by Jolene Lamb, coordinator, LLCC Culinary Institute
Summer is officially over, and I’ll host one last big harvest dinner for my family to feast on the end of the season bounty. Then I’ll move on to fall baking with apples and cinnamon, pies for Thanksgiving, and then cookies, candies and all things chocolate for Christmas. I love to bake, and through the years, I’ve taught a variety of hands-on baking classes at the LLCC Community Education Culinary Institute.
In my classes, I often have people tell me they are intimidated by baking, they are unsure if they are following the directions correctly or they are unfamiliar with the techniques described in the recipe. I always assure them that they have come to the right place, and I show them the process of baking the items featured in class, give professional tips, and teach them the why and how behind what we are baking. I believe knowing the science, or reaction and function, of ingredients and techniques used in baking will help a baker be successful in the kitchen.
Here are a few important tips to keep in mind if you plan to bake your heart out this fall and winter.
1. Always Have the Correct Butter Consistency
Butter is the starting point for an immense amount of baked goods, so it’s important to have it prepped as the recipe suggests. The temperature of butter can dramatically affect the texture of baked goods. There are three different consistencies of butter that baking recipes typically call for: softened, chilled and melted.
Most recipes calling for butter call for room temperature/softened butter. Room temperature butter is actually cool to touch, not warm. When you press it, your finger will make an indent. Your finger won’t sink down into the butter, nor will your finger slide all around. To get that perfect consistency and temperature, leave butter out on the counter for around an hour prior to beginning your recipe. Soft butter will easily incorporate into a mixture.
Chilled butter is butter that has been well chilled in the refrigerator so that it does not melt during mixing. Mixing creates friction, which causes heat, and if butter is soft, it will melt during the process. Chilled butter is called for in pie crust recipes. Keeping the butter intact and not melted is how you obtain a flaky crust.
Unless otherwise noted, melted butter should be liquefied and lukewarm. If melted butter is too hot, it can cook any eggs that may be in the recipe.
And while we are on the subject, always use unsalted butter, unless the recipe calls for salted specifically. Otherwise you’ll be adding salt twice (once in the butter and once in the recipe).
2. Room Temperature is KEY
Speaking of temperature, if a recipe calls for room temperature eggs or any dairy ingredients such as milk or yogurt, make sure you follow suit. Recipes don’t just do that for fun! Room temperature ingredients emulsify much easier into batter, which creates a uniform texture throughout your baked good. Take eggs for example. At room temp they will whip to a greater volume, which will add more volume to your final batter. So, yes, temperature is imperative!
3. Read the Recipe Before Beginning
This sounds sort of silly to type, but in order to avoid mistakes that could lead to disaster, take a few minutes and read the entire recipe before starting the first step. Some steps are time or temperature sensitive, such as caramelizing sugar, whipping egg whites and making meringue. If the sugar is caramelized too early, it will cool and therefore not cook the eggs when it is incorporated. Reading ahead will help you know the how, why, where and when of what you are about to do. It could save you from wasting your ingredients (and money!) on a failed dessert.
4. When Measuring
Baking is a science. Excellent baking requires precise ratios, proven techniques and successful recipes that have been tested for taste. Unlike cooking, you can’t just bake something by throwing some ingredients together, mess it up and eat it anyway! One of the most crucial parts of baking is measuring ingredients properly.
Problems are common if measurements are incorrect. Having a firm grasp of measuring techniques is essential. Measure dry ingredients in measuring cups or spoons. These are specially designed for dry ingredients. Spoon and level (a.k.a. “spoon and sweep”) your dry ingredients. This means that you should use a spoon to fill the cup and level it off. This is especially important with flour. Scooping flour (or any dry ingredient) packs that ingredient down, and you could end up with more than what is actually needed. A recipe calling for 1 cup of flour and baked with 2 or more cups instead will surely result in a fail, or at the very least be rather dry in texture.
For liquid ingredients, always use a liquid measuring cup.
