My children eat play dough. Shamelessly, persistently, and with gusto. So I decided early on that instead of denying them the pleasure of squeezing, burying, cutting, stamping and rolling play dough, I would give my two boys (ages 2 and 4) homemade dough instead of the kind that comes in canisters.
(Commercial play dough is technically not toxic, but it is not intended to be eaten, and contains lubricants which are probably petroleum based, as well as preservatives. Here's a
good article about the science behind it.)
We make play-dough on a weekly basis, often from the same recipe, but sometimes from recipes online. The quality and texture of these online recipes vary widely. One week our play dough might be perfect, another too crumbly and dry, and sticky and gooey the next. The nerd in me wondered what made them turn out so differently, and the mom in me was sick of vacuuming crumbled play dough and scraping gluey formulations from my chairs.
So, inspired by
Cook’s Illustrated, I decided to try dozens of Play Dough recipes, using friends as testers, to isolate the best recipes.
The science behind play dough
Play dough contains five basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, cream of tartar (or other acid) and oil. The variables that most affect texture are the cream of tartar, salt and the type of flour used. The flour and water compose the bulk of the dough, and most recipes I found contained equal amounts of flour and water. The proteins in the flour (gluten for wheat flour) interact with the water and heat to become a stretchy, elastic mass. Salt acts as a preservative, and also adds texture and body to the dough. Oil acts as a lubricant, and helps to keep the dough moist and not sticky.
I had no clue what cream of tartar is, except that I knew it made snickerdoodles tasty. Turns out, cream of tartar (potassium hydrogen tartrate, also known as potassium bitartrate) is a byproduct of wine production, forming inside wine barrels during fermentation. Cream of tartar is an acid, and is used in cooking as a stabilizing agent for meringues and whipped cream.
Next: How we tested
How we tested: The play dough scientists
I gathered a slew of flour-based recipes from across the internet, and made a spreadsheet of the ingredients. Then I made 11 batches and
invited our PEPS group over to be “play dough scientists.” I made each recipe a different color, so it would be easy to tell which ball of dough correlated with which recipe.
With five kids, three moms, one dad and a babysitter, we squished, stamped, rolled, sculpted, googley eyed and smelled the mixtures. And yes, we tasted them, too. Two recipes were clearly the best, and there were several definite losers.
Overall findings and tips
- I used both canola and olive oil, and
found no difference. I also tried different types of flour – rice flour, masa (corn flour) and whole wheat flour.
- I found
cream of tartar to be the biggest difference between recipes. The cream of tartar affects the elasticity and texture of the play dough: if you don’t use any, the dough turns out crumbly and dry. Using 2 teaspoons yields very soft dough, and 2 tablespoons makes a firm, springy dough. Since I make play dough frequently I don’t like to buy the tiny expensive jars of cream of tartar in the spice aisle. The best bet is to buy it in bulk.
- I am heavy handed with the food coloring: I love bright, vibrant colors. I have found that the key to bright, uniformly colored play dough is to
add the food coloring to the water BEFORE you mix it with the dry ingredients. If you wait until the play dough is cooked to knead in color, it will be splotchy and pale, and also makes a mess of your hands. The recipes on the next page make about two cups of dough, so you can easily make a few batches in different colors.
- Finally, some of the favorite recipes had Jell-O, Kool-Aid or essential oils added. Jell-O makes the dough a little softer and stickier, but with a pleasant soft, slick texture. Kool-Aid doesn’t affect the texture, but does scent the dough (a little too powerfully, in my opinion; the kids loved it.) We also like to add
cinnamon, orange zest, chai tea, pumpkin spices, etc. to spice up play dough.
Store your finished dough in a zip top bag or airtight container. I usually compost our dough after a week or so as it dries out a bit, but it can last several weeks at room temperature.
