experiential science: the chemistry of cooking

For whatever reason, for the past six months my kids have been utterly intrigued by baking.  Not only do they want to help bake, but they want to create their own recipes, as well.  Of course, their recipes always generate wet, gloppy, unappetizing messes.  So when I asked what they’d like to learn about, I was not especially surprised to hear “how to make a recipe” as a top choice.

While we could have merely gone the direction of baking lots of things and memorizing the types and proportions of ingredients, I thought I’d take a more scientific angle and come at the topic from the perspective of chemistry.  Because it’s alliterative, I liked calling this study The Chemistry of Cooking.

chemistryWe began at the very beginning, which has always been a notoriously good place to start.  In chemistry, the rational beginning place was the Periodic Table.  From Ellen McHenry’s The Elements, we learned about the elements, how they were discovered, how they are arranged on the Table, and what different element types are like.  Thrown in with this were some fun activities to help us learn the abbreviations for common elements, among other topics.

While we were learning about the Periodic Table, we thought it would be fun to memorize it.  This YouTube video from AsapSCIENCE helped us learn all of the elements in order–with the added benefit of including informational tidbits about the uses of many more common elements.  (We can sing the whole thing except a section at the very end–from Berkelium to Copernicium is so fast we haven’t yet managed to keep up without mumbling!)

If you want do dig deeper into studying the Periodic Table and the elements, consider The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin D. Wiker, which provides a more in-depth history of the development of the Periodic Table related in a conversational tone.  In addition–especially for kids old enough to understand the humor–Basher Science The Complete Periodic Table personifies each element to make it more memorable.  I put both of these aside until later, deciding that my kids would get more out of them in a few years.

chemistry2With a little bit of basic chemical understanding under our belts, we were ready to delve into the world of cooking.  For this portion of our endeavor, we used Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat from National Geographic Kids, the American Chemical Society’s free Get Cooking with Chemistry PDF online, and  the downloadable manual for the Thames and Kosmos Candy Chemistry kit.  (We used our own supplies and thus didn’t need to buy the kit, but if you don’t have candy-making supplies, the kit may be handy.)  The kids loved making ricotta cheese, fizzy orange juice, ice cream, and various candies, among other things.  And with a newfound understanding of chemistry, much of what was happening made sense to them.

For older kids, Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Science of Cooking by Simon Quellen Field or What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke were recommended to me (the second one several times).  I looked them over but decided to hold those until we come back for a second round of chemistry in some future year.

Now that we’ve wrapped up our chemistry unit, we need to figure out what we’re going to study next!


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