When it comes to baking, everything matters. The type of bakeware, size of pan, measurement of ingredients, temperature, time, just about everything matters. Especially if you are just starting out, it would do you good if you follow instructions to the T. Lets get down to baking basics.
Here I have compiled a few basic things that is a must before you get down to baking, from a homemaker’s perspective.
1)First up, read the recipe thoroughly and carefully
First read the recipe carefully, understand the ingredients & method of going about the preparation. Even commas add great significance at times. Never miss the recipe notes or tips of the author, if any, given at the end of the recipe. And if you are looking up recipes online, do spend some time in glancing through the comments of people who have already tried out the recipe. This opens up a lot of ideas and helps in trouble shooting too.
2)Collect all the ingredients
Collect all the ingredients listed before getting started, so that you do not waste precious time looking about for things in the middle of baking. At times delaying spoils the final product. For instance, if you keep the cake batter out for quite some time after adding the wet ingredients with the leavening agents, your cake is bound to become tough.
2)Ensure that all ingredients are at room temperature.
Unless otherwise stated , all ingredients used in baking should be at room temperature. Especially butter and eggs should be kept out of the refrigerator atleast half an hour prior to baking or atleast till it softens. Keeping it out for a long time also is not advisable . For instance cakes become oily, when made with butter that has been kept out for a long time.
4)Ensure that all equipments used in baking are moisture free
Egg whites do not whip up well when the container is moist. Most recipes call for mixing the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately . Hence it is always a good practise to use moisture free pans and equipments.
4)Sift the flour well
Always sift the flour with the baking powder and /or baking soda and salt, twice or thrice. This ensures that the leavening agents get well incorporated in the entire flour. Its a good idea to sift the cocoa powder also before adding it to the other ingredients , so that it does not clump up.
5)Adding the flour
While for breads and rolls , it is ok to just dump in all the ingredients into the stand mixer and knead, it’l not work for cakes and cookies. For cakes especially, most recipes call for mixing the dry ingredients into the beaten wet ingredients.
The flour in such cases has to be added in instalments , maybe in thirds or fourths and folded into the mixture. From experience I have learnt that folding in the anti clockwise direction incorporates more air into the batter, thus making it rise well. Over-folding and over-beating should also be avoided as it results in tough dense cakes.
For cookies just mixing up the ingredients will do. We are not looking for gluten formation, so kneading is not needed.
6)Prepare your pans
Choose your pans appropriately. It is always good to follow the pan size mentioned in the recipe. Line cake pans with parchment paper or prep the pan by applying a layer of butter and dust all over with flour. Excess flour should be tapped and discarded. This ensures that the cakes don’t stick to the pan. Never fill cake pans to more than two-thirds its capacity.
7)Preheat the Oven.
This is a must for baking. When the batter or the dough goes into the oven the temperature inside the oven should be the same, and that mentioned in the recipe. Lesser temperature will not result in proper rising, and higher temperature will brown the outside and leave the inside uncooked.
8) Baking time
Whether you are baking breads , cakes or cookies the smell emanating from the oven will invariably let you know that it will be ready in a few minutes. The oven timer should however be set to the one mentioned in the recipe. Do not open the oven door, atleast till half time is lapsed. If you open the door before that then cakes and breads will sink back. Breads normally take 40-45 mts, cakes around 30mts, dinner rolls around 15-20 mts and cookies around 12-15mts.
9)Testing for doneness
Well after 40 to 45 minutes , a wonderful baked bread smell emanates from the oven, which tells you are closing in. Doneness of bread is mostly known by the tap test. If you hear a hollow sound on tapping the underside of a bread then its done.
Dinner rolls and buns
Apart from the smell test , the tops of the rolls become golden brown. If the bottom also turns golden brown then its 100% done.
Smell test works here also. Usually an wooden stick or skewer is inserted in the middle of the cake.If it comes out clean, then the cake is done. Also the cake leaves the sides of the pan when done.
10)Cooling the baked products
Remove the baked goodies immediately from the oven , after baking. Let it rest atleast for a minute or two in the baked pan, unless otherwise mentioned. If you had used parchment paper for lining then you can just go ahead and invert the cake pan on to the wire rack for cooling. If you had greased the pan with butter/oil and flour, then using a butter knife release the edges completely before inverting. Though there is no need to cover the cakes or breads while cooling, I prefer to cover with a tissue paper so that it does not dry out. Slice and store only after thoroughly cooling.
11)Invest in a weighing machine and/ or measuring cups
If are seriously into baking , a weighing machine is a must. Most recipes call for measurements in grams or ounces. When the measure is through a weighing machine it tends to be more precise and accurate. So also the cups and spoons. You can definitely manage to a certain extent without weighing machine and measuring cups. But your results will never be consistent. And these do not cost a fortune 🙂 . You do not need to buy the best quality product out there. Simple ones will do. An oven thermometer will also help a lot in your baking journey. Though I have been planning to buy one, it hasn’t yet worked out for me.
