Chemistry in the Kitchen

kitchen chemistry
Credit: mmu-engage, CC-BY-2.0

Kitchens are chemistry laboratories in disguise; but did you know that? When you prepare food, you use ingredients such as sodium bicarbonate, fructose, sodium chloride, lactic acid, sulphur dioxide, and other chemical names, but which we know ordinarily in their kitchen names like baking soda, sugar, or salt. Unknowingly, chemical processes take place in your little chemistry lab, such as oxidation as a reaction of polyphenol oxidase in apples and most fruits with oxygen in the air, or freeing of carcinogenic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) fumes to the environment when you cook on your Teflon-coated non-stick pans.

There are a lot of items in the kitchen which you know by their common names or perhaps brand names, but not in their chemical names or composition. Remember a time when you’re cooking and there’s an ingredient you forgot to include during your weekend shopping? It’s very likely that there’s an item around that could substitute for that lacking ingredient, but what? It would have been a handy thing if you knew kitchen items by their chemical composition or behaviour.
Here’s Kitchen Chemistry 101 – familiarizing with ingredients chemically.

Ammonium bicarbonate

For every ¾ teaspoon of ammonium bicarbonate, you may substitute 1 teaspoon of baking soda (or sodium bicarbonate).

Baking powder

You’re out of baking powder, but you need it very badly or the cake you’re baking will fall flat. Check the pantry if you have baking soda, cornstarch and cream of tartar. Lucky you, we have the ratio for that. For every teaspoon of single-acting baking powder that your recipe requires, use ¼ teaspoon of baking soda, ¼ teaspoon of cornstarch, and ½ teaspoon of cream of tartar. Both baking soda and baking powder result to production of carbon dioxide bubbles and “rising” in the cake. Baking soda must be mixed with an acidic ingredient such as yogurt and cream of tartar. Baking powder, on the other hand, is a ready-mixture of sodium bicarbonate, cream of tartar and starch.

Use the same mixture if your recipe calls for double-acting baking powder, except that you should measure 1 teaspoon of this mixture for every cup of flour used in the recipe.

Baking soda

Most households seem to never get enough of this versatile item simply because they’re multipurpose – they bleach teeth, whiten the fridge, clean the bathroom tiles, make the loaf crusty and the cookie well-browned, help in the kids’ science projects, plus a host of other home uses. To substitute in baking, you may substitute 2 teaspoons of double-acting baking powder per ½ teaspoon baking soda required. A teaspoon of potassium bicarbonate is also equivalent to a teaspoon of baking soda. Unfortunately, these substitution tips won’t work in your son’s science volcano project.


You can still cook your buttermilk waffles even without buttermilk if you have 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar and milk. One cup of this mixture is equivalent to 1 cup of buttermilk – just allow it to stand for 10 minutes before you pour it into your recipe.

Cake flour

What’s a cake without cake flour? Well, as long as you have all-purpose flour and cornstarch, the cake shop will continue to be in business. One cup (130 grams) of cake flour can be substituted with ¾ cup (105 grams) of all-purpose flour and 2 tablespoons (30 grams) of cornstarch. But what happens if you only have all-purpose flour? Stress not. For every 1/3 cup of cake flour needed, use 1/3 cup all-purpose flour less ½ teaspoon.


You may use 15 grams of unsweetened chocolate and 1 tablespoon sugar for every 30 grams of bittersweet chocolate required. On the other hand, if it’s unsweetened chocolate you need but you don’t have it at the time you’re baking, you may mix together 20 grams of natural cocoa powder with 14 grams of vegetable oil for 30 grams of unsweetened chocolate. Instead of vegetable oil, you may also use unsalted butter or shortening in the same proportion.

Cocoa powder

For a recipe that requires cocoa powder, you may replace it with unsweetened chocolate and baking soda. Use the ratio of 30 grams unsweetened chocolate and 1/8 teaspoon baking soda to 20 grams of cocoa powder. Since chocolate is already high in fat, decrease the butter or shortening in the recipe by 1 tablespoon for every 30 grams of chocolate added.


For every ¼ cup of black coffee called for in the recipe, you may substitute 2 tablespoons instant coffee dissolved in 3 tablespoons of hot water.

Corn syrup

There are recipes, such as caramels, that require dark corn syrup. If what you have in stock is light corn syrup, you may use ¾ cup of it mixed with ¼ cup light molasses to take the place of 1 cup dark corn syrup.

One cup white sugar in ¼ cup liquid (water or the liquid used in your recipe) may replace 1 cup of light corn syrup.


Cornstarch is the preferred ingredient for thickening sauces, possibly because it thickens quickly and kitchen cooks have grown in the kitchen using them for the purpose. However, all-purpose flours give equally satisfying results, just double the measurement.

Cream of tartar

You’d think that you substitute another powder for cream of tartar, but nope! Use ½ teaspoon of lemon juice for 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar. If there’s not a piece of lemon anywhere near you, use white vinegar instead.

Cream half-and-half

This is simply 2 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter added to 7/8 cup of whole milk. Presto! You have a cup of cream half-and-half.


Concoct your own heavy cream by mixing 2/3 cup of whole milk and 1/3 cup of melted unsalted butter. That’s equivalent to 1 cup of heavy cream.

For sour cream, you may use plain yogurt, cup for cup. If there’s neither yogurt or sour cream and your cheese cake can’t wait, mix this 1 tablespoon lemon juice and whole milk to make 1 cup. That should be equivalent to 1 cup of sour cream.


You can’t be out of flour, can you? But you can be out of wheat flour. Now, if you have flour and wheat germ in the cupboard, there’s no reason anybody is going to miss her wheat loaf in the morning. Mix 7/8 cup of all-purpose flour and 2 tablespoons of wheat germ to replace 1 cup of whole wheat in the bread recipe.
Marshmallow cream

Unless you’re a fan of homemade Whoopie Pies, marshmallow cream is not a staple item on the shopping list. However, if you ever need it in any of your dishes, you can use a cup of marshmallows for 2.5-oz cream.


Here’s a good substitute for condensed milk. Mix 1 cup of non-fat powdered milk, 2/3 cup granulated sugar, 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, and ½ cup boiling water. The blended mixture is equivalent to 1 cup of the real thing.

For 1 cup whole milk, combine 1 cup skimmed milk and 2 tablespoons margarine or unsalted butter.

Evaporated milk and half-and-half can take each other’s place in most recipes.

Substituting does not only come handy when you’re short of an ingredient. You may also resort to it when a member of the family reacts to, or has a health condition that does not sit well with a particular ingredient. This additional knowledge goes a long way. It does not need hard-core chemistry, and it does save you from unnecessary errands to the grocer or an allergic reaction.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *