👨🍳 Introduction To Baking - The Essential Guide
Strictly speaking, baking is a method of cooking food using the dry indirect heat of an oven. What we associate with baking is a particular branch of cookery that specializes in baked goods, sweet and savoury, such as pies, pastry, bread and cakes. Foods that usually, but not always, involve some kind of alchemy between flour and yeast, or fat and flour, eggs or sugar.
Baking is slightly different to cooking. Measurements are precise. Temperatures must be accurate. Tins must be of a certain size. A cool environment and cold hands are required. A methodical approach is a must.
The concept of building on skills that we have in cookery also applies to baking. Start small, and build up your knowledge and confidence from there. The good thing about baking is that you have a clear set of instructions to follow.
What Can You Bake?
The range of baked goods is vast, covering both sweet and savoury foods.
Some items are more suited to the beginner baker, whilst other more technical elements are best tackled once experience (and confidence) are gained. Perhaps begin with mastering a basic pastry recipe, creating sweet tarts and savoury pies. Maybe try your hand at a Victoria sponge, or a lemon drizzle cake, and then move on to more delicate confections. Get to grips with gluten by making a basic loaf of bread, and practice your baking skills with some simple straightforward tray bakes.
Pastry is a combination of fat, flour, and a small amount of liquid, brought together as a dough. It usually encases some kind of filling, as in pies, flans, tarts, and en-croute dishes.
Some pastries are made from a yeasted dough that is layered through a process called lamination. Known collectively as Viennoserie, this includes croissant and Danish pastries.
The main types of pastry that you might want to make at home are shortcrust pastry, and puff pastry. There are variations of each. Choux pastry is used for profiteroles and eclairs, whilst filo and strudel are really thin sheets usually baked in several layers. Hot water crust is the rich savoury pastry that encases a pork pie, or game pie.
Then there are numerous French pastries that can be particularly delicate to work with and have specific uses in patisserie.
Biscuits and Cookies
Biscuits and cookies are quite similar in composition to pastry, but are made using different methods and have different uses. In the US, all biscuits are cookies, but in Europe a cookie is a specific type of biscuit that may or may not be slightly chewy.
Generally crisp, or at the very least drier than cake, most biscuits have a high proportion of sugar. Some of the French pastries are actually used to create biscuits. The fat and sugar give them their crisp texture, but also make them prone to burning.
Biscuits are designed to be individual, although there are always exceptions to the rule. Some, such as shortbread are baked in a tray and then divided into pieces. Italian biscotti are baked as a whole, sliced, and then baked again. Cookies are rolled in a sausage shape and sliced before baking. Some we don’t really think of as biscuits, things like florentines, brandy snaps and macarons.
Cakes are usually soft and tender, involving some kind of sponge-like crumb, and are made from a batter, of fat, sugar, eggs and flour. Of course variations abound. Some cakes are made without fat, such as a Swiss roll. Some cakes need an extra raising agent in the form of baking soda, or bicarbonate. Others, such as Italian panettone, use yeast as the raising agent.
There are numerous methods of cake making. The simplest is the melting method where the fats and sugars are melted together and other ingredients such as flour are stirred in. Sticky ginger cake is made this way. The creaming method is probably the most familiar. Fats and sugar are beaten together and the eggs are added. Finally the flour is folded in gently. Many sponge cakes use this method, such as a Victoria sandwich. Less well known is the whisking method. Eggs and sugar are beaten together to create a meringue like mass. The flour is folded in carefully. This creates a light springy structure as seen in Genoise or Angel cakes.
Muffins and Scones
Scones are more like breads with a cake-like texture. Made with raising agents such as baking powder rather than yeast, and requiring no kneading, scones are quick and simple to make. Ideal for the beginning baker.
Scones can be sweet or savoury and as a traditional early example of baking, there are many regional variations. Welsh cakes, for example, are flat rounds and cooked on a griddle.
Similarly, American muffins are also ideal for the beginning baker. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity though, a muffin is more than a cupcake in a larger size. Coarser than cake, muffins are simple to mix and fairly quick to bake.
The key to a muffin is to not overmix. Wet ingredients are mixed together and dry ingredients are mixed together. Then the two are mixed together with as little handling as possible.
Traybakes and Brownies
A casual type of cake or biscuit, traybakes are made in rectangular shallow tins. Easily transportable, fairly robust, and simple to make, this is another example of baking that is perfectly suited to the beginner.
Flapjacks, refridgerator cake, and millionaire’s shortbread are all examples of traybakes.
Brownies, and blondies, are a specific chocolate type of traybake. Made by whisking eggs and sugar, before adding melted chocolate and a small amount of flour, brownies are all about texture. A chocolate cake in a shallow tin is not a brownie.
A good brownie is soft, chewy and a little bit gooey. The top should crack, and it should not be overcooked. Timing, and a good recipe, is everything.
