Loads of you loved last months post on baking hints and have asked for more top baking tips from me – so here’s another round of my baking wisdom.
With many Australians still trying to fill in their days in lockdown, the My Top Baking Tips post I put up a few weeks back has proved to be very popular. Lots of you have asked me for more top baking tips, so here goes with a bit of a drill further down into the sorcery of baking.
In my last post I looked briefly at the basics any baker will need but, as a quick swan through any of the kitchen stores either online or on foot, there’s a wealth of baking kit out there. How necessary much of it is will depend upon your purse and level of commitment.
Silicon mats – many of us are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, and replacing single-use items with more durable items is one way to do this. Silicon mats are very handy to have. On the up side, nothing sticks to them, they are able to be used at high temperatures (I believe you can use them on your barbecue plate), and they clean up with a simple wipe. The down side is that they can be very expensive so it’s worth shopping around (I got a bunch of them very inexpensively from the centre aisle of a European supermarket chain during one of their weekly specials), and they don’t fit into your baking pans. You will still need to use baking paper on occasions, but there are now some ‘greener’ varieties of that available.
Baking pans – there is a difference. You will be looking for good quality pans and sheet trays that don’t stick or warp, and that conduct heat evenly. Silicon cake pans looked like they might have a moment in the sun, but I found their lack of structural stability a pain and quickly went back to the rigid metal variety. Inexpensive aluminium pans are found in supermarkets and can be fine in the short term, but will eventually corrode, but that doesn’t mean you have to mortgage the kids (no matter how attractive that might seem at the time) to get decent bakeware.
Check out any mid-price range pans, looking at anodized aluminium, or the slightly pricier aluminised steel pans, and make sure to have a couple of sizes handy – I find 20cm, 23cm, and 26cm round spring-form pans, one loaf pan and a square 20x20cm pan covers most recipes.
Bundt pans – these can be the source of much joy or heartache. There’s not a lot more tragic than the debris of a bundt cake staring back at you once you’ve tried an unsuccessful dismount. If you want magnificent bundts in your future, avoid the cheap pans and invest a little in a decent one (then follow all greasing instructions as if your life depended upon it).
Do I need a sifter? Unless you intend making a lot of cakes that need serious aeration, like sponges and angel food cakes, probably not. I ‘sift’ dry ingredients by giving them a whizz in the processor, or a good mix in the bowl with a balloon whisk, so make sure you have nice big, sturdy one of those.
Spatulas and scrapers – buy a bunch of different sized silicon spoons, spoon-ulas (spoon-shaped, with a flat, scrapy edge) and spatulas. You’ll thank me for this.
Flour – aside from wheat flours, there are quite a few alternatives like chick pea flour, coconut flour, buckwheat flour, amaranth flour … the list goes on. However don’t be tempted to simply substitute them for wheat flour when using a recipe. I won’t go into gluten-free baking here because I don’t do it, and don’t know enough about it. What I do know is that most of the gluten free flours behave differently, have different moisture requirements and will not result in a similar end product without using an ingredient-specific recipe, or a lot of tweaking.
Leavening agents – as I mentioned in my first post, there are few different kinds. These all behave differently so, again, don’t be tempted to substitute one for another. Baking powder and baking soda are different products and act differently.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate and requires a liquid and acid (like buttermilk or yoghurt) to activate it. It works immediately, releasing carbon dioxide to form bubbles, which makes the batter rise. Batters prepared with this must be used pretty well straight away, or they will collapse.
Baking powder is a blend of sodium bicarbonate and a dry acid (like cream of tartar or sodium aluminium sulfate). This changes the way it acts, relying on the heat of the oven to release more carbon dioxide later in the baking process.
Sugars – now this is what baking is all about and it’s a vital part of my top baking tips. Made from sugar cane here in Australia, but often sugar beets in other parts of the world, white sugar is a highly processed product, that has had all of the molasses refined out of it. It’s easy to measure out, but the resultant sweetness is pretty one dimensional. Powdered sugar, icing sugar, or confectioners sugar is simply the same product, finely milled – sometimes with a little cornstarch added to stop it clumping.
Caster sugar has smaller crystals than plain granulated sugar. This makes it more desirable in baking, as the many sharp corners of the sugar cut into butter during the creaming process (see below), creating air pockets and improving the texture of your bakes.
Brown (light and dark) sugar is less refined, meaning it contains more molasses. It is softer and can cake if left in the air, has a greater depth of flavour and, when used in things like cookies, will add a degree of delicious chewiness to the texture.
Caster sugar can be swapped out for white sugar, and the swap can go the other way, but if the recipe calls for creaming butter and sugar it may take longer to get the desired result if you don’t use caster sugar.
Using brown sugar in place of white refined sugar is not advised – it will generally give a totally different result in terms of texture and flavour.
Creaming butter and sugar is a process that is regularly called for in cake making, and is really most efficiently done using a mixer – either a stand mixer or hand beaters. It can be time consuming, but is absolutely worth the effort. It creates a finer texture in cakes and is a necessary step for aeration and lightness – and that’s what cakes are all about.
Properly done, your butter will be softened at room temperature before you start, and the resulting creamed mix will be light, fluffy and almost white. Don’t try to cut corners by melting the butter – believe me, there will be tears before bedtime when you discover that the mixture won’t hold air.
Folding, stirring, beating – these are all different ways to get your mixture combined and if one is stipulated, you can assume it’s necessary to the outcome.
Folding is a method used to add ingredients to an already fluffy, airy mixture. It needs to be done gently to avoid breaking the air bubbles. Use a large-ish spoon or spatula (nothing with sharp edges) in a slow figure-of-8 motion, from the edges of the bowl through the middle, to gradually, and only just, incorporate your ingredients.
Beating ingredients in will generally help to incorporate more air, aiding in the lightness of the end product.
Stirring is just that, combining the ingredients until they are just blended through the mixture without over mixing, which can make some bakes tough. (Confusing, isn’t it?!)
Eggs – when it comes to more top baking tips, this is a biggie, and you’ll thank me for it one day. When adding eggs to your batter (or anything, for that matter) break them into a cup or small dish first, then add them to the batter. This way, if you’re unlucky enough to get a dud egg (stale, blood streaked or – horrors – completely off) you won’t have contaminated the entire mix before the problem is spotted.
That’s it for this round of more top baking tips.
Of course, there’s tons more to know about baking – if there’s anything you want me to look into in more depth, feel free to ask in the comments section.