Adventures in Cooking

Baking Tips

I’ve been baking for over a decade and have learned both from the school of hard knocks and actual formal baking classes from professionals like King Arthur Flour. If you try some of the delicious cakes, pies, or bread recipes on the site, it’s always helpful to read through these baking tips first. They’ll help you have a deeper understanding of how baking works from a scientific perspective, and give you the background to comprehend what’s really going on in the dough + pastry itself.

Flour

I use King Arthur’s Bread Flour for all recipes here that list flour as an ingredient, unless otherwise noted. It has a higher protein content than their All-Purpose flour and I find that it gives baked goods a richer golden hue and a wonderful crumb. Traditional flour is made from grains of wheat. Wheat grains have a hard coating on the outside called bran. The bran has a high protein content and makes up about 14% of the grain. The bran also has sharp edges. The inside of the grain is mostly made up of the endosperm, which is a carbohydrate and makes up 83% of the grain.

Inside the endosperm is the wheat germ which is mostly oil (fat) and makes up 3% of the grain. Whole wheat flour has a greater amount of bran incorporated into it, which is why it has a higher protein content. It is also why whole wheat breads don’t rise as much as breads made ¬†with white flour, because the sharpness of the bran does not allow the dough to stretch as much and makes whole wheat dough have less give when pulling or stretching on it. White flour has had the bran removed, but it does not mean that it has been bleached. Avoid using bleached flours, because much of the flavor of the flour is removed from the flour during the bleaching process.

If you want to substitute whole wheat flour in a recipe that calls for white or all-purpose flour, you should add one or two extra tablespoons of water to the dough and allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes after mixing. This helps the tougher bran pieces absorb the water more thoroughly and allows the dough to relax more, which will make it easier to work with when shaping. When it comes to storing flour, you should use an opened package of flour within 6 months of the opening date. Flour should be stored in an airtight container away from heat and bright light. You can even store your flour in the freezer in an airtight container if you don’t think you’ll be able to go through all of it within a 6-month period.

Yeast

There are two different kinds of yeast, fresh and dried “instant” yeast. Fresh yeast is hard to come by, and there isn’t a difference in taste or in function between fresh yeast and dried yeast. Additionally, dried yeast keeps longer, so for simplicity’s sake dried yeast is the way to go. Instant Yeast is the most common type of dried yeast, but there is another type of dried yeast called Active Dry Yeast, which used to have a different meaning than it does now.

Back in the day, dried living yeast cells were coated in dead yeast cells to help protect the living cells from the heat of the drying process, which was why if you used Active Dry Yeast you had to soak it in warm water with a bit of sugar for about 15 minutes before use to dissolve away the dead yeast cells and activate the living yeast cells in the center of the tiny kernels of yeast. Nowadays, both Instant Yeast and Active Dry Yeast are dried using fans rather than an intense heat source so the coating of dead yeast cells is not necessary and neither is the soaking process. Active Dry Yeast has slightly larger kernels and is faster to rise and faster to collapse, so keep that in mind if you’re using Active Dry Yeast in a recipe that calls for Instant Yeast.

When a dough collapses, it means that you let it proof too long or at too high of a temperature or both and it will be much gooier in texture, harder to work with, and create an unpleasantly dense and overly yeasty baked good, so it is best to keep a close eye on dough that is rising and go by the look of the dough as instructed in the recipe rather than the time. You can tell that it has collapsed if it appears to literally collapse when you poke it and there are a bunch of air bubbles, these are the result of the yeast cells ingesting carbohydrates and expelling alcohol and carbon dioxide.

When it comes to storing yeast, there are a few different recommendations depending on the packaging of the yeast. If you’re using individual yeast packets, you should use all of you yeast within the expiration date on the package and the yeast will last a bit longer if you keep it in the refrigerator. If you’re using a large container of yeast, you must keep it refrigerated after opening in an air-tight container, however, you can also keep your yeast in the freezer, The folks at King Arthur Flour all keep their yeast in air-tight containers in their freezers, and they say it thaws out really quickly. While storing yeast in the freezer decreases the yeast’s activity by 10%, it says steady at 90% activity for pretty much forever, which is much more predictable than yeast kept at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Sugar

When used in baked goods, sugar extends the shelf life of the item, helps with browning, and provides  sweet flavor. You can substitute honey, agave, or other natural sweeteners on a 1:1 scale for granulated sugar.

Water

When mixed with flour, water allows gluten to form. It also provides a means for dispersing yeast, salt, and sugar throughout the dough. It also helps speed up the fermentation process that occurs when dough is proofing; wetter doughs rise and collapse more quickly than drier doughs.

Salt

Salt provides flavor and also strengthens the gluten structure that is formed by the water and the flour. It also limits the activity of the yeast, so if you over salt a recipe that calls for yeast it will take much longer for the dough to proof.

Fats

Fats provide flavor and help baked goods brown. You can substitute coconut oil for butter in most recipes, but make sure that your coconut oil is refrigerated so that it is in a solid state when you incorporate it. This will help eliminate the overly-greasy texture that many baked goods containing coconut oil have.

Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in flours. It is what gives baked goods their structure and affects their texture. Generally, breads have more developed gluten which is why their texture is usually tougher and firmer than baked goods like muffins or cakes, which are much more crumbly.

Flakiness

In order to make a flakey-textured baked good, you need to have larger pieces of butter in the dough. You need these larger pieces of butter (about pea-sized) because when the butter melts when it’s baking in the oven, it lets out a teensy bit of moisture when it is trapped between layers of dough, and this creates a teensy air pocket between those layers of dough. And all those teensy air pockets combined create the textural sensation that we know as flakiness.

That is why it’s a good idea to pop your dough in the fridge for a little bit if it’s really hot when you’re rolling it out, or to keep the completed crust in the refrigerator until you’re done making the filling, because you don’t want the butter to melt before you put it in the oven. You can also keep your butter in the freezer before cutting it up and adding it to the recipe to make sure it stays nice and cold. I have heard about people grating their frozen butter over the bowl with the largest grater hole setting, but I still feel like that wouldn’t make large enough chunks. If you have tried that method and found that it worked, please let me know as I am very curious about it.

Tenderness

At the opposite end of the flakiness scale is tenderness. In order to make a very tender baked good, like a cake or a muffin, you want to have the butter evenly incorporated into the dough. This is why so many cake recipes start with creaming together the butter and the sugar. Tender baked goods generally need less water than flakey baked goods.

Chilling the Dough

Dough should be chilled for the reasons mentioned above in Flakiness, and for the following reasons. It allows the flour to absorb more of the moisture in the dough, which results in a more moist baked good. It also allows the gluten strands to relax and develop. Chilling the dough will also make it easier to work; since the gluten has relaxed, the dough will not shrink back as much when you roll it out. If you find that your dough keeps shrinking back when you roll it out, wrap it up as-is in plastic wrap and let it sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before continuing to roll it out.

Kneading the Dough

When you are kneading dough, you should fold it in half towards yourself and then roll it away. You will know that you are kneading too hard if the dough starts to get sticky, this becomes an issue because as it becomes stickier you will need to add more flour to keep it from sticking to the kneading surface, and you can easily end up adding too much flour to the recipe this way. Your dough is done kneading when it is smooth and supple and bounces pack when gently poked.

When you are kneading dough, you should fold it in half towards yourself and then roll it away. You will know that you are kneading too hard if the dough starts to get sticky, this becomes an issue because as it becomes stickier you will need to add more flour to keep it from sticking to the kneading surface, and you can easily end up adding too much flour to the recipe this way. Your dough is done kneading when it is smooth and supple and bounces pack when gently poked.