Chemistry of Cupcakes

Chemistry of Cupcakes

Hopewell Valley Student Podcasting Network

Chemistry Connections

Cupcake Chemistry

Episode #18  

Welcome to Chemistry Connections, my name is Amelie Bass and I am your host for episode #18 called Cupcake Chemistry. Today I will be discussing how the ingredients of a cupcake form the magical dessert we all know and love.

Segment 1: Introduction to Cupcakes

Cupcakes: the delicious dessert baked for a celebration or eaten as a late-night snack. But like what goes into the cupcake to give it a moist and fluffy cake? 

I love baking a variety of treats but cupcakes are always a classic. 

Ok, let’s start with the key ingredients of any good cupcake:

  • Flour
  • Butter
  • Sugar
  • Eggs
  • Vanilla
  • Leaveners, like baking powder and baking soda
  • Dairy, like sour cream and milk
  • And of course a good frosting and decorations

In this episode we will be discussing the chemistry behind 2 of these ingredients, starting with….

Segment 2: The Chemistry Behind Baking Powder

Leaveners (like the thing that gives the cupcake a light fluffy texture) are probably the most important ingredient in a cupcake. It is used to help the cupcake rise, giving it a light and fluffy texture.

So what is a leavener, like what is the ingredient that is doing the rising. Baking soda and baking powder are what recipes will commonly call for. 

Now some will call for both of these leaveners. But wait, why is that, why do I need 2? Hold onto that idea later and we will come back to it later. Let’s first analyze what these two substances even are.

Baking soda

  • Sodium bicarbonate is a base, used to neutralize any acidic components (chocolate or citrus) in the batter
  • When the cupcakes are baked, the baking soda or NaHCO3 in the batter turns into sodium carbonate, water, and carbon dioxide
  • The carbon dioxide which is released in bubbles, causing the batter to rise.

Baking powder

  • A dry mixture that contains baking soda, acid salts, and cornstarch
  • The baking soda reacts with the acid salts in the powder only when the mixture is moistened
  • The cornstarch is a drying agent used to prevent the acid and baking soda reaction from occurring.

So now that we better understand the substances we are talking about, why would a recipe call for both baking soda and baking powder? 

In the reaction with baking soda (a base with a pH of 8.5) one of the products is sodium carbonate (an even stronger base with a pH of 11.5) This will cause the entire mixture to be too basic resulting in a bad cupcake.

That cupcake is not gonna sit well with whoever eats it.

So we use a larger amount of baking powder to do the heavy lifting, acting as the rising agent to give us our lovely fluffy cupcake, and then use a smaller amount of baking soda to neutralize any other acids in the batter. This is a good cupcake. 

Segment 3: The Chemistry Behind Flour

So, when you think of baking the first ingredient almost anyone will think of is flour. All-purpose flour for all my baking purposes, but is that the best type of flour? Wait, hold on. Did I just say “type of flour”, as in there are other types of flour? YES! Now don’t stress all-purpose flour is still good for almost anything you are trying to make, however, to achieve optimal results, there are other options for the type of flour you use. 

But what’s the difference? Isn’t all flour the same?

The differences between types of flour like: cake flour, all-purpose flour, bread flour ect… is the level of protein in the flour. 

Protein? Flour has protein? Yes it does, and it gives the cupcake (or whatever your baking) its texture. 

Flour is made from wheat which contains 2 types of protein: glutenin and gliadin. When water is added these 2 protein link together and form gluten. Gliadin gives it the abilitity to stretch and glutenin gives it the ability to snap back. 

The strength of gluten is what makes flour the structural component of cupcakes. Gluten is a string of amino acids, 35% of which being Glutamines. Glutamine forms numerous inter-chain hydrogen bonds with other amino acids. Individual, these bonds are weak, but in combination they are very strong, contributing to the high cohesiveness of gluten. Also, the numerous hydrophobic (meaning the repulsion of water) interactions result in strong cohesion in the batter.

Flours with a higher protein content, means its has more “gluten-forming potential”, therefore the flour is “stronger”. 

Soo, how does this relate to cupcakes? Cupcakes don’t stretch and snap. True. So the flour used to make cupcakes, Cake Flour: has a protein percentage of 10%. This is considered low-protein, giving the cupcake it’s soft texture.

The commonly used, all-purpose flour: has a protein percentage of 11.7% which sits in a comfortable middle level. This is usable and won’t result in a drastic change in texture, but the cake flour is better. 

Segment 4: Personal Connections

So there we have it, the chemistry of a cupcake. 

I love cupcakes.

I think my favorite flavor to make would be chocolate of strawberry. My favorite part of making cupcakes is piping decorations on top. Whether it’s a simple flower or more detailed decorations, I always have fun. 

The main reason I chose to do this topic was to have an excuse to bake cupcakes and I look forward to how they turn out.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Chemistry Connections.   For more student-ran podcasts and digital content, make sure that you visit


Music Credits

Warm Nights by @LakeyInspired 

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Today I will be discussing how the ingredients of a cupcake form the magical dessert we all know and love.

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