The Experimental Cookie: Teaching Kids Science Through Baking

If you spend any time around cooks, you might hear some version of this comment: “Cooking is an art. But baking… ooh, that’s science.”

What people mean, usually, is that baking requires precision and relies on chemistry. Neglect kneading your bread dough, and you’ll forego the development of the protein strands that give bread structure; forget the acidic buttermilk in your pancakes, and you’ll miss out on the release of carbon dioxide that gives them a fluffy lift.

When we bake, we rely on these processes mostly without knowing that we’re doing so. Recipes lead us through managing those crucial chemical reactions largely without bothering to explain what is happening or why. But what if you wanted to change a recipe?

Picture of a cookie recipe

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire

Science writer Bethany Brookshire, PhD faced that conundrum last summer. She was already an avid baker, and she wanted to adapt a recipe to make her favorite cookies palatable to a gluten-avoiding friend. To do that, she planned to do what every baker does: Tinker with the recipe, make test batches, figure out what didn’t work, and try again.

Photograph of Bethany Brookshire

Photograph of Bethany Brookshire

That is the process, not just of testing a recipe, but of performing any science experiment: ask a question, change a variable, test the results, write it down, do it again. Brookshire, who also tweets under the name @scicurious, happens to write for a science-education site aimed at kids, Eureka Lab (sponsored by the Society for Science and the Public). Here, she realized, was a chance to take her readers through the experience of doing science, using something they are likely to love.

“I wanted to demonstrate to students that science experiments don’t have to be tough, expensive things in labs,” she told me. “Science is a process, a way of looking at the world, asking questions and finding answers. You can do that with a little flour, sugar, a few eggs and an oven.”

Picture of cookie ingredients

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire

And thus Cookie Science was born. In a series of posts that debuted last August, came to a stopping point in December and will resume this year, Brookshire performed all the steps of a lab experiment, with cookies. After reading up on gluten-free cooking and comparing recipes, she formed a hypothesis: “Substituting gluten-free flour alone will not make a cookie comparable to my original recipe.” She explained how following a recipe is like keeping a lab notebook. She discussed the ethics of recruiting tasters and decided how to conceal which trial cookie was normal versus experimental (by color-coding the dough). She determined how many testers she needed, collected data on their reactions, explained the math needed to assess them, and derived and analyzed her results.

Picture of baking cookies

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire

Her conclusion, supported by her testers’ reactions: No, gluten-free flour is not enough. To make a tasty cookie, more recipe changes are needed. Which, she quickly explained, is not a disappointment: It’s a chance to design Cookie Experiment No. 2.

“It will look at the effects of an additive to improve the texture of my gluten-free cookies,” she said. “We’ll examine dose-response curves, look at measures of cookie spread, and show the final results in the next few posts! I’ll also be doing posts on the limitations of my experiment, and things I would change if I were to conduct the experiments again. Finally, I will go through how you might write up this experiment for a presentation, at a science fair or at a conference.”

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire

The original goal, of finding a cookie her friend can eat, remains: If the second experiment produces a more palatable result, her friend will get a box to rate and discuss. But the larger goal, of teaching kids the process of science through something that keeps their attention, remains. And may be expanded: People have commented at the blog that they want to replicate the experiment, and Brookshire hopes that teachers may be inspired to perform it with their classes as well.

“This series isn’t just about cookies. Ideally, a student could read the series of posts, and think ‘Hey, I could do that with steak cooked at different temperatures, or plants grown in different kinds of soil,’” she told me. “The overall goal of my blog is to inspire students in science, to learn more about it, and to try scientific experiments on their own. The cookies are a delicious roadmap.”

Learn more about the science of baking at Cookie Science.

Picture of finished cookies

Photograph by Bethany Brookshire