FIU@Home: Discover gingerbread house science

Home is the first learning laboratory. This series brings opportunities to discover, explore and create to life-long learners everywhere. Through books, experiments, adventures and digital journeys, FIU@Home engages the whole family with fun, curated educational experiences. Don’t forget to share on social media and tag @FIUCASE.

A tried and true holiday tradition, gingerbread houses have been a symbol of the season since they first popped up in 16th century Germany. The art and science of their construction has driven competitions – friendly and fierce – in communities around the world. Gain an advantage at any virtual competition this season by harnessing the power of kitchen chemistry and virtually spread a little cheer.

The success – and safety – of any experiment depends on an understanding of not only which substances are being used, but how they react when combined. The same principles can be applied to baking. Every ingredient plays a part in creating the foundational pieces of making your own gingerbread for your gingerbread house. Understanding how these ingredients interact will help set the framework for your finished product.

Flour = Protein + Starch Water releases individual porteins, allowing them to interlock and create a stretchy dough. This "stretchiness" or elasticity creates room for gas to expand as it's heated. These interactions play a big role in texture.   Butter = Fatty acid + Water  Hydrophobic - meaning it repels water - this ingredient manages the activation of the dough's proteins. Aside from adding flavor, the temperature of this ingredient really matters. The warmer the butter the crispier the final result while colder butter will produce a spongier product.   Eggs = Protein  Like flour, when proteins in eggs come apart and reconnect it makes the dough stronger. The difference? These proteins are activated by heat, not water. Why? Fats and water generally repel each other; egg proteins unite them.   Baking Soda = Sodium Bicarbonate  In terms of pH, this ingredient is alkaline and basic. So when it's mixed with acidic ingredients, it produces carbon dioxide. As the gas tries to escape, tine bubbles form in the dough, helping it rise.

Each ingredient has a very specific role to play in kitchen chemistry—especially when it comes to creating the perfect gingerbread to build your house. Correctly measuring is key, but every recipe is different. Depending on your recipe and your goal, you may need to make some adjustments.

Using the first step in the scientific method, you can research what other kitchen scientists have learned from their baking experiments. Identifying your purpose will be key – are you making the house to eat or display? How long do you want it to last? Your goal should drive your research and design decisions. Remember to take notes with each batch as you perfect your strategy.

Kitchen chemistry boils down to not just math and chemistry, but creativity. All building designers have to balance imagination and physics when creating something new. Keep your end goal in mind while experimenting with ingredients. In addition to making sure designs are structurally sound, engineers must work with designers to ensure that their creations represent their clients’ needs.

Whether you’re building a house inspired by your favorite architecture, holiday tale or something out of your own imagination, keep the strength of your structure in mind as you finish your confectionary enhancements. Here’s a tip: sketch out your vision before you start decorating to help execute your idea.

There’s only one way to know if a plan will work – test it! We have everything you need to get started from an ingredients list to a step-by-step guide, some FIU-inspired cut-outs and even an experimental design worksheet:

Share your successes, failures and adjustments along with the final product with @FIUCASE on social media.

Central to every house there, is no better STEM classroom than the kitchen. From chemistry to biology to physics and beyond investigate the art and science behind culinary creations and everyday life. Follow FIU@Home on CASE News for more kitchen science.

Elaine Pritzker contributed to this article.