5. Better Yet, Weigh Your Ingredients
Precision is a key to consistency. Weighing ingredients on a kitchen scale is, by far, my preferred method over measuring. Volume and weight are not the same. Filling a measuring cup is a volume of flour. As mentioned before, it can easily be over or under filled. Weight is a constant. One ounce is always one ounce, and one pound is always one pound. Another benefit to having and using a kitchen scale is the ability to use recipes that are written in metric. Many great French pastry recipes are often written in metric, and the inconsistency of trying to convert them to U.S. measurements can end with a poor result. So instead, just set your scale to metric, and bake French macarons!
6. Get an Oven Thermometer
Unless you have a brand new or regularly calibrated oven, your oven’s temperature is likely inaccurate. When you set your oven to 350°F, it might not really be 350°F inside. It could only be off by a little, 10 degrees or so, or even more than that — 25 degrees more! An inaccurate oven can ruin your baked goods, the hours spent on the recipe and the money spent on ingredients, and leave you hungry for dessert. The inexpensive remedy to these baking disasters is an oven thermometer. While cheap, they are irreplaceable in a baker’s kitchen. Place it in your oven so you always know the actual temperature.
If you use a convection oven, always reduce the oven temperature by 25°F. It is best to reduce the baking time as well. For cookies, it is around 1 minute less. For cakes, cupcakes, bread, brownies, bars, etc. (items with longer bake times), it is usually reduced around 5 or so minutes.
7. Keep the Oven Door Closed
You now know how the oven’s temperature can ruin a recipe. But what can completely throw off the oven temperature is constantly opening and closing that oven to peek at your baking cupcakes. It can let cool air in, which greatly interrupts your baked good from cooking. Or worse — it affects how your baked good is rising. If you need to test your cakes for doneness with a toothpick, do so quickly. Remove it from the oven, close the oven immediately, test for doneness and put it back in as quickly as you can if more bake time is required.
8. Chill Your Cookie Dough
If a recipe calls for chilling the cookie dough, don’t skip that step.
Chilling firms up cookie dough, decreasing the possibility of spreading. Chilling cookie dough not only ensures a thicker, more solid cookie but an accentuated flavor. In soft chocolate chip cookies, for example, it helps develop a heightened buttery, caramelly flavor. After chilling, let your cookie dough sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes (or more, depending how long the dough has chilled) before rolling into balls and baking.
Still not feeling confident? Join me or any one of our instructors this fall for a hands-on baking class! Or try this recipe. It’s perfect for a crisp fall morning! Be brave, and try out a new kitchen scale by weighing the ingredients in metric!
Baked Apple Cider Doughnuts
Yield: 12 doughnuts or muffins
Time: about 35 minutes
This recipe yields the classic flavor of baked cider doughnuts. For the most traditional result, a doughnut pan is recommended, but you can also bake these off in a muffin pan.
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour (225 grams)
- 1 ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature (225 grams)
- ¾ cup light brown sugar (165 grams)
- ¾ cup granulated sugar (150 grams)
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup apple cider (120 milliliters)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 2, 6-cavity doughnut pans (or a 12-cup muffin tin) with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, add the flour, baking powder, salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon and nutmeg, and whisk to combine. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream 10 tablespoons (140 grams) butter, brown sugar and 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, and mix until well incorporated after each addition, scraping the bowl as necessary. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed until incorporated. With the mixer running, add the apple cider in a slow, steady stream, and mix to combine. Scrape the bowl well to make sure the batter is homogeneous.
Spoon the batter into prepared doughnut pans, filling them about 2/3 of the way full (you can also do this using a disposable piping bag or a resealable plastic bag with a 1/2-inch opening cut from one corner). Bake until evenly golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the thickest portion comes out clean, 12 to 15 minutes. Rotate the pans halfway through baking. (If you are making muffins, divide batter evenly between the prepared cups and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating halfway through.)
While the doughnuts bake, whisk the remaining 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon together in a small bowl to combine. In a separate small bowl, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter in the microwave. Let the doughnuts cool for 5 minutes after baking, then unmold them from the pans, brush with the melted butter and dredge them in the cinnamon sugar while they are still warm. Serve immediately, or let cool to room temperature.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Hospitality Supervisor, Hospitality Professional, Culinary Manager, First Cook, Baking/Pastry and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.
Cooking or food questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.