The timer beeped, and Liz Lee Heinecke handed her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, two oven mitts. Her latest science experiment was ready.
Sarah opened the door of the oven and took out a silvery pan containing the result of a chemical reaction that demonstrated how heat turns water into steam: popovers.
Heinecke plucked one of the eggy rolls from a large muffin tin and tore it open so steam shot out of it. Then she slathered on a bit of butter and took a bite.
“Edible science,” Heinecke said with her mouth full.
Her popovers — airy buns that rise without a leavening agent due to the steam that forms when putting liquid batter into a hot pan — represent only one recipe in a book full of ways to teach kids about scientific principles, while also making dinner.
Heinecke is the author of “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition” (Quarry, 144 pages, $22.99). It’s the Edina author’s fifth book that helps parents utilize common objects found in the home to educate kids about chemistry, biology, botany and more. While her previous books’ lessons yielded more crafts and playthings — glue-based slime and self-inflating balloons, for example — her latest book contains step-by-step instructions with edible results. (See recipes here.)
“Cooking and baking are science,” Heinecke said in her kitchen while she waited for the popovers to rise. “Once you understand the basics — you can add an acid and it makes it taste a little sour and brings out the salt — it becomes second nature. So then you can say, ‘I know this experiment is going to work.’ ”
A living room end table stacked with books has her favorite, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat, on top. Where that book dives deep into the principles of each of those four aspects of cooking, so does Heinecke’s, but on a pint-sized level. Every recipe includes a sidebar where Heinecke explains “the science behind the food.”
She discusses tomatoes’ chemical properties that give them their color and flavor alongside a Marcella Hazan recipe for tomato sauce. Gluten’s elasticity is the topic in a recipe for pizza dough, and emulsions are demystified in Julia Child’s recipe for beurre blanc. Young cooks working their way through the book aren’t just learning how to make a dish; they’re learning how cooking works.
“I think it’s good for kids to do stuff like this, because then they’re not afraid of tackling recipes,” she said. “You know, ‘You can do anything.’ ”
Heinecke herself grew up unafraid of the kitchen. Her mother ran a cooking school in their home in Manhattan, Kan. “We had a center island before center islands were cool,” Heinecke said. She also grew up around science, with a physicist dad.
She became a biologist, doing bacteriology research. She was working in a lab on the day she went into labor with her first child, Charlie. He’s now going off to college.
Heinecke pivoted to the stay-at-home mom life with Charlie and two daughters, May and Sarah.
“When you’re with kids, you’re always looking for stuff to do,” she said. She began infusing science into their activities, like examining bugs and plants outside. Each kid got their own notebook to record their experiments.
Home-science education helped her in school, said May, who is 17. “They’d be like, ‘What’s a polymer?’ and I’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I know!’ ”
Applying science practically at home lets kids approach a big topic without the pressure or time constraints of school. “It gives them the opportunity to be creative and to make mistakes and no one is judging them,” Heinecke explained. “I think science in school is essential and important, but it’s really a different kind of science.”
Heinecke began blogging about her experiments. “No one else was writing about how to do science with your kids without making 20 trips to the store or having to buy an expensive kit,” she said. Her blog led to an invitation to do a science-themed spot on a local morning TV show that turned into a regular gig.
In 2014, she wrote her first book in the series, “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids.” The “Edible Edition” came out this summer, and Heinecke is at work on her next two: One focuses on chemistry and another on biology. She’s also penning a narrative nonfiction book about Marie Curie’s friendship with a theatrical lighting designer, slated for 2020. It’s called “Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist and a Friendship Forged in Light.”
“It’s funny,” Heinecke said. “You just do what you love doing and life takes you on these trajectories.”
After devouring the popovers, Heinecke and two neighborhood kids got to work on more experiments from her books. First, they learned about the crystalline structure of tempered chocolate by melting candy bars, dipping balloons into it and making bowls for ice cream.
Then, they took the purple water that’s a byproduct from boiling red cabbage and used it as a pH indicator. They changed its color by adding baking soda (a base, the water turns blue) and vinegar (an acid, the water turns pink), and then mixed the two solutions together to make bubbly purple volcano.
Chocolate streaks, scattered sprinkles and fizzing water were all over Heinecke’s countertops. There was only one thing left to do.
“After you do a science experiment,” Heinecke asked the girls, “what is the best way to make sure your parents let you do it again?”
Divya Thamann, age 9, answered promptly.