Working with yeast
I am used to baking with dry yeast, which comes in two forms-instant dry yeast and active dry yeast. Instant yeast does not need proofing and can be directly added to the flour and is usually preferred in quick breads, 1 hour rolls and the sort. Active dry yeast need to be proofed atleast for 10 minutes before adding to the recipe. I am most comfortable with active dry yeast. Here are some tips to get the yeast working for you.
- Yeast is a living organism, so it needs to be dealt with care.
- Proofing is the process by which yeast is put in warm water and a bit of sugar and kept aside to get activated. It is considered usable when it froths and bubbles up and discarded when it does not.
- The most optimum temperature for working up yeast is 110°F or 43°C. Since I do not have a cooking thermometer, I rely on my sense of touch, which works beautifully for me. Just heat up water to a temperature that you can stick your fingers in. That is a bit hotter than luke warm.
- Do not proof yeast for more than 10 mts, else it will become weak.
- Always ensure that the yeast has not expired.
Trouble shooting in baking
Even well versed bakers have their bad days. To be a successful baker , you need to take it in your stride , learn from your mistakes and do well the next time. I have seen many people giving up when their very first venture flops. Of course baking involves quite a few ingredients and wasting them would definitely be disheartening. I would always suggest that you start out with the minimum quantity .
And even if you fail, before throwing it away google up for ways to salvage your error. For instance if you google, “What to do with burnt cakes” a whole lot of options open up. Never give up without trying 🙂 .
FAQ’S , Do’s and Dont’s.
The content here is based on personal experience. So I shall be adding as and when I face issues in baking. I shall be pleased to include any of your queries too. But before that there are certain general do’s and dont’s.
Kneading is done to create gluten in the flour, which forms a matrix like stucture. This traps the gases produced by the yeast and results in the rising of the dough.
Over kneading rarely happens when kneading by hand. Its easy to over knead when using a stand mixer, as the kneading happens very quickly. Over kneaded dough tightens up and is difficult to flatten. Over kneaded dough results in a hard, dense and crumbly loaf.
Under kneaded dough looks shaggy and does not hold its shape. This dough produces flat loafs with dense texture.
To avoid kneading issues , you should knead till the dough springs back on pressing and does not tear when pulled. Generally 8-10 minutes of kneading on medium speed should do for stand mixers. Look for a supple smooth dough, which is tacky but not sticky.
This is the generally the process of incorporating the ingredients to form a homogenous mixture, which is uniform throughout.
When cake batter is over mixed, too much air is incorporated into the dough and this will result in a sunken cake. Also the gluten in the flour will form elastic strands and this will result in dense, chewy cakes. Over mixing cookie dough will result in tough cookies.
Under mixing can leave out small pockets of dry ingredients. Sugar crystals if under mixed can work up to the top of the cake and make the cake unpalatable.
Most people tend to undermix the cake batter for fear of overmixing. Always add the dry ingredients in instalments and gently fold into the wet ingredients. Mix only as long as it takes to incorporate everything completely. Small lumps here and there are ok.
Proofing in baking terms refers to the amount of time given to the dough to rise before baking. Generally the dough is allowed to double in size. The dough is proofed twice, once after kneading and then again after shaping and placing in the pan. Proofing of yeast refers to activating the yeast by sprinkling it in a measured quanity of warm water, with little or no sugar added.
Over proofed dough will collapse in the oven as the dough rises beyond the capacity of the gluten network to hold the structure.
If the dough is underproofed , the gluten does not get time to relax and so the dough loses its elasicity. Also the yeast still has fuel, so it continues to rise in the oven after the crust has set. This will lead to dough explosions and a loaf that is cracked mostly along the sides . This is tackled to a certain extent by scoring the bread with a knife, so that when the bubbles are formed, they will explode along the score.
Test for proofing- The poke test
- When you poke the dough, if it springs back then the dough is underproofed.
- If it does not spring back at all or collapses then it is over proofed.
- If the hole poked springs back half way then the proofing is just right.
Breads and rolls
1 .Why is my bread crumbly?
The main reason for bread being crumbly is underkneading. Kneading creates gluten strands that expand while baking to give bread its texture. So when there is not enough of gluten , bread tends to crumble. Too much flour in the dough can also create a crumbly bread.
1 .Why is my cake greasy?
Leaving the butter out for a long time at room temperature, will sweat it and make greasy cakes. Half an hour on the counter is a good time for softening butter.
2 .Why is my cake cracked ?
If your oven temperature is too high , then cakes tend to crack as the outside forms a crust before the inside cooks and expands. Frequent opening and closing of oven can also result in cracked cakes.
Using smaller pan size than is recommended for that quantity of batter can also result in cracked cakes
Too much of leavening agents like baking powder/baking soda can also create cracks on cakes.
1 . Why are my cookies burnt at the bottom?
Cookies are best baked in the middle rack with both rods on. If only the lower rod is on, then cookies tend to burn at the bottom.
Using dark colored pans, like the ones that come with the oven, also creates cookies burnt at the bottom. The dark color absorbs more heat , burning the cookies, though the tops of the cookies still seem uncooked.
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