Inside: Your budding chemists will be delighted to try these cookie experiments. You’ll be delighted, too: our recipe uses only the healthiest ingredients, so your kids can learn some science while getting a healthy snack.
Chewy. Crispy. Crumbly. Sweet.
Cookies are awesome.
Your kids probably think that cookies are pretty magical already, and when you also share that cookies are a product of a series of chemical reactions, they will be even more impressed.
Often, when we think of cookies, we think of them as unhealthy junk food that is bad for us and bad for our kids. But with a few simple swaps, cookies can be a very healthy and nutritionally desirable snack.
The cookies I make with my kids are full of superfoods (coconut oil, almonds, honey), which means they’re bursting with nutrients that are good for our health and bypass the ingredients that you don’t want your child to have (sugars, gluten-laden flours, and saturated and trans fats). Add a cup of milk, and you’re feeding your kid’s growing brains and bodies with healthy fats, proteins, and carbs to keep them going and going like the energizer bunnies they are.
The Science of Cookies
While you bake cookies together, you can talk about many interesting scientific concepts: atoms (the building blocks of cookies and everything else around us), chemical and physical changes (when you beat sugar with butter, you observe a physical change, and when you heat the dough. you have an example of a chemical change), chemical reactions (processes that involve changes in the molecular structure of a substance as opposed to a change in a physical form), and scientific process skills. They’ll even learn the science of kitchen safety, leavening, and the Maillard reaction and caramelization.
Here are some scientific questions to ponder while making cookies to get your kids thinking like scientists:
- How do the ingredients feel as you mix them?
- When does the dough change from wet to dry?
- Why do the cookies change color as they bake to golden brown?
- Why does refrigerating the dough before baking prevents the shapes from spreading?
Experimenting with cookies is a lot of fun and fires up kids’ imaginations. My daughter recently tested this hypothesis: If you drop a snowman cookie on the floor, only its head will break off. I expected a cookie to break into a million little pieces, so I was surprised that she was right: only the head fell off. To set it up, we covered the floor with parchment paper to keep the floor clean (you can bet no crumbs were wasted during this experiment). This experiment was repeated over and over because, as my kids explained it to me, the more the experiment was replicated, the more accurate were the results. Anything for science!
Even a basic cookie-baking session can be set up as an experiment. Experimentation is how scientists test different variables in the hopes of gaining new knowledge. (We gained a lot of new knowledge by accidentally forgetting to add sugars to our cookie dough once). However, experimentation involves intentionality. You decide ahead of time which factor you’re going to change and keep all the other variables the same.
Cookies consist of six basic ingredients (there might be many tasty additions like chocolate chips or jam, but we are keeping things simple here). Varying any of the six ingredients can dramatically change results. For example, we can ask, Which sugar — honey, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup — would produce the best-looking cookies? Then we can bake three batches of cookies and evaluate the results. Or does changing the amount of baking soda in the recipe change the height of cookies?
What Makes a Cookie?
(+ Examples of Hypothesis)
Flour + Fat + Leavening + Eggs + Sugars + Salt = Cookie
Changing any of the variables in the above formula might bring dramatically different results. Let’s have a look at individual components.
Don’t forget to print a Hypothesis Worksheet. It will make things so much easier to understand. All our printables and unit studies are FREE. For ease of navigation, we keep them all in one place in our Library of Resources. To get the password, become Kid Minds member here.
Honey, table sugar, maple syrup, rice syrup—there are so many different sugars that can be used to make cookies. At 350F, sugars break down and caramelize. You know caramelization is happening when you begin to smell intoxicating aromas escaping from your oven. Caramelization is responsible for giving your cookies a golden color. Besides caramelization, sugars are also responsible for the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between sugars and amino acids. Transformations caused by the Maillard reaction include the attractive flavor and color in our cookies.
Possible experiment questions:
- How does the amount of honey in our experiment (⅓ cup, ¼ cup, ½ cup) change the taste of the cookies?
- Which sugar—honey, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup—will produce the best-looking cookies?
Hypothesis #1: If we add more honey to the recipe, it will taste sweeter.
Hypothesis #2: Substituting maple syrup for honey in our cookie recipe (below) will not make a cookie that is comparable to the original. (Warning: maple syrup is more liquid than honey! It means your result might be a wet mess. But it is still tasty, and in our case, we ate it all down to the last crumb).
Leaven comes from the Latin word levare, which means to lift. In this recipe, our leavening agent is baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate). When baking soda heats up, it causes a chemical reaction. But baking soda loses its effectiveness with time. When baking, try to use baking soda that is no more than 3 months old.
Hypothesis #1: Cookies baked with old baking soda will not rise as much as the cookies baked with fresh baking soda.
Hypothesis #2: A cookie recipe baked without baking soda will not look the same as the original cookie.
This includes any fatty ingredients like shortening, butter, and oil. However, not all oil and butter is created equal. That’s why the recipe usually indicates which kind exactly was used in this particular case. For example, if you decide to substitute canola oil in place of regular butter in a recipe, you would have to use ¾ of oil for each cup of butter.
Hypothesis: Substituting shortening for coconut oil in our cookie recipe will not have an effect on appearance.
Eggs perform many important functions. They solidify, emulsify, and leaven. As egg proteins heat, they unravel, realign, and give structure to the cookies. During creaming in a blender, eggs act as emulsifiers, helping fats and water-based liquids to mingle. The beating action also helps eggs to form air bubbles, which gives cookies an extra lift.
Possible experiment question:
- Does varying the number of eggs in our experiment (0, 1, and 2) change the taste of cookies? Note: don’t worry; you’re not going to waste food. The “failed” cookies are pretty edible, except for the zero eggs batch. We didn’t like that at all.
Hypothesis: Adding egg(s) improves the texture of cookies as evidenced by appearance, feel, and consistency.
In our recipe, salt is not just a flavor agent; it helps strengthen the dough.
Hypothesis: Skipping the salt in a cookie recipe will dramatically change the appearance of cookies.
Steam plays an important role too. It’s what happens when water reaches the boiling point of 100 C (or 212 F). At this temperature, water vaporizes and expands in volume, changing the look and feel of cookies.
What you need to make 12 cookies
¼ cup of coconut oil
¼ cup of honey
2 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 cup almond flour (not an almond meal, which is coarser)
⅓ cup coconut flour
¼ tsp baking soda
4 tsp salt
(if you want traditional-looking sugar cookies, mix confectioners’ sugar with a bit of water, but we’re going for the “healthy” approach here)
Blueberries + honey = red tint
Spinach + honey = shiny glaze
Spinach + lemon juice + honey (+ optionally, coconut flour) = green frosting
What to do
Cream together in a blender the wet ingredients (coconut oil, honey, egg, and vanilla). Note: If you have extra time and patience, cream the oil with the honey first. It will break down the sugar in the honey to make the cookies fluffier and prevent them from spreading while baking.
Add dry ingredients (flours, baking soda, and salt) and mix well, pausing the blender a few times to scrape the sides with the spoon.
Lightly wet your hands and gather the dough into a ball. Then place it between two sheets of confectionary paper and roll it into a pancake shape.
Note: If you are impatient, you can start cutting the cookies now. However, if you want more professional-looking cookies with sharp edges, then refrigerate the dough for an hour.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 F. We bake our cookies in a convection toaster oven in two batches. Note: In baking, the convection setting does make a difference, so if you are using a regular oven, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees once the cookies are in the oven.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roll the dough between two separate sheets of parchment paper. Try to keep it the same thickness throughout because you want your cookies to bake at the same rate.
Remove the parchment paper used for rolling the dough and apply decorative cookie cutters. Cut the dough into desired shapes.
Place the cookies about 1 ½ inch apart on the prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 7-9 minutes (depending on the thickness). They are ready when just turning brown. Note: Take the cookies out before they look done. As they cool, they’re still cooking! But make sure not to remove them from the parchment paper because they will stay fragile.
They’re amazing as is, and that’s how we usually eat them. Just add a cup of milk for drinking with the cookies. However, if you’re planning on decorating them, let them cool first.
Throw about 6oz of blueberries in a pot with 1 teaspoon of honey. Heat until the berries pop. Place them inside a cheesecloth and squeeze the colored liquid on top of the cookies.
Throw two handfuls of fresh spinach with 1 tablespoon of honey into a pot. Bring to a boil. Place the mush in a cheesecloth and squeeze with your fingers on top of the cookies. The mixture dries to a pretty shiny glaze. Shh, your kids won’t know they’re eating spinach juice.
Put a handful of spinach in a blender, and add about 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of honey. Blend it well. Put the mixture into a cheesecloth and squeeze into a bowl. If it looks too runny, you might need to add ¼ to ½ teaspoon of coconut flour. Note: If you replace honey with confectioners’ sugar, you can pipe it like regular frosting, but my goal here was to show the healthiest alternatives, so I avoided using white sugar.