Program 24: Baking is science…and we made the pancakes to prove it!

In October’s SEC, Prosser’s young scientists discovered (and showed) that baking is also another form of science!

Before we started in on our recipe and baking tasks, we had a brief discussion about some of the ingredients we would be working with. In particular, we talked about the difference between baking powder and baking soda, and what both items can do for a baked item. Using inspiration from the Steam Powered Family blog, I set up two pairs of test tubes in front of our room. There were two test tubes with baking soda (BS), and two test tubes with baking powder (BP). First, we tested to see if there would be any reaction if I simply added standard tap water to the BS and BP. We all noticed that there was no reaction at all with the BS, but there was a reaction – some minor fizzing – when we added water to the BP.  Then we added some lemon juice to both BS and BP. With the lemon juice, an acid, we saw dramatic reactions in both test tubes. Why did some liquids affect our ingredients and the other did not?

  • Baking soda is actually a pure “base” material. In order for a base to have a reaction, it must come in contact with an “acid.” Thus, when we added water to the BS, there was no reaction. However, when we added the lemon juice (an acid), we saw some immediate fizzing.
  • Baking powder is a little more complicated. It actually contains components of both “bases” AND “acids” (with some corn starch in the mix to hold everything together). When we added water, we saw some minor fizzing because the water allowed the acid and base components already present inside the baking powder to combine and react to each other. When we added the lemon juice, we saw an even greater reaction because even more of the base components were combining with acid components.

With that small introduction to some of our ingredients under our belts, I introduced the scientists to our recipe for the day, obtained from Scientific American online (“The Scientific Secret of Fluffy Pancakes”). The recipe and instructions (originally obtained from are as follows:


Recipe makes about 12 small pancakes, enough for four to six people.

• One tablespoon (tbsp) lemon juice (I used lemon juice from a jar)
• Two cups of milk
• Two cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
• Two tbsp granulated sugar
• Two teaspoons (tsp) baking powder
• One-half tsp baking soda
• One-half tsp salt
• One large egg
• Three tbsp butter, melted and cooled slightly
• Two tsp vegetable or canola oil
• Large mixing bowl
• Small mixing bowls
• Rubber spatula
• Griddle or 12-inch nonstick skillet
• Wire whisk
• Measuring spoons and measuring cups


  1. Whisk lemon juice and milk in a small bowl and set aside to thicken while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Whisk together dry ingredients – flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt – in the medium bowl and set aside.
  3. Whisk egg and melted butter into milk until combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour in milk mixture and whisk very gently until just combined. Some lumps of flour should remain in the batter; you may see streaks of flour, too. (Do not mix until smooth.)
  4. Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat for three to five minutes.
  5. Add one teaspoon of oil to the skillet or griddle and coat the bottom evenly. Use a measuring cup to scoop batter. Cook the pancakes until large bubbles begin to appear. Using a thin, wide spatula, flip pancakes and cook until golden brown on second side.
  6. Make sure to turn off the burner completely when you are finished cooking.

I divided our scientists into three groups, sitting at three different tables. Each table made the same base pancake recipe, with a few exceptions:

  • GROUP #1 made our base sample – the basic recipe with the ingredients just combined (lumps and streaks of flour okay).
  • GROUP #2 made the basic recipe but aggressively mixed the batter for several minutes, making sure that there were no lumps, etc. left in the batter.
  • GROUP #3 made the basic recipe. HOWEVER, they actually doubled the amount of baking powder and baking soda in the mix.

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When the three batters were ready, my teen volunteer and I fired up two table-top griddles. We started by cooking pancakes from the batter made by groups 1 and 2.  We placed sample pancakes on paper plates so we could compare. Right away, we all noticed a difference in how the batter poured into the griddles. The over-mixed batter was looser and spread more in the pan, ultimately making wider and thinner/flatter pancakes. When we cooked the batter from group 3, we noticed that the extra baking powder and baking soda made for fluffier pancakes as soon as the batter was poured onto the griddle. All batters created yummy edible pancakes 🙂

Parents were happy to help and even brought donations of pure maple syrup to add to the pancakes (and I added some mini-chocolate chips to the mix). All scientists had 2-3 pancakes as a treat before the conclusion of the program.