Youth become food scientists exploring gluten: The secret ingredient of baking

Youth explore protein content in different types of flour, gluten formation and the effects of gluten on the texture of baked goods.

Winter months can become long and seem to many of us as if they never end. Time spent outdoors often has to be limited due to unfavorable weather conditions. Are you running out of ideas of how to keep your youngsters or any group of young people busy indoors? Michigan State University Extension suggest letting them become food scientists and discover the secrets of baking!

The ”What’s On Your Plate? Exploring Food Science” National 4-H Curriculum is a wonderful resource to use with your young group of food scientists as you discover with them the secrets of baking. The curriculum contains three explorataive, hands-on activities to explore gluten formation, leavening agents and other ingredients, and mixing methods. The curriculum consists of a facilitator’s guide, a youth science journal, and references to additional online resources and tutorials. “Flour’s Secret Ingredient: Great Globs of Gluten” is the first activity in the curriculum.

To get started with the activity, prepare one inch square samples of different types of bread to taste. Have the young learners compare taste, color, density and texture of the bread samples and discuss with them other examples of food made of flour that they like to eat. Ask them what they think might be in the flour products that make them rise or stay flat. This will lead you into the actual experiment of making gluten – the secret ingredient that determines the structure of baked goods. Have several different types of flour available, such as whole wheat, all purpose, bread and /or cake flour and again have learners compare the differences among the flour types they notice. Then have each learner measure one cup of flour into a mixing bowl and slowly add a couple of table spoons of water. Be sure all available types of flour are being used. Have learners mix their flour and water with a wooden spoon and gradually add more water one tablespoon at a time until a stiff dough has formed. Now it is time to knead! Each of your young scientists will flour their hands to prevent the dough from sticking to their hands, shape their dough into a ball and knead the dough for about 10 to 15 minutes until it is very smooth and the surface is shiny. What is happening? While your group of young scientists is kneading their dough, and as the dough is becoming elastic and stretchy two proteins in the wheat flour join together to form gluten. The proteins that make up the gluten absorb twice their weight in water. Strands of gluten align, join together and are able to stretch. The more protein in the flour, the more gluten will develop. Gluten captures gases that rise through it, making it expand and giving it a chewy texture. To determine how much gluten each type of flour contains, each learner will have to separate the two main components of flour: starch and protein. Rinse the dough in cool water, pulling and squeezing it, to remove the starch leaving behind the protein called gluten. The rinse water will become milky from the starch and must be renewed several times. This process is finished when the rinse water stays clear. Now have your learners compare the globs of gluten and the different types of flour produced. Have them compare and rank how much gluten was produced by each type of flour. You will find that bread flour produces the largest amount of gluten, while pastry flour produces the least amount of gluten. Discuss the color and texture of the gluten. Based on the amount of gluten produced, see which flour the group would use to make a light and airy bread or a dense and hearty bread? MSU Extension recommends asking many open ended questions during the process and after the experiment to stimulate youth’s inquiry, discussion and creativity.

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