Chemistry in the Kitchen

By Carlyn Main
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Many of the chemistry set stores in our lineup sell kitchen chemistry sets, or sets that use household chemicals for some or all of the experiments. These kits are great for two reasons: first, they reveal the everyday use of chemistry in the kitchen; second, they are a safer alternative to a traditional chemistry set with caustic or dangerous chemicals.

Most confident cooks don’t use recipes; they just add in a dash of this and a smidge of that, and it always comes out great. But in baking, you’re dealing more with chemical reactions than simply ratios of flavors. When you’re making a cake, for example, using the correct amount of leavener is essential. A leavener is an agent like baking soda, baking powder or yeast, which reacts with other ingredients and heat to create gasses, in turn making things “rise.” The wrong ratio of leavener can cause your baked goods to rise too much or too little, which affects the texture of the finished product. Using an incorrect ratio of ingredients can also greatly affect the flavor of your finished baked goods. For example, if a recipe uses baking soda and vinegar as a leavener and you use too much vinegar for the amount of baking soda, then only part of the vinegar will be used up in the chemical reaction and the finished recipe might have a residual vinegar flavor.

The experiments in kitchen chemistry sets go beyond ratio of ingredients, incorporating acid/base reactions (like baking soda and vinegar), the effects of heat, states of matter, crystal formation and other principles. One common experiment is making rock candy, which is simply a colored crystal formed from sugar molecules crystallizing out of a supersaturated sugar solution. This effect is achieved by dissolving sugar in warm water until the solution is saturated (meaning no more sugar can dissolve). As the mixture cools, a single crystal causes a chain reaction that transforms the entire solution into solid crystals.

Taking the sugar experiment a step further, you can introduce heat. As sugar is heated, it liquefies and the water begins to evaporate. As more and more of the water evaporates from the melted sugar, the sugar molecules begin to burn, creating the base for a caramel. The caramel we eat is formed by burning sugar and then adding fats like butter and/or cream. If the sugar is too burnt, it tastes bitter and if it’s not burnt enough, the caramel tastes watery. A candy thermometer is a must even for professional pastry chefs who make caramel every day, because it is so crucial that the sugar is heated to the proper temperature.

Kitchen chemistry sets include many experiments that fall outside of everyday kitchen applications like cooking. Many of the tests use common kitchen chemicals and tools to demonstrate general scientific principles that are not typically used in cooking. For example, most kitchen chemistry sets include an experiment in making slime from borax, white glue, water and food coloring. This experiment deals with polymers, which are long molecules with repeating structures formed in an instantaneous reaction. Rubber is a polymer, as is nylon. Nylon is formed by pouring together two chemicals (diaminohexane and hexanedioxyl dichloride). As the two chemicals meet, a polymer starts to form and can be grabbed with tweezers or a similar instrument. The nylon forms in one long strand as it is pulled from the mixture.

Delving into chemistry in the kitchen can be a great way to spark your child’s interested in science learning at school. And indeed, anyone who aspires to make delicious cakes and cookies must learn a bit about chemistry.

If you’d like to try a kitchen chemistry set in your home, check out our lineup of the best chemistry set stores, many of which sell these kits. For a list of our favorite general sets, check out our site on the top ten chemistry sets.

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