In Alton Brownâ€™s book, Iâ€™m Just Here for More Food, he explains that in baking the â€œdevil is in the details.â€ He says, â€œBaking is all about sweating the small stuff.â€ I agree, cooking is more forgiving than baking. It is more about personal taste, and we can add and subtract without danger of failure—a little of this, a little more of that! Baking just requires more precision than cooking.
Flour, eggs, liquids (milk, water), sugar, fats (butter, shortening, oil) and leavening, (baking powder, baking soda, eggs, air, steam) are the staples for baking. I believe that knowing what function these play in the baked good is a big step toward becoming a better baker.
If I could just pick one or two words that best remind me of their function, I would have to say flour is the backbone or structure in baked goods, and wheat flour is required to supply the glutin; eggs are there for many functions but for sure their proteins help the structure and they emulsify give help leaven. Milk is a big contributor but can be relpace with water or juice in most cases, but what milk actually brings to the table is flavor, browning, nutrition, and preservative. As for leavening agens, they well, make the product rise–or at least the steam and CO2 make it happen. Fats play a big role in making something satisfying in the mouth, especially butter that adds browning and richness and tenderizes. And of course sugar makes stuff sweet but also browns and tenderizes.
So, just getting a little lesson in the contribution that these ingredients make in baked products, may help us to understand that we are truly putting in action some of the chemistry we learned in high school. Baking simply requires a little respect, I think. It is important to believe in the formula, and of course, use good technique in measuring those ingredients.
Unlike in cooking, exact measured amounts of ingredients is required in baking. Compactable ingredients like flour, one cup of which varies in weight at least 3-6 ounces depending on the humidity, must be spooned lightly into a dry ingredient volume measuring device. Oh, and level it off to be accurate. Donâ€™t tap, scoop or compact it in anyway. Scooping using the measuring cup is a good way to add way too much ingredient, so avoid packing, except for brown sugar.
After all ingredients are measured accurately, pans are prepared and oven set, it is time to mix. Here is another crucial place to understand the consequences of your actions. In cooking if you happen to put the onions in after the tomato sauce your spaghetti sauce will still work. But in baking, combining in the order dictated and with the proper tool, the right speed and timing is critical.
By now you have much to assimilate so I will end this home ec lesson, only to pick it up another day with the critical points for mixing that make a big difference in everything from biscuits and muffins to pancakes. Basically the recipes are usually good—the failures are usually in our execution. Our knowledge can be good but our experience is a better indicator of how successful we are. Practice makes perfect, afteall.
Check out these 101 recipes to sharpen your baking technique.
SWEET BUTTER SCONES 101
2 cups All-Purpose flour
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1Tablespoon baking powder
Â¾ teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg lightly beaten
Â¾ cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
Mise en place: Preheat oven to 400Â°F. Pull out your baking sheet. (ungreased)
Measure all ingredients in advance and keep separate. Check before starting to mix.
Measure: Fluff up or sift the AP flour before measuring. Spoon it into a one cup measure and level with a straight edge tool (spatula). Measure each tablespoon of sugar and level off in separate container. Measure baking powder by first fluffing in the container, as it is very compactable, then level off. Dip Â½ and Â¼ measuring spoons into salt, level and place in separate container. Cut a stick of butter on the 6 TBS line, or measure butter by packing softened but not warm butter into a 1/4 cup measure, level off; plus pack into tablespoon measure, two times, for 6 TBS. Break egg into small bowl or cup and beat to blend yolk and white with a fork. Measure heavy cream using liquid measure and pour up to the Â¾ line- when looking at eye level. (You bend down to it rather than holding cup up to your eye level). Measure 1 tsp. vanilla by using the 1 teaspoon measure. Measure over something so if it spills you can save it!
Mixing: Biscuit method: Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and stir it up to distribute evenly. Cut-in butter into flour mixture until crumbly using a hand-held metal pastry blender or use two table knives, cutting back and forth, until butter is completely distributed throughout the flour. Set aside.
Blend liquid (egg, cream, vanilla) ingredients together. Pour liquid ingredients into the flour and stir together gently with a fork until liquid is on all parts of the flour. No more than 8-10 stirs.
Shape: Dump onto lightly floured spot on your clean counter or cutting board. Pull dough together gently a few times until it holds its shape and pat into Â½ inch high circle of dough. You donâ€™t need a rolling pin with such a small amount of dough. Cut into triangles by cutting circle in half, and then half again until you have the desired size and number. Sprinkle with granulated sugar if desired.
Bakeat 400ÂºF for approximately 15 â€“ 20 minutes, until golden brown on top and bottom. Cool on rack until you can handle. Then enjoy with butter, crÃ¨me fraiche, jam or all three!