Brooklyn’s Test Kitchen

April 8, 2009 at 6:00 am (cooking, dessert, food, recipes, science)

Here’s some of what I’ve been up to.  I baked up some cupcakes for the class I’m teaching.  The idea was to explore acids and bases in baking, and baking soda and baking powder as well.

The textbook explanations:  Baking soda is basic and requires an acid somewhere else in the recipe to create the reaction that generates CO2.  Baking powder has both the acid and base together.

There were 4 different recipes for the cupcakes, all modified from the All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake from the Cake Bible (R.L. Beranbaum).  All four versions of the cupcakes had these ingredients:

  • unsalted butter
  • sugar
  • egg yolks
  • vanilla
  • cake flour
  • salt

And then I varied whether I used baking soda or baking powder and whether I used buttermilk (acidic) or milk (less acidic).  And then I baked up 12 cupcakes for each combination.

Cupcake A – milk, baking powder
These smelled like vanilla and butter.  The bottom is considerably darker than sides.  The crumb was fluffy, but a little dry.  The top is pretty wide and flat.  Flavor is sweet.  Top was crispy.  A few students liked this one the best.
Cupcake B – milk, baking soda
These smelled like vanilla, but not very buttery.  The color is a darker yellow towards the bottom.  The crumb is tight and non-uniform (worm holes).  The top is has a hump and the top’s texture is not as crispy as A.  The flavor was not as sweet as A, and there was a bitter aftertaste.  This was more moist than A and C, but not as moist as D.  One student said that this was her favorite.
Cupcake  C – buttermilk, baking powder
These smelled like villa and butter.  The bottom is a little darker than the sides.  The crumb is fluffy and uniform, and maybe slightly more tender than A.  Top is flat.  Slightly citrusy aftertaste.  The texture is a little dry.  The top crust is crispy.  Most students found this to be their favorite.
Cupcake D – buttermilk, baking soda
The smell had vanilla and butter.  The color is a darker yellow than A or C, with the bottom slightly darker than the sides.  The texture is tender and moist.  Top is high and rounded.  There was a slight tingly feeling that was left on my tongue.  The crust was not as crispy as A or C.
Cupcake A Cupcake B Cupcake C Cupcake D
Diameter, bottom of cupcake (cm) 5.1 4.9 5.0 5.3
Diameter, top of paper (cm) 6.8 6.6 6.9 6.6


I’ll make it short so that the post doesn’t get too long.  And it’s not peer reviewed either.

I did my best to control for everything except for the variables that I was interested in (mixing order and time, baking time, etc), but I only had one oven and one kitchen and a limited amount of time, so I let a few things slide.  I was concerned that the color of the paper cups might affect the outcome, so I used a strategy somewhat inspired by bioinformatics and randomized the color of the cups.  I was also thinking about small molecule docking screens and how you can rank the hits and compare the ranks.  So I was thinking about how you could rank all the cupcakes of the same type and compare cupcakes at the same rank.  I didn’t do that.  And I didn’t do a number of other things that would have made this a better experiment, but would have also driven me insane.

The differences between the cupcakes were way more complex than what I was expecting.  And more complex than what is reported by people talking about food science.  Buttermilk seemed to make things more moist (acid is supposed to prevent gluten development) and baking powder made things more fluffy.  But it’s not this simple.  All of the cupcakes rose – something was acting with the baking soda, even though there wasn’t anything very acidic in the batter.  I probably should have made one without any chemical leavening, but remember my comments about insanity.  The shapes and colors and flavors were quite different and I don’t know how to explain that.  I think that using double acting baking powder complicated things as well.

I’ll leave it up to you guys to do more interpreting and further investigations to resolve the issues that come up with this one.  Let me know how it goes!

I’m not sure I understand cupcakes better, but this was a good lesson about the scientific process for my class, I think.  And cupcakes are always yummy and fun, even if some are yummier than others.


Not for this report, but I thought this was an interesting link about food myths.



  1. Simona said,

    A very interesting experiment. From the photos, it looks like baking soda made the top rounder than baking powder. Was the fat content of milk and buttermilk the same?

  2. babblingblueberry said,

    Good point – I didn’t check the fat content of the milk and buttermilk. I used whole milk.

  3. Jill said,

    This is awesome. Thanks for posting this, Ranyee!!

  4. anhtuan said,

    Reading this post made me very happy. I LOL’d at the randomized cup coloring.

    The problem with intragroup ordering followed by same-rank intergroup testing is that you’d have a minimum of 2 bites out of every cupcake you made. Not sure how that would affect your testers’ ratings.

    If you could choose a way to insanity, wouldn’t this be the best ways to go? I mean seriously. How awesome are cupcake experiments? That’s a rhetorical question. (BEYOND AWESOME)

    • babblingblueberry said,

      That is a good point about this being a good way to become insane. My only additional question is whether the increased insanity would decrease the enjoyment of cupcakes.

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