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Baking Fundamentals

Baking is a science that relies on the understanding of the basic fundamentals of the baking process. Once you understand how each action you take affects the finished product, you will be able to replicate recipes with greater ease.

eggs, butter, flour in glass bowl, jar of milk, and metal flour sifter

A degree in chemistry or physics isn't needed to be a good baker but a good understanding of the everyday science of the kitchen will make you well-rounded when it comes to baking.

It is important that you comprehend the scientific principles behind each action that takes place when you mix flour, fat, and water together to create a baked good.


The importance of accuracy

Almost all baked goods are made of the same ingredients: flour, water, salt, fat, and leavening agents. Sometimes the only difference between two products is the method used to assemble the ingredients. Other times the difference is the ratio of ingredients used in a recipe. Small changes to the method and ratio can have large effects on the quality of a baked good. This is why it is so important to follow recipes exactly as written and measure the ingredients properly.

Measuring ingredients

Precise, accurate measurements of ingredients is extremely important. If you want to reproduce the exact same result as the recipe author, it is crucial that you measure the ingredients with accuracy. Most recipes include either Imperial or metric measurements. Some recipe authors include both.

If both measurements are listed in a recipe, do not mix and match which measurements you use. Choose one and stick with it. For example, do not weight the flour then measure other ingredients in cups or ounces. This will cause there to be inaccuracies in measurements and will affect the final product in a negative way.

Measuring with U.S. cups

To measure dry ingredients use stainless steel or plastic measuring cups.

For flour, fluff the flour with a fork and spoon it lightly into the measuring cup. Let it mound, don’t shake the cup or pack down the flour. Use a straight edge such as a knife to level the top of the measuring cup.

To measure liquid ingredients, use a liquid measuring cup with a pouring lip. Set the cup on a level surface and read the measurements at eye level.

To measure brown sugar, use a measuring cup that holds the exact amount called for in the recipe. Pack the brown sugar into the dry measuring cup and then level it off with a straight edge.

To measure syrupy ingredients like honey, molasses, or corn syrup, first, coat the measuring spoon or cup with a light coating of cooking spray. This allows the ingredient to slip out easily.

Baker's percentages

Many recipes rely on formulas. This is especially true for bread. These formulas are referred to as baker's percentages. Each ingredient is expressed as the amount of an ingredient compared to the total amount of flour. Flour is always used as the basis for baker's percentages because it is usually the most predominant ingredient.

The total amount of flour is considered 100% so all combined ingredients add up to more than 100%. This can get confusing for some since baker's percentages are different than percentages taught in math. Think of it like this, baker's percentages are like ratios. Each ingredient is a ratio to the amount of flour which is always 100%.

Let's look at the chart below:

IngredientWeightBaker's Percentage
Flour500g100%
Water300g60%
Yeast10g2%
Salt5g1%
Total815g163%

The flour is 100%. Then each ingredient is expressed relative to the flour. Personally, I only use baker's percentage with developing yeast bread with a certain hydration point. My homemade ciabatta is a perfect example of this.

You can use baker's percentages for things like a baked custard. For this, each ingredient would be expressed relative to the dairy ingredients (milk and cream) because those make up the bulk of the recipe.

butter, eggs, and bowl of flour with whisk

The importance of ingredient temperature

You can choose the highest quality ingredients, measure them accurately, and mix them properly, but if the temperatures are not controlled, there is a chance for failure. Many ingredients, mainly fats, change properties with temperature.

Not only is it important to temper eggs or yolks before adding them to custard, but it's also important to bring cold ingredients to room temperature when making batters and doughs. When all the ingredients are at the same temperature, they emulsify easily. This results in a smooth, uniform batter that will bake into a perfect product.

Unless a recipe specifically calls for cold ingredients, it's a good rule of thumb to set these ingredients out on the countertop 30 minutes prior to making the recipe.


Mixing methods

After properly measuring ingredients, the next step is mixing. Ingredients must be mixed in a specific order to achieve the desired results. The mixing technique you use will greatly affect the product's volume, appearance, and texture.

Mixing does the following:

  • Evenly distributes the ingredients.
  • Breaks down the fat and liquids causing them to emulsify.
  • Activates the proteins in flour, developing gluten and structure.
  • Incorporates air to help give the baked good rise and lighten the texture.

There are 9 different mixing methods and each one serves its own purpose. Blending, folding, sifting, and stirring ensures the ingredients are properly combined. Cutting also combines ingredients but it ensures the final product bakes up flaky. Beating, creaming, kneading, and whipping incorporate air into the batter. The air pockets give the baked good its final texture after baking.

Fats do not blend with water. But stirring, beating, creaming, blending, and kneading break up fats into particles which allows them to blend with other liquids into a homogenous mixture.

Don’t over mix batters. Allow batters to rest when called to do so. Handle doughs as little as possible.

Pay attention to what a recipe is asking you to do. The method in which the ingredients are combined can make or break the final product.


Heat transfer

Applying heat to a fully mixed batter or dough will transform it into a delicious finished product. Heat is a type of energy and when a substance is heated, it will absorb energy. This causes the molecules to vibrate rapidly and expand. As they expand they bounce off one another causing the heat to transfer.

It's important to make sure you leave room between pans in the oven for air to circulate freely. This helps to maintain an even oven temperature and promotes even cooking. It's also important that you don't open and close the oven door during baking. Opening the door allows heat to escape causing the temperature to drop.

The baking process does not stop once a product is removed from the oven. There is residual heat contained in the hot pan and will continue to bake as the product cools. This is why most cookie recipes state the cookies will look undercooked when you remove them from the oven. But as they cool, the cookies will finish baking and become crisp.

It's super important to pay attention during the last few minutes of baking and remove the baked good at the right moment.

wooden spoon with bowl of eggs, bowl of butter, bowl of sugar, and bowl of flour

Chemical leavening agents

Baking powder and baking soda are two different ingredients.

They serve the same purpose but they do not react the same way.

Baking soda is plain sodium bicarbonate. It works by neutralizing an acidic component by creating bubbles that cause leavening. Some common acids in baking include buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, and chocolate.

Baking powder is sodium bicarbonate mixed with an acid, usually cream of tartar. Baking powder is used in baked goods that do not already contain an acid. It works the same way baking soda does. Generally, you can substitute baking powder for baking soda but not the other way around.

However, if you find yourself in a pinch and need a substitution for baking powder you can mix ½ tsp cream of tartar plus ¼ tsp baking soda per 1 tsp of baking powder called for in the recipe. When using baking powder in place of baking soda, you will need much more since baking soda is significantly more effective.

Check to see if your baking powder is still effective by adding 1 tsp to 1 cup of hot water. If it bubbles then it is still good. If not, then it is time to throw it out.

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