The Science of Pancakes

Stay curious when school is out with a hands-on and highly tasty science lesson. A chemical change is a usually irreversible chemical reaction resulting in the formation of at least one new substance, in this case: pancakes. Learn about the science and nutrition concepts behind making pancakes and take time to digest what you have learned.

Try this tasty scientific experiment at home this summer using Martha Stewart’s Easy Basic Pancake recipe.

What scientific concepts can we learn from breakfast food?

Pancake batter is composed of two crucial parts: dry ingredients (usually flour, sugar, baking powder and salt) and wet ingredients (usually milk, eggs and oil).

Gluten formation is the step that gives pancakes their texture. You may have already learned the hard way that too much mixing makes for tough pancakes. Leaving the batter barely mixed and still lumpy creates the ideal gluten formation for fluffy pancakes.

The leavening agent fills the gluten with air. Double acting baking powders contain baking soda with two powdered acids in the mix. When dry, the mixture is inert (not reactive). When you add a liquid, the baking soda and the first acid react to make carbon dioxide bubbles. When the mixture is heated, the second acid is activated and creates additional carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon dioxide bubbles trapped by the gluten mixture when your pancake solidifies creates fluffiness!

The Maillard Reaction is the step that gives pancakes their aroma, and that gorgeous golden brown color. When you raise the heat on your pancake mix, it causes a chemical reaction between amino acids in the proteins and the carbon and oxygen atoms from sugars. The end result is a complex mixture of molecules responsible for a range of aromas and flavors. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard Reaction.

Recommended pancake science resources

The scientific concepts behind your typical breakfast pancake is a popular topic for education websites.

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Lissa Staley helps people use the library. She is a Book Evangelist, Trivia Emcee, Classics Made Modern book discussion leader, NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison, and frequent library customer. She loves her kids, being a librarian, living in Topeka, and helping people form connections and community. (She's the Community Connections Librarian!) She reads a new book every few days, but is enjoying the audiobook of "Empress of Forever" by Max Gladstone, the ebook "When We Were Magic" by Sarah Gailey and is eagerly awaiting John Scalzi's "The Last Emperox" in April!