Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Friday, November 14, 2008

Basic Baking Ingredients: Tips on Temperature and Treatment

Recently a friend insisted that she couldn't bake a cookie to save her life—or to have fun with her kids. Every time her children asked, "Mommy, can we bake cookies?" she reached for the mix and watched the excitement in her children's eyes fade. Her kids want to bake cookies for the baking, not just the eating, and no mix will ever satisfy that craving.

So she told me all about it, and it turned out she'd been leaving the butter on her counter for way too long and over-mixing her dough. The result? A dough so warm and soft that it spread all over the sheet as it baked, turning into one giant cookie-ish crispy thing not suitable for eating—even by children.

Truth be told, I never bake from a mix, and over years of baking from scratch solo and with pros, I've learned a lot about ingredients. More to the point, I've learned how what you do with your ingredients will affect your goodies—for better or worse. So I'll share with you some of the basics I share with my friends when they call me with their baking blunders.


When it comes to Butter, temperature matters. While lots of recipes call for room temperature butter, the temperature of your kitchen varies and butter can often get too soft. When a recipe says "room temp," it's calling for a softened butter that you can press your finger on—feeling some resistance—and make a slight impression without leaving your finger too greasy. Dough for puff pastry or biscuits needs cold butter, very cold. So it's best to cut your butter into the desired size cubes, then stick it back in the fridge until the second you'll use it. When I make a dough that requires very cold butter, I take the extra precaution of chilling everything—flour and bowl included—ensuring my butter won't soften or melt during mixing, kneading or folding, and rolling, thus destroying those flaky layers I'm trying to attain.

Eggs are another temperature-sensitive ingredient. If your using them in cookies, it's actually not that important they be room temperature. But, if you're doing a Chiffon, Angel Food cake or Meringues, they simply can't be cold. You'll never get cold egg-whites to reach a peak (I even know one pro who leaves his egg-whites out for 24 hours before making the perfect Macarons with them). If you're baking a cake, you also need room temperature eggs, a cold egg inhibits the chemical reaction of rising agents, and you could end up with a fallen cake.


Granulated Sugar isn't usually something you need to sift, Confectioners' Sugar is. But this isn't a rule to blindly follow. Since moving to the East Coast, I've used Domino sugar. Unlike the C&H sugar I used on the West Coast, Domino has lots of lumps—likely from the humidity—so I always sift it. With Confectioners' sugar, also known as Powdered sugar, sifting is almost an imperative, especially if you're making frosting. Sifting not only removes clumps, it aerates the ingredient being sifted, resulting in a lighter and fluffier end product.

Flour follows almost the same logic as sugar. With cookies or biscuits using All-Purpose Flour, you rarely need to sift. With cakes using Cake Flour, sifting is standard and you shouldn't skip it. But there's one thing you can do with either flour when your recipe doesn't call for sifting, and that's whisking. Whether making cookies, pie dough or coffee cake, you measure all dry ingredients into one bowl (using a scale makes this a cinch)—but they need to be homogenized before combining them with the wet. Just stirring your bowl of dry ingredients with a whisk will ensure even distribution. It's also important to never over-combine your flour. Most recipes incorporate the flour last, and you should only mix until you can't see any pockets of flour—then stop, finishing up by hand instead of in a stand mixer. Over-working flour into your dough causes cakes to fall, cookies to spread, and biscuits to be tough.

Salt is important in baking, never nix it because it enhances the flavors of the other ingredients. But, if you don't want bursts of salt in your mouth when eating dessert, use Fine Salt and be sure it dissolves, something it just can't do in a bowl of dry ingredients. For this reason, many professionals have taken to adding the salt to wet ingredients like vanilla extract, stirring with a tiny whisk to ensure the salt dissolves. If you do want a salt burst in your mouth—say you're making Michael Recchiuti's Fleur de Sel Caramels—then don't dissolve it, and use Coarse Salt instead of fine (Fleur de Sel, Sel Gris, Trapani, Jurassic, and Kosher are some examples).

While this article is by no means exhaustive, it should get you on your way towards understanding ingredients, paying attention to the consequences of their temperature and treatment, and trouble-shooting when things go wrong. Thanks to this knowledge, I was able to tell my friend to just leave her butter cold and not over-work the flour into her dough, and now she can bake cookies with her kids. Kids are natural enthusiasts after all, they want to bake cookies from scratch because it's fun. Every baking enthusiast can learn a lesson from kids, and stop shorting our pleasure of the pursuit by reaching for the mix.

Baking on Foodista

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