As the weather cools down, you may want to start warming up your kitchen with sweet treats made as a family. Getting children started in the kitchen early teaches responsibility and an important life skill, but did you know it can also reinforce many real-world STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts? From adding fractions when measuring and making ingredients change states to witnessing chemical reactions and concocting your own solutions, spending time baking together is a delicious way to practice hands-on learning this autumn!
Get Creative as You Set Up
Every master chef needs a space to perfect their recipes and explore new seasonal flavors. It is important to keep your space tidy and organized as you get your ingredients prepped and measured. Remember, most recipes call for exact ingredients to make the dish taste its best — adding a tablespoon of salt if the instructions only call for a pinch could produce a less-than-sweet surprise!
Along with preparing your tools and ingredients, you also may want to consider protecting your outfit. This STEM activity guides you through the process of creating your own unique apron to keep you clean while you cook. As you use this time to prepare for your next kitchen adventure, brainstorm new ideas to upgrade some of your favorite fall foods and then start experimenting!
Uncover Chemistry With Caramel
Whether you add it to popcorn, apples, brownies or pies, caramel is a prominent component of many seasonal treats. There are several ways to make the gooey, sweet topping and even more ways to enjoy it! Even better, the various ways of creating the sauce provide unique opportunities to discuss STEM concepts. Try the below two methods to experience science in action. Then, use your finished creations to top your favorite fall dessert!
Caramelization occurs when sugar is introduced to heat. After the sugar melts, it will begin to turn darker in color. The original compounds break down and new compounds are released, changing the flavor. While this method is the base for some caramel sauces, it is also the reason why crème brûlée has a hard, crunchy top and why caramelizing onions draws out their natural sugars and gives them a sweeter taste. To make caramel this way, mix sugar and water, heat to the directed temperature and watch for it to turn the desired shade of brown. Then, turn the heat to low while you add butter and cream.
Another way to make caramel sauce is to use the Maillard reaction, named after French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. This reaction describes the browning that occurs when protein-rich foods are heated to a certain temperature. This is the same reaction that causes meat to brown as it cooks. The reaction occurs when sugars and amino acids in the food are rearranged. To make caramel this way, combine corn syrup, sugar and a protein, such as milk, before heating. Warm it to a lower temperature than caramelized sugar and add butter as the mixture cools down.
Experiment to Make the Ideal Cookie
If you prefer cookies over caramels, check out the American Chemical Society’s video on how to combine cookies with science! Baking often involves chemistry. How the individual components are treated and combined will lead to reactions that give us the sweets we know and love. Changing quantities, applying heat or altering ingredients will often result in different cookie features.
There are many ways to enjoy a cookie — chewy, crunchy, dense, fluffy, extra sweet and so many other characteristics shape our individual preferences for cookies. With so many options, you can experiment with the recipe, ingredients and cooking temperatures to achieve your version of the “best” cookie. As you tweak your recipe to get a new cookie, try setting up a hypothesis (or prediction) for how your change will impact the final product. Be warned, a proper experiment should be repeated multiple times to come to a definitive conclusion — so make sure you have plenty of friends and family who will share in the product of your hard work, and volunteer as your official cookie taste testers this fall!
For other awesome ideas on how you can bring STEM learning to life for your family this season, we encourage you to check out our blog.