A slight hiatus from our normal Wednesday Good Food Reads, which I promise will be back next week.
Recently my 14-year-old daughter came to me about a science project she was going to do for her 8th grade science class. She had chosen to look at basic substitutions you could use while baking, as she is an avid baker. In fact I buy her a baking oriented cookbook every year for Christmas. (Clearly I’m winning at parenting as I’m definitely reaping those rewards!).
She worked diligently on this project one fall afternoon at the cabin. There was a lot of measuring, weighing, and even testing of resistance (it’s good to have a dad who is an electrical engineer and loves to teach scientific principle!). I had promised she could post her results on the blog when she had them written up, and now I am going to deliver. My only other contribution was to buy four different colored cupcake liners so we wouldn’t confuse the four groups. Read on for my daughter’s science project in her own words. Baking Substitutions: A Fun Science Project is below. Proud mom moment…hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Baking Substitutions: A Science Project
As much as we all try to have the right ingredients on hand for whatever treat we’re craving at the moment, sometimes that just doesn’t happen. Or maybe we want a slightly healthier option to trick ourselves out of some of the guilt, or just a new and different flavor. I don’t know about you, but I’m always hesitant to interchange ingredients in baked goods. I have this fear of messing with the science behind why it works, and ending up with something inedible. So, when given the somewhat vague assignment to “conduct a controlled experiment” for my science class, I decided to test it.
I chose to make four different batches of the same simple cupcake recipe from The New Best Recipe by America’s Test Kitchen. One batch follows the recipe exactly, another uses whole wheat flour instead of all purpose flour, the third one uses a banana instead of the eggs, and the last uses honey instead of sugar. Seeing as “because it tastes good” and “but it looks weird” aren’t scientific answers, I tested all four batches on height, density, and moisture.
I of course start by making a total mess of the kitchen.
The Original Cupcake
About as simple as you can get, it’s just a plain old vanilla cupcake with no variations or surprises. It was made for the sole purpose of having something to compare the others to, and everything about this is what is considered ‘normal’ (i.e. the control).
The Whole Wheat Cupcake
We’ve all tried to lessen the guilt attached to eating baked goods by substituting whole wheat flour, but does it also have to lessen how much we are able to enjoy it? Not necessarily! I substituted 3/4 cup white whole wheat flour for the 1 cup all purpose flour the recipe called for, and they actually tasted a lot better than expected. They were a little drier and more dense than the original recipe, but the still turned out just fine. They took on something like a cornbread flavor, and if you like cornbread (which I do), this can be an even better substitution.
The Banana Cupcake
This one seemed like a stretch while planning, I’ll admit it. This batch involves completely nixing the two whole eggs and two additional egg yolks that are in the original recipe, and just dumping in one mashed banana in their place. But according to my research, both bananas and eggs provide a similar thick moisture and will bind the rest of the ingredients together. And hey, it works in banana bread, right?
The answer: yes, it does work. The banana cupcakes had a similar density to the original recipe, but they did not rise as much and contained a lot more moisture. They did, however, end up tasting very strongly of banana. I like banana, so I thought they were delicious, but I wouldn’t try it if you aren’t a fan of the fruit.
The Honey Cupcake
Going into my experiment, I would say that I had the most doubts about this one. I couldn’t see how substituting a cup of honey for a cup of sugar could produce the same results. Although they are both sweeteners, sugar and honey didn’t seem to have much else in common. But sugar serves two basic purposes in cupcakes: to sweeten and to provide moisture, which honey can do just as well. Considering the fact that honey is a liquid, it obviously added a lot more moisture to the cupcakes. They also turned out to be the most dense and the ones that rose the most out of the four batches I made. The honey did make a pretty noticeable difference in flavor, though, and I’m not sure it was my favorite. But in a pinch and with your favorite frosting on top, honey cupcakes would still work just fine.
By the end of my long day of baking and measuring cupcake after cupcake, I had realized that my hesitation towards changing even minor ingredients while baking was completely irrational. I tried substituting three key ingredients including flour, eggs, and sugar, and all three of the altered batches were still worth eating. The final answer to my question of whether you can change ingredients in cupcakes and still get good results is a definite yes. So don’t be afraid to try something new or crazy or different, even if it is within the more touchy and delicate side of baking. Be prepared for a difference in texture and taste, but otherwise just go for it.