Bread is a whole other story, but not one that the beginning baker need shy away from. Bread is very simple to make, and extremely rewarding. Turning out the perfect loaf can feel like more of an achievement that turning out the perfect cake.
Yet making bread is not difficult and once the basic principles are understood can be quite an addictive pastime. Store bought bread will never be the same again.
Most bread is an alchemy between flour, salt, yeast and liquid. A process that is as much as time as it is about ingredients. Bread making follows six stages. First the ingredients are mixed together to form a dough, which is then kneaded until it becomes elastic. The dough is left to rise, then shaped, then left to rise again and finally baked.
Crumbles and Puddings
We tend to class crumbles and puddings as baking, regardless of whether they are baked in the oven or are made of the classic flour, eggs, fats, sugars combination.
A crumble is pretty much made from pastry, without the liquid added. Baked on top of a fruit base, this could also be made from sponge, or a scone dough, or a cobbler. You can also make savoury crumbles and cobblers.
Pudding can either mean a baked or steamed dessert such as a jam roly poly or a syrup sponge. Pudding could simply mean the sweet course at the end of a meal. Dessert.
Speaking of dessert, the sweet course provided for by the pastry chef, this also falls under the category of baking. In this final section we simple include everything else not covered above. You could include things like strawberry mousse, meringues, cheesecakes and the like. This is the part where the lines blur. But what does it matter if creating a meringue makes you a cook or a baker?
You may wish to frost your cakes with an Italian meringue, or fill your muffins with a lemon cheesecake mix. You may want to try your hand at chocolate work or sculpting fondant. Or maybe you just want to lick a perfectly crafted chocolate ganache from the spoon.
Far be it from me to stop you. In fact I emphatically encourage it…
Main Types of Ingredients in Baking
Most baking relies on a certain set of ingredients. Items such as flour, sugar, fats and eggs are part of the bakers everyday arsenal. They are such an integral part of the personality of the baked goods that you endeavour to create, that understanding how they behave is of crucial importance in learning to bake successfully.
Certain flours are there for a reason, just as the proportion of butter used will dramatically define the final result. Eggs in a recipe have a purpose and you can’t simply take them away without repercussions.
The point here is to fully understand how an ingredient works before you attempt to start switching it out.
Flour is the cornerstone of baking. Most flours are made from finely milled grains, but there are flours made from other things too.
The most widely used flour in baking comes from wheat, because of its ability to form an elastic structure known as gluten. Gluten gives baked goods their body and structure. There are many varieties of wheat flour alone. Soft white flours are used for cakes, whilst hard white flours are used for bread and pasta. Wholemeal flour has the fibrous outer layer of the grain left in and contains more nutritional value.
Flours are made from other gluten-containing grains such as rye or barley, and non-gluten grains such as rice and corn. There are also flours made from nuts, potatoes, and pulses like lentils or chickpeas. If it can be ground into a fine powder then it can be called a flour. Bear in mind that all flours behave completely differently, even those made from the same type of grain. Even flours from different manufacturers can behave in different ways.
Fats are the butter, margarine, oils and shortenings that we add to our baking.
Butter is 80% fat and has a rich flavour and texture. Block margarine can have about 80% fat, whilst soft cake margarine has a higher water content. Most spreads are not suitable for baking as they contain too much water. Oils are 100% fat, as are shortenings which are solid at room temperature. Lard is a shortening, as is solid white vegetable fat.
They each behave in different ways and bring different qualities depending on what we are trying to achieve.
Pastry made with butter will have a rich flavour and a crisp texture. Using shortening in a pastry will make it ‘shorter’ – that crumbly texture so desirable in a shortcrust pastry. In a cake, however, butter may bring a rich flavour, but margarine will give a better rise and a softer texture. It may also keep for longer without going stale.
Eggs used in baking are usually from hens, although other eggs can be used. Although recipes will state the size of an egg used, professional pastry chefs will weigh eggs in order to be precise. A medium egg of the type specified in recipes weighs 55g/2oz.
Egg whites are valuable for their ability to hold many times their volume of air, fluffing up to form the basis of meringues or some cakes. Egg yolks provide richness to cakes, breads and pastries in the form of fat. Whole eggs bind ingredients, help cakes rise, and add moisture to the crumb. They also add colour and flavour.
Use eggs at room temperature.
Liquids used in baking bring together the dry ingredients to form a dough. They loosen a cake dough to form a batter. Eggs are part of the liquid proportion of a recipe, but other liquids are used in baking too. Simple water is used in breads and pastry; milk is a richer more flavourful form of water with the fats it contains.
Baking recipes call for all kinds of liquid. Beer will add a yeasty flavour, whilst the acids in fruit juices may soften the crumb. Yoghurt and buttermilk bring acidity and fat into play. Cream is rich in fat yet less acidic.
Liquids can usually be swapped out measure for measure and may yield surprising results.
Raising agents are often needed in baking to help a dough or batter to rise. Some flours have raising agents added, such as self-raising flour that has baking powder added. Yeast is needed in order to create the structure of a loaf of bread.
