How To Teach Science During Breakfast… With Pancakes!

This week, we will be looking at one of the heavyweights of breakfast menus.  All you have to do is mention its name and children will come running.  In fact, as I look back into my childhood, this breakfast meal was one of the first foods I was ever allowed to cook.  That’s right, we are talking about pancakes!

It is so easy to put together a little flour, an egg, some milk, a small amount oil and sugar, and a few pinches of baking powder and salt (with a little bit of vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg for some flavor.)  I was always amazed that so few ingredients mixed together would bring out such an amazing meal.

But what is going on inside that marvelous mixture?

That is what we are exploring today.  Let’s review our four main concepts of science before we move on:

The atoms within your pancake batter will not sit still!

It may be true that atoms cannot be created or destroyed, but they are definitely being moved around within that pancake batter.   By far, the most important molecule (a group of atoms joined together) within that mixture is known as starch and it makes up most of the flour within your ingredients.

If you could shrink down to the size of the comma on this screen, you would see exactly that starch looks very much like a chain with thousands of links bound together.   Each link of this chain would actually be a sugar molecule.

That’s right! Starch is really just a huge chain of sugars bound together and it makes up more than half of that batter.   And it doesn’t sit still very long after you add some milk…

Diffusion, Density, and Dairy

Remember!  Most of that liquid batter you just mixed together is made up of long chains of sugar.  Once  you add milk to that powdery mixture,  all that starch begins to absorb the milk.  This diffusion of milk into the starch speeds up when you start heating it up on the stove.


When atoms absorb heat energy from the stove, they start moving around a lot more.  Since the atoms that make up the liquid milk are already moving around quite easily already, the additional heat energy allows them to move even faster.  All this extra movement causes these atoms to slam into the starch molecules.  So while you are cooking your pancake, the starch absorbs more and more liquid.  Another way to say all of this is…

The milk diffuses into the starch molecules and causes the starch to become more dense.

LIQUID Batter + Heat = SOLID Pancake…  Huh?!?

You may think that something strange happened to those atoms in your liquid batter as it turned into a solid pancake before your eyes.  And it did!

Think about it… Liquids are not supposed to turn into solids as you add heat!

But the Law of Conservation states that atoms cannot be created or destroyed, only moved around.  So this means that something else is going on.  Hmmm….

The answer lies within the starch molecules of the batter.  As the starch swells, some of their sugar molecules break off and flow away in the mixture.  These sugary molecules swimming around in your batter help to make the batter a little stickier.  It is this “stickiness” that gives your pancake that spongy feel after it is cooked because it holds all of those starch molecules together.

Now some of the water molecules within your milk do tend to escape as steam while you cook your pancake.  But they do not disappear!  They absorb the heat energy from your skillet, break away from the batter, and spread out into the air.  But they are definitely not destroyed!

We could spend weeks learning how atoms, density, diffusion, and the Law of Conservation can be found within our breakfast.  But I’m getting hungry for something else.  Besides, there are so many other cool things to study in the kitchen.  For example…

Where do all those little bubbles come from while the pancake batter is cooking?

Come back next week and find out when we look at The Chemical Reactions in Our Food!

Be certain to check out all of the posts in this series:

How to Teach Science During Breakfast… With Bacon

How to Teach Science During Breakfast… With Coffee

How to Teach Science During Breakfast… Soggy Cereal Science


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