Baking 101

Baking and cooking are two completely different things. With cooking, you can add, remove, or swap any ingredients you want, and for the most part the only things that will be affected are flavor and texture. Baking, on the other hand, is basically chemistry with an oven. While you work from a recipe for cooking, say, a pot of soup, with baking you have to work with precise formulas of dry and wet ingredients in order to make sure everything turns out right.

You can’t just decide to replace the eggs or butter with something else in an effort to make your baked goods more “healthified”. In fact, most baked goods shouldn’t be “healthified”. They’re designed to be treats–to taste good, have a pleasant texture, and to eat only as a once-in-a-while thing; that’s why they’re called treats. If you remove or replace something without actually knowing what you’re doing, something is going to suffer, most often the texture and flavor. There are several components to baked goods, and they all do something important (although things like extracts and spices only add or enhance flavor). Below is a breakdown of the components of baking, with a little info about the purpose of each one.

Flour comes in several different varieties, and they each bring something to the baked goods they’re used in. Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Together, they form gluten once the flour is mixed with the wet ingredients in a recipe. Gluten forms the structure of all baked goods. Gluten-free baking requires different formulas and additional ingredients not found in regular baking, and there is a special sort of skill one needs to develop when baking gluten-free. Most of my baking recipes use wheat flour; if you wish to experiment in trying to make a recipe gluten-free, you’re more than welcome to. Please post your results in the comments section of the recipe you’re converting to gluten-free.

When you look at a slice of bread, you’ll see many holes. These holes are formed when gluten holds in the air bubbles that form and which cause the bread to rise. This happens with both yeast breads and quick breads. The main difference between the various kinds of flour is the percentage of protein. A good resource regarding protein percentages in flour is this article from King Arthur Baking: There are other kinds of flour, such as pastry flour and cake flour, and these are used when a more delicate texture is needed.

In any baked good, the gluten in the flour needs to be strong enough to hold in the air bubbles, yet elastic enough to expand as more air bubbles form. Mixing the dough or batter develops the gluten, but if you overmix something or use the wrong kind of flour, disaster almost always ensues. Overdeveloping the gluten may cause your muffins or other quick breads to be tough and chewy. Underdeveloping the gluten will often cause your yeast bread to collapse, because the gluten network isn’t strong enough to support the air bubbles that form during rising. Using the wrong kind of flour will produce the wrong (and very bad) structure. For example, if you use bread flour in place of cake flour, your cakes will probably turn out like bricks. There’s too much protein in bread flour to be used in something as delicate as a cake. To ensure that your cakes are always light and tender, always use cake flour.

Leaveners include yeast, baking soda, and baking powder. Yeast is a microorganism in the mold family. It eats sugars and starches from the bread dough and then lets out air bubbles, causing the dough to rise. Yeast acts rather slowly, and it requires precise temperatures in order to work its magic in the dough. Generally, yeast dough needs two rises of at least 45 minutes to one hour each. This is because as the yeast eats the sugars in the dough, it needs time to ferment. If you use quick-rising yeast to try to save time, or you have a bread machine, you will not get the proper fermentation of the dough.

Baking powder and baking soda are chemical opposites. Baking soda is an alkali or base, whereas baking powder is an acid. You sometimes need both in a recipe, and knowing which one to use as well as when both are needed is a skill that every baker needs. A very good explanation of the baking soda/baking powder conundrum can be found here:

There are two basic types of baking powder: single-acting and double-acting. Single-acting baking powder has one shot to make your quick breads, cakes, etc., rise–when you mix the wet and dry ingredients. You have to act quickly to get any kind of rising during baking, which is called oven spring. Double-acting baking powder gets some of its action when the wet and dry ingredients are mixed, and the rest during baking, giving your baked goods a nice oven spring.

Fats are very important in baking. Fats include butter, margarine, shortening, lard, and all oils. Solid fats need to be used in certain things like cookies and pie crust, whereas some fats are interchangeable for other baked goods, such as muffins. All solid fat melts during the baking process, which often leaves empty spaces/holes in your finished baked goods.

Depending on the baked good in question, you may need to have your solid fat at room temperature. There’s a good reason for this. You need to be able to quickly and completely incorporate air into the fat, which helps create the structure and texture of the finished product. Having said that, it takes a good 2-3 minutes of creaming the fat, usually with sugar, in order to properly incorporate that air. A good thing to note is that if your fat needs to be at room temperature, so do other ingredients that are usually refrigerated, such as dairy or eggs.

Sugar isn’t just there to make your cookies sweet. Sugar caramelizes, giving everything that has it that delicious, golden-brown color.

Brown sugar is chemically acidic, so it helps in the rising of the finished product, depending on whether baking powder or baking soda is used. Other sweeteners such as honey and molasses are also acidic. Sugar is needed to help incorporate air into the solid fat during creaming because the granules of sugar get coated with fat, which creates minuscule spaces for the air to be incorporated. You can’t necessarily swap one kind of sweetener for another. Always use the exact sweetener called for, and only reach for substitutes as a last resort. Also, always consult lists and charts of ingredient substitutes for when you’re out of an ingredient. Do batch tests of each substitute listed for a particular ingredient, and use the one that works best for your recipes.

Liquids include water, milk, juice, soda pop, and broth. Liquids provide moisture to your doughs and batters. This moisture will mostly, but not completely, evaporate during baking. Liquids such as milk, broth, or juice also add flavor, color, and nutrition to your baked goods. Eggs are part of both the liquid and the fat in baked goods, so they’re really a necessity when called for. They provide color, flavor, nutrition, and texture.

Nuts, chocolate and other flavored baking chips, and dried fruits add texture and flavor, while extracts and spices add or enhance flavor.

I hope this little crash course in baking helps you. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below.

3 thoughts

  1. Wow! You really know your stuff. Baking is wonderful if you know what you’re doing. Mom said you were good, but you really know!

    I’ve only baked pies. I have a funny feeling that I’ll be making more types of baked goods, in the future, though. For me, it’s hard because I eat ketogenically. So baked goods, as much as i LOVE them, are not on the menu often! But when they are? Oh, when they are! I’m bound to eat them all! Keep it coming! I love reading your stuff!


    1. When I was still on dialysis, I decided that the only way I could get a cooking degree was to do one of those correspondence courses. You remember the ones on TV with Sally Strothers. That helped me understand the mechanics of baking, although Mom taught me the fundamentals.


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