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Culinary Chemistry: A Different Kind of Cupcake


Though I like to consider myself a well-rounded person, there are few things I’m better at than science and eating. Nearly every morning of my sophomore year consisted of rushing into Mr. Bardwell’s first hour chemistry 1 class at 7:40, breakfast in hand. While eating in a room full of dangerous chemicals is generally strictly prohibited, it never stopped me! For the few of us who manage to find some degree of enjoyment in the subject of chemistry, you can imagine how happy I was to munch on a red velvet doughnut while balancing combustion reactions. For the vast majority of you who despise chemistry with a burning passion, rest assured I completely understand where you’re coming from. Chemistry can sometimes be a demanding, arduous and thankless activity that often feels like it has no relevant applications. But what if you could use it to bake a perfect chocolate cake or find out at what temperature to cook your food when at a higher altitude? How to use salt to make your pasta cook more quickly or even to gain a better understanding of why trans fats are bad for your health?

Although not everyone shares my passion for science, I think we can all agree that eating is a universal passion. Come back every Wednesday for more on the science of snacking.


A Different Kind of Cupcake

One of the first rules of the kitchen: baking is a science. Although it may not occur to you while eating a simple cupcake, baking is the science of taking substances that have little intrinsic value and combining them in the perfect ratio to create your favorite snack.

Baking soda, for example, is a bitter tasting white powder that typically isn’t eaten alone. But mix it with flour, sugar and butter and you have the basics for any cake or cookie. Take away the baking soda, however, and your cake is flat, dense and hard to bite into. This is because baking soda is a common leavening agent. Leavening – or rising –  agents incorporate very small bubbles throughout dough or batters to make them light and fluffy. Chemical leaveners, like baking soda, usually produce small bubbles of carbon dioxide when they come into contact with low molecular weight organic acids.

Such is the case when sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) reacts with lactic acid (present in milk), demonstrated below:

NaHCO3(aq) + C3H6O3(aq) → NaC3H5O3(aq) + H2O(l) + CO2(g)

Baking soda is often added in such a seemingly nominal amount, it’s easy to forget how important is it. If you need a reminder, think back to your 5th grade science fair with the vinegar and baking soda volcano. This represents the essential concept of baking soda’s reaction with an acid to produce CO2, albeit on a much larger scale.

My recipe today deals with this concept in a way that is both edible and super easy. While this reaction occurs in cakes of all shapes and sizes, I chose to do a small “cupcake” so to avoid consuming an exorbitant number of calories. This, however, it isn’t your typical cupcake.

For the sake of ease and speediness, I decided to experiment with microwave cakes which I have now found to be the most underrated cakes of all time. Not only do they taste indistinguishable from regular oven-cake, they take roughly 5 minutes to throw together and a mere 2 minutes to cook. Plus, they make it possible to make a small amount of cake when the craving hits rather than making a whole cake.

If we recall our electromagnetic spectrum song, microwaves are wedged between radio waves and infrared radiation. This means that the food we heat up in microwaves is heated by radiation similar to the radiation from the sun. Microwave ovens work by generating waves of radiation with frequencies ranging between 300 MHz to 300 GHz, depending on the appliance. These waves bounce around inside the metal box and eventually pass through the molecules in the food causing the molecules to vibrate quicker. As the vibration, or average kinetic energy, of the food increases so does its temperature. Thus, a cake can cook much more quickly in a microwave than it could in a conventional oven.


Part I – Materials                       

– ¼ cup of flour

– 1 ½ tablespoon granulated sugar

– ¼ teaspoon baking soda

– ⅛ teaspoon salt

– ¼ cup of milk

– 2 teaspoon vanilla extract

– 2 tablespoon butter


Part II – Procedure

  1. In a medium bowl, mix dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, baking soda)
  2. In a measuring cup, mix wet ingredients (milk, vanilla extract)

*NOTE: when measuring milk, or any liquids ever, always be sure to read to the bottom of the meniscus by making sure you’re at eye level with the mark

  1. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients followed by the melted butter and stir until smooth
  2. When the batter is smooth, pour into a medium sized microwave-safe mug
  3. Put the mug in the microwave for two minutes. Because microwave powers vary, watch it closely to make sure it does not overcook. When done, the cake should still look moist in the middle and be peeling slightly away from the sides of the mug. If necessary, the cake can be cooked in additional 15 second increments while checking to see if it is done.
  4. Add toppings and enjoy!

I chose some berries because we had them in the house and they make a really tasty complement to the vanilla. Other options include nutella, peanut butter or chocolate chips.


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