Basic Baking How-to’s: Part 1

Before we start off with the recipes for baking there is quite a lot of things that you need to know. Most people disregard all the advice that is written in the cookbooks just because they feel it’s unimportant. Doing so leads to a whole load of kitchen disasters which could’ve been avoided in the first place if a few minutes had  been spared to read the instructions. Baking is a science and an art form. Ignore this and you’ll definitely be up s**t creek without a paddle! This article is written with the purpose of helping amateur cooks/bakers who have little to no experience in the kitchen. From ingredients to measurements, I will give you tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years.

First rule in the kitchen: Always, always use the freshest ingredients available to you.

Down here I’ve compiled a list of basic ingredients that you should have on hand before you start baking.

1. Baking Powder and Baking Soda

Both baking powder and baking soda are chemical leavening agents that cause batters to rise when baked. The leavener enlarges the bubbles which are already present in the batter produced through creaming of ingredients. When a recipe contains baking powder and baking soda, the baking powder does most of the leavening. The baking soda is added to neutralize the acids in the recipe plus to add tenderness and some leavening.

When using baking powder or baking soda in a recipe, make sure to sift or whisk with the other dry ingredients before adding to the batter to ensure uniformity. Otherwise the baked good can have large holes.
Baking powder consists of baking soda, one or more acid salts (cream of tartar and sodium aluminum sulfate) plus cornstarch to absorb any moisture so a reaction does not take place until a liquid is added to the batter. Too much baking powder can cause the batter to be bitter tasting. It can also cause the batter to rise rapidly and then collapse. (i.e. The air bubbles in the batter grow too large and break causing the batter to fall.) Cakes will have a coarse, fragile crumb with a fallen center. Too little baking powder results in a tough cake that has poor volume and a compact crumb.

Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate or bicarbonate of soda (alkali) is about four times as strong as baking powder. It is used in recipes that contain an acidic ingredient (e.g. vinegar, citrus juice, sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, chocolate, cocoa (not Dutch-processed), honey, molasses (also brown sugar), fruits and maple syrup). Baking soda starts to react and release carbon dioxide gas as soon as it is added to the batter and moistened. Make sure to bake the batter immediately.

2. Butter (Fats and Oils)

Butter adds flavor and texture to your baking and helps to keep it fresh.  The temperature of the butter is very important in baking.  When room temperature butter is used in your recipe this means your butter should be between 65 degrees F (18 degrees C) and 70 degrees F (21 degrees C). This temperature allows the maximum amount of air to be beaten into your batter. Thiscreamingor beating of your butter or butter and sugar creates air bubbles that your leavener (baking powder or baking soda) will enlarge during baking. Most experts recommend 4 to 5 minutes ofcreamingthe butter for maximum aeration.

Cold butter is used in some baking (pie crusts). With this method the butter is not absorbed as much by the starch in the flour and layers result when baked creating flakiness.

Whipped butter is butter that has had air whipped into it to increase its volume.  It should never be used in baking.  Whipped butter is easier to spread, even when cold.

3. Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is made when chocolate liquor is pressed to remove three quarters of its cocoa butter. The remaining cocoa solids are processed to make fine unsweetened cocoa powder. There are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed.

When used alone in cakes, cocoa powder imparts a full rich chocolate flavor and dark color. Cocoa powder can also be used in recipes with other chocolates (unsweetened or dark) and this combination produces a cake with a more intense chocolate flavor than if the cocoa wasn’t present. Most recipes call forsiftingthe cocoa powder with the flour but to bring out its full flavor it can be combined with a small amount of boiling water. (If you want to try this in a recipe, substitute some of the liquid in the recipe for boiling water.) Often times, you may notice that more butter and leavening agent are used in recipes containing cocoa powder. This is to offset cocoa powder’s drying and strengthening affect in cakes. There are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed and it is best to use the type specified in the recipe as the leavening agent used is dependent on the type of cocoa powder. Some prefer using Dutch-processed cocoa as a slight bitterness may be tasted in cakes using natural cocoa and baking soda.

4. Eggs

Eggs are another basic ingredient in many baked products. They provide structure, aeration, flavour and moisture. They also tenderise cakes and add colour and nutritive value. Most recipes call for large eggs. And always use room temperature eggs in your baking unless specified otherwise.