Favorite play-dough recipes
Recipe #1: The classic
¼ cup salt
2 T. cream of tartar 1 cup flour 1 cup water 1 T. oil Food coloring
Mix the dry ingredients in a small pan (I've found that a non-stick skillet worked wonderfully), add the water and food coloring and stir over medium heat for a few minutes until the dough becomes a cohesive ball of firm dough. Then turn it out onto a plate and let it cool a bit before diving in. (This is the process for all the play-dough recipes.)
- 3 oz. packet of Jell-O to the dry ingredients
- Kool-Aid powder or liquid - essential oils or flavor extracts - Chai tea instead of water - spices or citrus zest
Texture and bouquet: This is the classic moist, pliable play dough. It’s a little dense, but rolls into a cohesive “snake” and holds its form when sculpted.
Testers' notes: Moms and kids both ranked this dough as their favorite. It was described as moist, pliable, springy and smooth but not gooey.
Recipe #2: Jell-O play dough
2 T. salt
2 t. cream of tartar 1 cup flour 1 cup water 2 t. oil 3 oz. packet of Jell-O Extra food coloring ½ cup flour kneaded in as dough cools
Texture and bouquet: This was a close runner up. This dough is soft, pliable and a little gooey without being sticky. It is very smooth, due to the lower salt and the addition of the Jell-O. Kneading the extra flour in as the dough cools is messy and a little fussy.
Tester's notes: This dough was described as plastic, elastic, a great soft texture, and a little bit smooshy. I made it using fruit punch Jell-O, so the smell was terrific as well.
Next: Pretty good play dough recipes
Pretty good play-dough recipes
Recipe #3: Classic play dough variation
¼ cup salt
1 T. cream of tartar 1 cup flour 1 cup water 1 T. oil Food coloring (or Kool-Aid)
Texture and bouquet: This recipe is very similar to our top pick, but was a little softer because it contains less cream of tartar.
Testers' notes: Testers didn’t like this as much as our top pick. I made this batch with grape Kool-Aid.
Recipe #4: Gluten-free play dough
½ cup rice flour
½ cup corn starch ½ cup salt 2 tsp. cream of tartar 1 cup water 1 t. oil Food coloring
Texture bouquet: This recipe is gluten free. It was very springy and dense, but still moldable.
Testers' notes: Described this dough as having a wonderful translucent “mochi” quality to it.
Recipe #5: Corn flour play dough
¼ cup salt
1 tsp. cream of tartar 1 cup masa flour 1 cup water ½ Tbsp. oil Food Coloring
Texture and bouquet: This is made from corn flour (a good way to use up leftover flour from tamales.)
Testers' notes: It has a great tortilla smell to it, and is soft but a little crumbly. It has a very different texture.
Play dough recipes that bombed
We all tested three that nobody preferred:
- A “no-cook” recipe that created a dry, crumbly dough that can’t really be rolled into snakes, and it has a gritty, grainy feel
- A version that I make when I have whole wheat flour that is about to go bad. It’s not great, but good for using up leftover flour. The color isn’t as vibrant, and beware of pink or red, as the final product looks like raw meat.
- A “no cream of tartar” recipe that was truly awful -- not cohesive enough to roll into a snake or a ball. If you don’t have cream of tartar on hand, make something else.
Next: Extensions and add-on activities
Extensions and add-on activities
Household objects and toys are great for play dough: rollers, cookie cutters, popsicle sticks, googly eyes, noodles, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, safety scissors, straws, matchbox cars, airplanes and dinosaurs.
There are a myriad sensory additions to play dough: glitter, seeds, sand, dirt, grains, spices, essential oils, and birdseed are a few.
As an educational activity, play dough can be used to shape letters and numbers, practice counting and fractions, weighing and measuring, making footprints and patterns and learning colors and color mixing.
My source recipes and fun ideas for extension activities are collected on my . play dough pinterest board About the author: Michelle Farris is mom to two (play-dough eating) preschoolers. She lives with her family in North Seattle and is a practicing attorney.