Food Talk

Top Tips to Improve Your Baking

Photo courtesy Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free

If you’re like me, you want your baked goods to look bakery perfect. No exceptions. I don’t always achieve that lofty goal but since taking Fundamentals of Baking in culinary school I have a better understanding of how the ingredients work together – or fight each other. Here are my top tops to help improve the sweets that come out of your oven.

1. Understand the Difference Between Butter & Shortening

Butter and shortening are both solid at room temperature and when creamed with sugar they help provide structure and leavening through trapped air that expands when heated. So what’s the difference?

Butter adds that yummy flavor we all love but has a lower melting point than shortening, which means that less leavening will occur before the butter melts. Shortening doesn’t have that great flavor and can leave a greasy feeling in the top of your mouth but it will give your baked goods more rise and a crispy outside. Sometimes I use 50% butter and 50% organic shortening to get the best of both worlds.

2. Buy an Instant Read Digital Thermometer

Wheat based baked goods are done baking when their internal temperature reaches 200F. The correct way to ‘temp’ your product is to insert the thermometer in the thickest part. It’s baked at 200F. No more over baked goodies.

I’ve found that the same is true for gluten-free baked goods. When I’m baking cakes or muffins that are healthier, with less fat and more fruit or yogurt, they’re done at a much lower temperature, between 180F – 190F. I strongly suspect that this has nothing to do with gluten-free verses wheat but instead it’s part of low-fat baking. If you like to bake healthier, use the old fashioned toothpick trick.

Photo courtesy Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free

3. Choose the Thickener Suited for the Job

Should you use tapioca starch or cornstarch? The most important difference between the two is that cornstarch is prone to retrogradation, meaning that it has a tendency to revert to it’s original state when refrigerated or frozen. Have you ever baked a pie and used cornstarch to thicken the filling and frozen it only to find that it’s weepy when thawed? That’s the cornstarch.

If you plan to freeze your baked goods, reach for tapioca starch. It won’t retrograde.

4. Use the Correct Chemical Leavener

Baking powder and baking soda will both give your product some height but they work in different ways. Baking soda has a pH higher than 7 so it’s an alkali, or basic. It will only work when mixed with something acidic, such as fruit, yogurt, buttermilk, molasses, and vinegar. When you see these ingredients in a recipe, you can use baking soda to help get a nice rise. I’ve found that the quicker I get my baking soda quick breads and muffins in the over, the better they turn out.

Baking powder, on the other hand, only needs a liquid to start making bubbles. Most baking powder on the market today is ‘double acting’ which means that it has two rises – once when it’s mixed and again when it’s heated. I often use a combination of the two.

Photo courtesy Simply Sugar & Gluten-Free

5. Measure Properly

This is where many people go wrong. In professional kitchens, everything is ‘scaled,’ or weighed instead of measured. This gives an exact quantity to ensure the same results every time. Unfortunately, most American recipes are based on cups and tablespoons. There are a few things you can do to compensate.

Flour absorbs moisture and measures differently depending on the weather, room temperature, and whether or not it’s stirred and spooned or scooped. On wet, humid days, you might need a little less flour than on dry days when the flour hasn’t soaked up any water from the air. The same is true if your kitchen is hot and humid rather than cool and dry.

Get in the habit of stirring your flour bin to lighten it up before you scoop it into a measuring cup and level it off. If you shove your measuring cup into the bag of flour, you’ll pack the flour into the cup and end up with way more than the recipe actually calls for.

Most importantly, be thoughtful about your baking and learn from successes and failures. Reflection has improved my baking a hundred times over.

Wishing you much baking success!

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