5. Flour

When used in baking flour contributes body and structure, texture and flavor to baked goods.  When used in baking it binds the ingredients together and supports the batter.  It can also be used to thicken sauces, creams and pie fillings.  Recipes calling fordustingcake pans or counters with flour help prevent batters and bread dough from sticking to surfaces.  Flour can also be used to coat fruits and nuts before adding to batters, thus preventing them from sinking to the bottom of the pan when baked.

The type of flour used will ultimately affect the finished product. Flour contains protein and when it comes in contact with water and heat it produces gluten, which gives elasticity and strength to baked goods. Different types of flour contain different amounts of protein. Therefore using a different type of flour than what is called for in a recipe (without compensating for this change) will alter the outcome of the baked good.

All-purpose flour has a 10-12% protein content and is made from a blend of hard and soft wheat flours. It can be bleached or unbleached which are interchangeable.  Good for making cakes, cookies, breads, and pastries.

Cake flour has a 6-8% protein content and is made from soft wheat flour. It is chlorinated to further break down the strength of the gluten and is smooth and velvety in texture. Good for making cakes (especially white cakes and biscuits) and cookies where a tender and delicate texture is desired.  To substitute cake flour for all-purpose flour use 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour for every cup of all-purpose flour.  Make your own – one cup sifted cake flour can be substituted with 3/4 cup (84 grams) sifted bleached all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons (15 grams) cornstarch.

Pastry flour is similar to cake flour, although it has not been chlorinated,  with an 8-10% protein content and is made from soft wheat flour. It is soft and ivory in color. Can find it in health food stores or through mail order catalogs. To make two cups of pastry flour, combine 1 1/3 cups (185 grams) all-purpose flour with 2/3 cup (90 grams) cake flour. Good for making pastry, pies and cookies.

Self-Rising flour has 8-9% protein and contains flour plus baking powder and salt. I do not use this type of flour because I prefer to add my own baking powder and salt. Also, if the flour is stored too long the baking powder will lose some of its strength and your baked goods will not rise properly. If you want to make your own add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup (130 grams) of all-purpose flour.

Bread flour has a 12-14% protein content and is made from hard wheat flour. The high gluten content causes the bread to rise and gives it shape and structure. Comes in white, whole wheat, organic, bleached and unbleached.   Good for making breads and some pastries.

Store your flour in a cool dry well-ventilated place for up to six months.

Proper measuring of your flour is important, as too much flour will result in a tough and/or heavy baked good. When measuring flour spoon your flour into a measuring cup and then level off the cup with a knife. Do not pack it down. As stated above, flour gets compacted in the bag during shipping, so scooping your flour right out of the bag using your measuring cup will result in too much flour.

6. Milk

Milk is used in baked products to improve texture and mouthfeel. The protein in milk also gives a soft crumb structure in cakes, and contributes to the moisture, colour and flavour of a baked product. Cakes that contain milk also tend to have a longer shelf life.

7. Sugar

Granulated and Superfine White Sugar:

1 cup = 200 grams

1 teaspoon = 4 grams

1 tablespoon = 12 grams

1 pound = 2 1/4 cups

Light Brown Sugar (packed):

1 cup = 215 grams

1 pound = 2 1/4 cups

Dark Brown Sugar (packed):

1 cup = 230 grams

1 pound = 2 1/4 cups

Powdered (Confectioners or Icing) Sugar:

1 cup = 115 grams

1 pound = 4 cups (4 1/2 cups sifted)

When using sugar most people think of it only as a sweetener. For example, adding a teaspoon to your coffee or sprinkling a little over strawberries. But when sugar is used in baking its role becomes more complex as it also adds volume, tenderness, texture, color, and acts as a preservative.
When a recipe calls for creaming together the fat and sugar this is not simply a way of mixing these two ingredients together. The purpose of doing this step is to get air into the batter. This mixing causes the sugar granules to rub against the fat producing air bubbles in the fat. Later when the leavener is added, the leavening gases enlarge these air bubbles and cause the batter to rise when place in the oven. The length of time you cream the butter with the sugar determines the amount of air incorporated into the batter.

Sugar also attracts moisture in the batter which reduces the amount of gluten formed in the flour. The result of this is twofold. First, less gluten in the batter produces a baked good with a more tender crumb. Hence, recipes that contain a high sugar content produce a baked good with a more tender crumb Second, because not as much gluten is formed, the batter will be lighter. When baked, the batter will be able to rise more and the result will be a baked good with more volume.

