Friday, June 17, 2011

Good to know: baking tips

Baking can seem like a rather fussy, exact science at times. Precise measurements, mysterious chemical reactions and such... it can be very frustrating for those of us who are neither exact nor patient ;) So when I come across useful baking tips, I cling to them tightly!

For example, you will often see instructions in a recipe to mix wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls, then to combine the two. But... what constitutes a wet (or dry) ingredient? Now, before you give me that "Duh!" look... it's not as obvious as you might think. Dry ingredients are things such as flour, baking powder, spices and such, while wet ingredients are things like milk, water, butter, eggs and sugar. Wait, what? That's right, in the world of baking, sugars (granulated white, brown and other sugars) are often considered 'wet' and should be mixed with other wet ingredients, not with dry ones. The exact reasons for this are a little murky and seem to depend heavily on what you're making (a cake or muffin as opposed to a yeast bread). The little bit of research I did into the matter turned up a great deal of complex explanations involving the formation of gluten... if you want to read up on it further, here is a good place to start. For the majority of baking projects you and I will usually tackle, such as cakes, muffins and quick breads, the reason is fairly straight-forward: mixing granulated sugars with other wet ingredients allows the sugar granules to dissolve, there by avoiding a gritty finished product.

What's the point of keeping wet and dry separate, anyway? Well, many recipes for things like breads and cakes include some sort of leavening, such as baking powder or baking soda. These cause a chemical reaction in the dough or batter that releases bubbles of carbon dioxide which then helps to lighten the finished product (ie: a nice, fluffy cake). There is, however, an important distinction between the two:
  • Baking soda requires an acid (such as vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk) to activate, so will be called for in recipes where one of these acids is also an ingredient.
  • Baking powder is activated by moisture and heat so will be called for in recipes that do not include another acidic ingredient like above. 
If you're anything like me, a lightbulb went on in your head when you read that. That one batch of horrible, puck-like cookies/cupcakes/biscuits just made a little bit more sense, didn't it? It should also give you a hint as to why keeping the wet and dry ingredients apart until the last minute is a good idea... as soon as that leavening agent hits the liquid, it will start its reaction (This is especially true of the baking soda; think of the baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanos you made when you were a kid... same type of reaction. The baking powder is a bit more forgiving). If you add them together and then proceed to stir the batter excessively to mix in other ingredients, you will be releasing all of the bubbles that are meant to lighten the dough/batter while it cooks. A little bit of stirring is ok... you need to get those chocolate chips mixed in, after all! ;) But keep it to a minimum... the more then bubbles are kept in, the lighter the finished product will be.

Hopefully that helps to de-mystify baking recipes a bit. For more handy info and tips to bake without fear, you might want to check out Handy Substitution Recipes for Baking.

1 comment:

  1. ah, that explains part of the black bean brownie mystery!