crust, which isn’t so magical after all when you understand what is going on with the butter and flour and water in the crust, why overworking it releases gluten which makes it chewy and tough, and working it lightly ensures that the butter doesn’t melt, and the crust instead forms fine layers of flour suspended in butter. Chemistry also explains why some recipes require baking powder, others baking soda, and some both. It explains the unique balance of ingredients in so many baked goods, and helps you figure out exactly how far you can push a recipe before it will snap back at you.

I am not, by any means, a master chemist. But I do understand how chemistry affects baking, and so do other people who do a lot of baking, even if they aren’t consciously aware that their knowledge is of chemistry, rather than something else. Which means that women, often tasked with household baking, have been practicing chemistry for a very long time—since bread is one of the most ancient foods ever and it’s been leavened for quite a while, chemistry is very much women’s work[1. Some might also argue that beer is another example of chemistry and it’s also an ancient food. This is true. However, women were usually in charge of making beer. So.]. This makes the exclusion of women from science all the more bizarre, since I’ll hazard a guess that people who think women don’t belong in the sciences probably can’t make a loaf of bread worth a damn. Let alone brew a nice ale.

I love the chemistry of baking. When I was a child, my father used to let me experiment with sweets, and I often turned out total disasters and didn’t understand why. I didn’t get why cookies were sometimes chewy and perfect, and other times hard, and other times weird and gooey. One of my father’s girlfriends encouraged my baking experiments, and she was the one who pulled out The Joy of Cooking one day and suggested I read over the ‘know your ingredients’ section to learn more about baking. The charitable among us might say that she wanted to encourage my nascent interest in chemistry in the hopes that I’d develop into a scientist. Others might believe that she was tired of being triumphantly presented with inedible baked goods of mysterious origin and wanted to save herself from a repeat of the gingersnap episode.

Either way, she set off a life-long passion. Reading ‘know your ingredients,’ I realised that baking actually wasn’t magic at all, that it was science, and there was an order and logic to it. A set of rules. If I learned those rules and followed them, I would be less likely to make mistakes; and when I made mistakes, I could figure out why they happened the way they happened, and how to avoid them in the future. As I learned, I could push the envelope more and play with more complex and interesting recipes, as long as I stayed true to the basic rules of chemistry.

As it turned out, obviously I did not become a scientist, and in fact took very few advanced science courses, much to my regret. But one thing I can do is bake a loaf of bread, explain the difference between baking soda and baking powder, and tell people why baked goods aren’t turning out the way they’re supposed to. That particular corner of chemistry is no mystery to me, and it’s one I am very comfortable navigating.

Cooking and baking are very gendered work, and I understand why people don’t want to push girls and young women into being in the kitchen. I don’t want to either. But I do think that if a young girl is interested in being in the kitchen, it could provide a great backdoor introduction to math and science; it could expand her world, make her think about what she wants to be when she grows up, and help parents avoid having to smile politely over baking disasters. I say it’s time to subvert baking, and remind people that it’s all about the chemistry, which means:

Chemistry is for girls.