The Chemistry of Baking

Those that follow my ramblings already know about my passion for baking.

I love everything about bread: the flavour of a sourdough, the smell of a fresh baked cinnamon loaf, the sound of a cracking baguette crust…

What I also love about baking is the science behind it. Baking is based on carefully balanced formulas: the right amount of flour and yeast for an even rise, the exact proportion of water and flour for the perfect moisture, the correct order of ingredients for a smooth batter.

A slice of multigrain​ sourdough
Multigrain sourdough from Cliffside Heart Bakery for breakfast.

Yesterday, for breakfast I had a multigrain sourdough slightly toasted with (tons of) butter and not so sweet raspberry jam. Heaven on a bread.

A delicious way to start the day.

And have you ever wondered why the crust of the bread is so flavourful?

The answer is the Maillard reaction.

The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between proteins and sugars that gives browned food its flavor.

It is named after French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first described it, at the turn of  the last century, while studying protein synthesis using high temperatures. Forty years later, another chemist, John E. Hodge, systematized the chemistry of browning reactions in food – expanding Maillard’s work.


8Hodge scheme
The Hodge scheme. From C.Davies

This complex web of reactions may seem daunting. Which it is! But the result is phenomenal.

You may not think of popcorn or roasted marshmallows when you look at these reactions, but that is the beauty of Science – from the more mundane to the more complex, Science accompanies us. Always.

This is the reason why your mother teaches you to use egg wash on you Sheppard’s pie or use milk to glaze your doughnuts. Both egg and milk provide additional protein and sugar for the browning stage – an essential step, not just for the appetizing look but also for that extra flavour. yummy


Remember: next time you drink your coffee and enjoy its roasted, sweet fragrance do not forget to toast to these two chemists – Maillard and Hodge, who pioneered in the comprehension of the mechanisms behind how we enjoy food.


Hungry for more?


Flour! Water! Salt! Yeast! and a flit-gun! That’s aaaaall you need to make your own French bread. My favourite: Julia Child.

How do you like to start your days? A cup of coffee and a toast like me or something more substantial?

I would love to hear your comments.

Cheers, Gisela


6 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Baking”

  1. I love baking bread! This weekend I made Montreal-style bagels. I don’t understand the chemistry of baking at all, but I can always taste if I’ve managed to achieve the correct “alchemy”. Thanks for the great post!


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