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Chemistry of Beignets
Episode 117th June 2021 • Chemistry Connections • Hopewell Valley Student Publication Network
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Chemistry Connections

Episode #1

Welcome to Chemistry Connections, we are Joe Jacobs and Kate Jackson and we are your hosts for episode #1 called The Chemistry of Beignets. Today we will be explaining the chemical process behind making beignets. 

Segment 1: Introduction to Beignets

French settlers brought beignets with them as they migrated to the eastern coast of Canada in the 17th century. These settlers were then forced by the British to move and many settled in Louisiana. These settlers brought their cuisine, as well as their language, with them as they migrated south. Today, beignets are most associated with the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.

 Beignets are a type of doughnut and usually covered in powdered sugar. The process of making beignets is somewhat intensive. It begins with making a dough and then allowing the dough to sit for 2 to 24 hours. Then the beignets are fried in oil and then covered with powdered sugar. 

Segment 2: The Chemistry Behind Rising, Texture, and Flavour in Beignets

So when we are making the dough, yeast and leavening agents are the foundation of baking. Without these types of ingredients, you wouldn’t be able to have bread or beignets, but you would sort of get like bricks of flour.

Leavening agents, or ingredients that make the beignets or whatever you’re making rise, participate in chemical reactions during various steps of the baking process. Yeast, for example, transforms any sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide gas and ethanol which is a type of alcohol. The carbon dioxide that is trapped in the dough expands during the rising and resting process which makes the dough increase in volume, and the alcohol produced by this fermentation reaction evaporates during the frying process. I wanted to point out that yeast is a living organism. You have to activate the yeast when you make the beignets and make sure to keep the dough at a warm room temperature in order to make the yeast work quickly, but not too quickly to increase the yeast’s sensitivity to acids in the dough and slow down the fermentation reaction. Essentially, fermentation is primarily responsible for the holes and the flavour of bread. Flavor inside the bread comes from the alcohol and other compounds produced through fermentation. Another notable reaction that occurs in the dough is aerobic respiration. This occurs in the mitochondria of the yeast cells and performs until the limiting reagent, diatomic oxygen, is used up. Then fermentation occurs, also known as anaerobic respiration. Both reactions produce carbon dioxide so they both contribute to the rise of the beignets.

Equation for fermentation: C6H12O6 (glucose) 2C2H5OH (ethanol) +2CO2 (carbon dioxide)

Equation for respiration: C6H12O6(glucose) + 6O2 (oxygen) 6CO2 (carbon dioxide)+ 6H2O (water) 

In addition to these important chemical processes, one thing I found is that kneading the beignet dough adds air into the dough and speeds up the respiration process. This leads to a faster rise but less flavor because ethanol is responsible for flavour and increasing O2 in the dough only speeds up the respiration reaction. We are gonna make some beignets this weekend and for ours we will be doing a slow rise with no kneading, and this is just so that we can get the most flavor from the dough and also kenading is annoying. Kneading also develops gluten strands in the dough which can make the beignets tough which is the opposite of what we want.

For a little bit more chemistry, if we were to knead the dough, O2 would be added to the dough which would increase the rate of the respiration reaction. This is because there are many molecules of glucose in the dough and the addition of O2 molecules leads to increasing collisions between glucose and oxygen. More collisions leads to a higher rate of product formations because of a higher chance of molecules colliding with sufficient energy and the required positioning. So those are some of the important things that happen behind the scenes, and Kate is gonna talk a little bit about what happens when you actually fry the dough to make the beignets.

Segment 2: The Chemistry Behind Caramelization

Once the dough for the beignets is ready, they are fried in oil until they are golden brown and puffed up. The golden brown aspect of the beignets will be achieved through a process called caramelization as well as the Maillard reaction. 

When caramelization occurs, the maltose carbohydrate molecules, which are two glucose molecules, in the dough start to break down and rearrange themselves under heat. The process of caramelization is very complex. As the sugar appears to melt, it is actually undergoing several intricate chemical reactions. 

First, sucrose inversion occurs which means sucrose breaks down into glucose and fructose. This is a hydrolysis reaction, which means that water is used to break chemical bonds. In this case, the intramolecular bond between the glucose and fructose, specifically a covalent bond called the glycosidic linkage which holds the two molecules together.Condensation occurs, where the sugars lose water and react with each other, forming difructose-anhydride. Further dehydration occurs. Molecules fragment and polymerize, producing the characteristic caramel color and browned sugar flavor associated with the process. The three main products from sucrose caramelization are the dehydration product caramelan and two polymers, carmelen and caramelin

Reaction: C12H22O11(sucrose)+ H2O C6H12O6 (fructose) + C6H12O6 (glucose)

Caramelization is a separate chemical reaction from the Maillard reaction, which is the browning process, and takes place afterwards at a higher temperature. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. Foods that contain both carbohydrates and proteins brown from a combination of caramelisation and the Maillard reaction

Segment 3: Personal Connections

We wanted to talk about beignets because Joe and I both like to bake and find that making new foods and exploring new recipes are fun to do together. Also, we love the Princess and the Frog and Tiana makes amazing beignets in the movie. Joe is also going to Tulane next year which is in New Orleans and close to the French Quarter, so he has had beignets a few times. 

I am super excited to be going to New Orleans this fall, and I feel like beignets are such a signature part of being there. They represent a mixture of different cultures and when I visited back in February this year I loved the beignets I had at Cafe du Monde so much. So I guess I just wanted to learn a little bit more about them. And hopefully when Kate and I make some this weekend they turn out just as well.

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Music Credits

Warm Nights by @LakeyInspired