show #1205

David explores the science behind bread baking. Segment length: 5:46


Insights & Connections



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Bread baking transforms an ordinary kitchen into a laboratory of earthy sights, smells, and tastes. A recipe, after all, reads like a scientific experiment. The baker combines flour, yeast, liquid, and salt in a bowl, shapes it all into a dough, lets the dough rise, and bakes it in a hot oven.

Flour, which gives bread its structure, is made by milling cereal grains such as wheat, barley, or rye. In this process, the grain seeds are crushed, releasing starch and proteins.

Starch molecules are long, gangly polymers of simple sugars linked head to tail by chemical bonds. Proteins are more complex--a single protein may contain hundreds of amino acids strung together like beads on a necklace.

What gives bread its light, fluffy texture? The answer is gliadin and glutenin, two proteins found in flour. When flour is added to water and kneaded, these proteins swell up like sponges and form a tough elastic substance called gluten. Gluten can stretch and trap the bubbles of gas that make dough rise.

That gas comes from the leavening action of tiny one-celled fungi called yeast. When you combine yeast with flour and water, you'll end up with a sticky white dough. Inside the dough, fermentation is occurring and molecules are on the move. Enzymes from the yeast cells attack starch, breaking it down into glucose. Other enzymes transform glucose molecules into carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide (CO2) gas then bubbles up through the mixture, causing the dough to rise.

Breads which are leavened by baking powder instead of yeast lack the tasty molecules of fermented bread. That's because when baking powder gets wet, a chemical reaction occurs that releases only carbon dioxide, salt, and water.

In breads leavened with yeast, however, the yeast cells grow under anaerobic conditions and cannot convert glucose molecules completely to gas. Some sugar molecules get sidetracked and are converted into alcohols, acids, and esters--substances which add to bread's flavor.

Salt strengthens gluten by slowing down the enzymes which catalyze the breakdown of proteins. If you add too little salt, the dough is tough and sticky. If you add too much, water flows out of yeast cells by osmosis. Then nutrients are lost and production of carbon dioxide slows down.

After dough rises a couple of hours in a warm place, it's ready to go into the oven. There, heat causes pockets of gas in the dough to expand. Eventually the crust becomes toasty brown--and soon you're enjoying a slice of warm, home-baked bread.


amino acids organic acids that are the building blocks of proteins

anaerobic a process which takes place in the absence of oxygen

catalyze to speed up a chemical reaction

chemical bond the forces of attraction that bind atoms together in a molecule

chemical reaction a process where substances are changed into new substances

enzyme special protein molecules that speed up chemical reactions in living cells. Enzymes are biological catalysts.

fermentation a process where sugars are transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol by the action of yeast enzymes

leavening substances that cause fermentation

polymer large molecules formed by linking together many small molecules. Proteins are polymers of amino acids.


Additional sources of information

General Mills
Number 1 General Mills Blvd. 
Minneapolis, MN  55426
(612) 540-7768

American Institute of Baking
1213 Bakers Way
Manhattan, KS  66502
(913) 537-4750

Community resources

County extension office

Local bakery

Home economics teacher

Local milling company


Yeast cells are tiny one-celled plants. Baker's yeast contains billions of cells in a single package. Each egg-shaped cell is, on average, five micrometers wide (1/10,000 of an inch). In this activity you will grow some yeast cells and study them with a microscope.


  1. On a sheet of blank unruled paper, draw two 7.5-cm circles (3"). Label one "low power" and the other "high power."
  2. Pour one cup of warm water into the plastic cup. Add a package of yeast and one tablespoon of sugar. Mix and let stand for 45 minutes.
  3. Place a drop of yeast solution onto a microscope slide and cover with a cover slip.
  4. Look at the yeast with a microscope and a low-power eyepiece. Sketch what you see in the appropriate circle.
  5. Next, look at the sample with a microscope and a high-power eyepiece. Sketch what you see in the appropriate circle.


  1. What color are yeast cells under the microscope?
  2. What was your first reaction to seeing yeast cells?
  3. Describe what you saw.
  4. How does increasing the magnification change the appearance of the yeast cells?


Baking powder is a chemical leavening agent. Read the label on a baking powder product to learn what ingredients are present. Place a tablespoon of baking powder in your left hand. Now pour a tablespoon of water over the powder. What did you see, hear, and feel? Repeat this activity with baking soda and vinegar and compare the results.


The longest loaf of bread on record in the United States was baked in 1987 and was 718.4 meters (2,357' 10") long. Using a grocery store loaf as a model, estimate how many slices you could cut from this large loaf. How many sandwiches could you make? Compare how you arrived at your estimate with the methods used by other people in your group. With a calculator, find the actual number of sandwiches. How close was your estimate?


Chemical leavening depends on the neutralization between an acid and a base to make carbon dioxide gas, water, and a salt. ACID + BASE -----> CO2 + a SALT + H2O Add a scoop of baking soda to a plastic cup and begin adding vinegar drop by drop until the solid has disappeared and bubble formation has stopped. Decide when the neutralization (end point when the acid and base are equal) is complete. How many drops did it take to neutralize the acid? Try other acids (lemon juice, soda, buttermilk) and compare. What does the number of drops say about acid concentration? Repeat the activity using milk instead of vinegar. What happens? What do the results say about the nature of milk?


Pretend you are a yeast cell looking for a job making bread. Write a resume describing yourself, your background, and why you feel qualified for the job.
Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.