The Basics of Baking

Produced in Partnership With The Culinary Institute of America

Many people are interested in learning how to bake, but they’re intimidated because they think it’s is too complicated. Once you learn that there is science behind baking—what happens when you over- aerate a custard or what chemical reaction takes place when baking soda is mixed with cocoa powder—you’ll get much better results.

Baking Ingredients

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Measuring Ingredients

Probably the biggest obstacle to getting consistent results in baking is making proper measurements. Most recipes call for measuring ingredients in terms of weight, and weight measurements are the most accurate.

measuring cupsNote that volume measurements are based on water. If you measure out 1 cup of water and put it on a scale, the water would weigh 8 ounces. But if you measure 1 cup of flour and put it on a scale, the flour won’t weigh anywhere near 8 ounces. This is a point of confusion for many people.

Lumps in your ingredients, such as sugar and flour, can affect the weight and, thus, the volume in measuring. If your ingredients are lumpy, sift them before measuring. If you’re analyzing a finished product to figure out what went right or wrong, the first question to consider is: Did you measure the ingredients correctly?

Creaming

The first basic technique to master in baking is creaming. You may be familiar with the creaming method from making a variety of cookies and cakes. The creaming method involves using four basic ingredients that we’ll come across again and again in baking: sugar, butter, eggs, and flour.

For More About Baking, Check Out The CIA Culinary Blog

Thinking about the functions of these ingredients can help take some of the mystery out of baking. Our basic ingredients can be divided into two categories: liquefiers or stabilizers. Liquefiers are ingredients that make doughs become softer and perhaps make them spread; in our short list of ingredients, the liquefiers are sugar and butter. Stabilizers are ingredients that help doughs hold together—here, eggs and flour. If you’re trying to determine what went wrong in a finished product, it may be helpful to think about the roles of the ingredients.

Flavoring

Flavoring ingredients include such things as salt (to ensure the dough isn’t bland), chocolate chips, raisins, or nuts. These ingredients add flavor and texture, but they don’t influence the formation of the dough or how it behaves.

Creaming is about incorporating air into a butter/sugar blend, and the more air that’s incorporated, the more fragile the dough will be.

The object of creaming is to incorporate air into a sugar/butter mixture. The more air that’s incorporated, the more tender the resulting dough will be. But for cookie or tart dough, too much air may cause the cookies to spread too much or the dough to rise too much.

Many people use a mixer for putting together a basic dough with the creaming method, but if you’re just getting started, try making the dough by hand—work with a wooden spoon or, literally, your hands. Certainly, using a mixer can make things a little bit easier and cleaner, but if you really want to understand what’s taking place when you’re mixing up a dough, actually using your hands will help you see how the dough comes together.

Using a Mixer

There are some definite advantages to using a mixer—it’s cleaner and easier—but there are also a couple of disadvantages, particularly, the tendency to overmix the dough.

Kitchen MixerWhen you set the speed of your mixer, remember that it’s replacing the work of your hands. If you think about how fast you use your hands to work with the dough, you’ll realize that you don’t need to crank the mixer up to high!

If you notice uneven results with a tray of cookies—some of them look great, some of them have spread too much, and some of them haven’t spread enough—it’s likely that you didn’t scrape down the mixing bowl as you worked. The butter and sugar accumulated at the bottom of the bowl, and the flour remained on top. If you’re mixing dough by hand, you don’t usually run into this problem, but if you’re using a machine, you need to stop it periodically to properly scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Nine Beginner Baking Tips

  • Perhaps the most important first step in baking is to organize your tools in a clean workspace with plenty of room to move around. As you work, try to keep the workspace clean; stack dirty dishes in one place on the countertop.
  • One of the greatest tools for cleanup in the kitchen is a plastic scraper. You can use it to move any excess dough to one place on the countertop or clean your hands off with it.
  • The proper method for measuring flour is to scoop the flour into the measuring cup and then level it off by tapping. Some recipes call for you to dip and sweep, which means pushing the cup through the flour and then sweeping it off at the top.
  • Allow eggs to sit on the counter and come to room temperature before you incorporate them into a dough. If the eggs are too cold, they will be difficult to blend into the dough, but if they’re at room temperature, they will be much easier to emulsify into the butter/sugar mixture. If the eggs aren’t incorporated properly, the dough may spread or color unevenly when baked.
  • If you’re using a mixer to make cookie dough, use the paddle tool, not the whisk. Remember to stop the mixer periodically to scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed.
  • When you’re placing cookies on a baking tray, remember that they will spread and change shape a little as they bake. Space them apart on the tray so that they don’t spread into each other.
  • Prepare a cake pan by putting a piece of parchment paper across the bottom to ensure the cake won’t stick. You can also brush the pan with a bit of softened butter and dust it with flour.
  • Make sure you bake cookies and cakes in a preheated oven, generally 325° to 350°, and choose the proper baking pans. Thin, flimsy baking trays often lead to burned cookies. If you’re using dark cookware, be aware that your finished cakes will be darker in color.
  • Fill cake pans about two- thirds full with batter.
Pound Cake
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Pound Cake

Ingredients

  • 8 oz butter
  • 8 1/2 oz sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 7 oz cake flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Use the creaming method to blend the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, egg yolks, salt, and vanilla. Once those are blended, add the flour and baking powder. Notice that this dough, or batter, is much softer than the cookie dough.

Pound Cake

Again, be careful in mixing. An overmixed cake will be full of holes once it’s baked, while one that’s undermixed will have very little structure; it may stick to the bottom of the pan or be gummy.

Transfer the batter to a loaf pan or a decorative ring pan. To get a nice crack in the center, wet your finger and run it down the center of the batter in the pan. That creates a weak spot in the center of the cake so that as it rises, it will develop a decorative crack.

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