Essential baking thermodynamics: 4 heat reactions to know

EEliza September 20, 2023 9:51 PM

Ever wondered why your cookies come out of the oven soft and gooey, or why your bread rises beautifully? The secret is in the science of baking – specifically, baking thermodynamics. Thermodynamics, or the study of heat and its relation to energy, plays an integral role in the baking process.

When you place your dough or batter in the oven, several heat reactions take place, transforming your mixture into a delicious baked good. Let's explore four of these essential baking heat reactions.

Maillard Reaction

One of the most renowned heat reactions in baking is the Maillard Reaction. Named after the French chemist who first studied it, this reaction occurs when the proteins and sugars in your food are exposed to heat. It results in browning and produces unique flavors and aromas. The Maillard Reaction is responsible for the crust on your bread and the golden brown color on your cookies and cakes.


Caramelization is another common heat reaction. Unlike the Maillard Reaction, which involves both proteins and sugars, caramelization is an all-sugar reaction. When exposed to heat, the sugar molecules break down and reassemble into compounds that have a characteristic sweet, nutty flavor and a brown color. This reaction is what gives desserts like creme brulee its signature caramel top.


Gelatinization occurs when starch granules absorb water and swell, thickening the batter or dough. This reaction is crucial for the structure of baked goods. For example, in a cake, gelatinization helps set the structure as the batter heats, creating a crumbly texture.


Last but not least, there's coagulation. This heat reaction involves proteins, which denature, or unwind, when exposed to heat, and then coagulate, or bond together, as they cool. This reaction is essential for setting the structure of many baked goods, much like gelatinization.

Here’s a table for quick reference:

Heat Reaction Ingredients Involved Result
Maillard Reaction Proteins and Sugars Browning and flavor development
Caramelization Sugars Sweet, nutty flavor and browning
Gelatinization Starches Thickening and structure setting
Coagulation Proteins Structure setting

Understanding these heat reactions can significantly improve your baking. By knowing what's happening at a molecular level when you bake, you can predict and control the outcome more effectively.

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