White sugar is a refined sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. It is sold in many granule sizes ranging from superfine to coarse.

Granulated white sugar or table sugar has fine to medium-sized granules and is the sugar most often used in recipes. Try to find one where the crystals are not too large as they do differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. When heated granulated white sugar takes on a toffee-like color and flavor.

Superfine (castor or caster) sugar is granulated white sugar that has superfine granules and is good for making meringues as it dissolves rapidly. You can make your own by processing granulated sugar in your food processor for a few seconds.

Coarse (decorators or pearl) sugar is granulated white sugar that has been processed into small, round grains that are larger than the grains of granulated sugar. They are typically used for garnishing baked goods.
Crystal sugar is like coarse sugar except the crystals are pellet shaped.

Confectioners, powdered or icing sugar is granulated sugar that has been ground to a powder with cornstarch added to prevent lumping and crystallization. It comes in 4X, 6X and 10X but 10X is the one generally found in stores. 10X means that the granulated sugar has been processed ten times. Confectioners sugar is used in meringues, icings, confections, and some sweet pastry.

Invert sugar is mainly used for commercial purposes and is produced by heating cane or beet sugar with a small amount of acid, such as tartaric acid. It comes in syrup form and is used in cake and candy making. Invert sugar gives baked goods: added sweetness and crust color, prolongs shelf-life, and when used in icings it produces added smoothness.

Brown sugar is a refined sugar that varies in color from light to dark brown and has a full-bodied flavor and soft moist texture. In the past brown sugar was semi-refined white sugar where some of the natural molasses was left in. Now brown sugar is made by adding molasses back into refined white sugar. The color will depend on the amount of molasses added during processing of the sugar. The darker the color the stronger the taste so use the one you like the best. The same weight of brown and white sugars has the same sweetness. Because white sugar is denser than brown sugar, to get equal sweetness firmly pack the brown sugar so when inverted the cup of brown sugar will hold its shape. Substituting brown sugar for white sugar in a recipe will produce a baked good that is a little moister with a slight butterscotch flavor.

Brown sugar has the tendency to lump and become hard. To avoid this, store in a glass jar or plastic bag in a cool dry place. If is becomes hard, soften it by placing a slice of apple in a plastic bag along with the brown sugar for a few days. You can also sprinkle a few drops of water on it and seal in plastic bag for a few days.

Raw Sugar is what is left after processing the sugar cane to remove the molasses and refine the white sugar. In North America raw sugar is actually not “raw” as it has been partially refined to remove any contaminants. The color is similar to light brown sugar but it’s texture is grainier.

Demerara sugar is a raw sugar that has been purified. It comes from Guyana and is a dry, coarse-textured amber sugar that has a toffee-like flavor.

Muscovado or Barbados sugar is another raw sugar that has been purified. It has a finer grain that Demerara and very moist. Its color ranges from light to dark brown and it has a strong molasses taste.

Turbinado sugar is a raw sugar that has been steam cleaned. It is light brown in color and coarse grained, with a slight molasses flavor.

8. Vanilla

Pure vanilla, with its wonderful aromatic flavor, is the most widely used flavoring in pastries, confections, and other desserts. Vanilla Extract is the most popular way that vanilla is used by home bakers.

9. Yeast

Baker’s yeast, like baking powder and baking soda, is used to leavened baked goods (breads, Danish pastries, brioche, croissants).  The difference between these two leaveners is that baking powder/soda react chemically to produce the carbon dioxide that makes the baked goods rise.  Yeast, on the other hand, is a living organism and the carbon dioxide it produces is the result of the yeast feeding on the dough.

The two forms of baker’s yeast are; compressed cakes (also called fresh yeast) and dehydrated granules (dry yeast). When yeast is used in baked goods (breads, Danish pastries, brioche, croissants, etc.) it not only increases the volume but also improves the texture, grain and flavor of the bread.

These should tide you over for the next few days. In the next part we will discuss the right way to measure the ingredients, some basic mixing techniques,preheating the oven and preparing the baking pan.

(Thanks to Stephanie Jowarski, Joy Wilson, my Mommy, Grandmama and my Great Grandmama for their tips and tricks and notes)

Until next time,

Happy Baking…:)



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