In some recipes, the whisking of egg and sugar may be enough to create the risen texture you are looking for. Sometimes, even if using self-raising flour, a spoon of baking powder is also needed.
The reaction between a raising agent such as baking powder or bicarbonate of soda begins once the liquid is added, so it is important to get your cake in the oven as soon as you can.
Sugars add sweetness to baking and gives texture. There are many different types of sugar, some of them syrups, and they each have specific uses.
White sugar is made from beet not cane and is therefore relatively inexpensive. The finest, icing sugar, is really only suitable for frostings, although it does find its way into pastry. In cakes it does not have the structure necessary to hold air. On the other hand, granulated sugar is too coarse to be used for anything than table sugar. In pastry and cakes it will give a gritty texture and will not hold air either. For cakes, and indeed most general baking purposes, caster sugar is neither too fine nor too coarse and is perfect for cakes and pastry.
Brown sugars are largely made from cane sugar and as such are more expensive. Muscovado sugar is fine and so soft it clumps together like wet sand. Dark brown muscovado will result in deep bitter caramel tones, whilst the light brown muscovado is less intense. Both are excellent at holding in moisture.
Demerara sugar is coloured white sugar in large crystal. It is useful for sprinkling on cakes and biscuits for texture.
Syrups are used in certain instances such as sticky ginger cakes or rich fruit cakes. They range from neutrally flavoured glucose syrups, to dark black molasses.
Chocolate is a subject all of its own, but is added to baking in many guises.
Cocoa powder is used in the dry mix for chocolate cakes, or added to the dough for chocolate pastry, biscuits and cookies. Chocolate chunks or chips are also added to chocolate cookies or muffins. Melted chocolate is used in chocolate tarts and brownies.
Chocolate is used in frostings and fillings, as well as confectionery. A huge subject, chocolate varies in price and quality, and ranges from fairly standard to something as artisan and unique as fine wines or coffee.
Dark or plain chocolate at around 50 – 70% cocoa solids is usually best for baking. 90% is available but can be very bitter. You can mix different strengths together to achieve the depth you want. Milk chocolate has added milk solids, and more sugar. There is also higher percentage milk chocolate available which is slightly richer than average. White chocolate is not actually chocolate but a blend of cocoa butter, vanilla, cream and sugar. Probably not in that order. It has notoriously difficult to work with and burns easily.
A variety of additions can be made to your baking to add interest in the form of different flavours and textures.
As well as whole pods from which the seeds can be scraped, vanilla comes as liquid or paste. Buy the best quality you can afford as the difference is noticeable. Other essences and extracts such as orange oil, or peppermint can be added to cookies, cakes and frostings.
Coffee should be used as a liquid, either espresso shots or strong made up instant. Citrus can be used as juice or zest. Fruit can be used fresh, tinned, or frozen. Vegetables are often used in baking, think carrot cake or pumpkin pie. Fruit in dried form such as currants and raisins is used in cakes, biscuits, pastries and breads. Glace fruits such as cherries and crystallized peel have been soaked in a sugar syrup to preserve them. Nuts are best with the bitter skins removed, a process known as blanching, and roasting or toasting brings out the flavour.
Sweet spices such as cinnamon and cloves are widely used in cakes, breads and biscuits. Other herbs and spices can be used in breads and savouries.
Pastry chefs and bakers have always used unsalted butter so that they can control the amount of salt in a recipe. Even in cakes and biscuits a tiny pinch of salt enhances flavour. Personally, I have always felt that unsalted butter contains less water too.
Salt is of most importance in bread making. When you pull apart a crusty artisan loaf and marvel at its depth of flavour, that is salt at work. Think about it next time you eat good bread.
Salt in baking is best finely ground. Sea salt has more depth of flavour than table salt, but it dissolves less readily. You can dissolve sea salt into the baking liquid. Salt helps develop the gluten, and therefore the structure, but too much will inhibit the yeast.
The Role of Gluten in Baking
Baking was born of gluten and it lies at the very heart of its tradition. And gluten means one thing. Wheat flour.
Gluten is formed when the proteins in flour meet liquid and physical energy. Add water to a dough made from wheat flour, and apply physical energy through kneading. This causes the proteins glutenin and gliadin to form strands of protein called gluten. As the dough is kneaded, the proteins stretch to form longer and longer strands that mesh together to form a stretchy yet resilient web. It is this web that traps the air created by the gases given off by the yeast and causes the bread not only to rise but to hold that sponge-like structure, and harden in the oven. It is gluten that makes bread dough stretchy and the finished loaf chewy. Ditto pasta.
Gluten is important in other baking too. In cakes and pastry you don’t want a stretchy chewy mass. Which is why we don’t knead or work them too much. In fact as little as possible. But the proteins in the flour are still there. They are just much more shorter. Think biscuit crumbs.
We use different flour for pastry and cake than we do for bread and pasta. The flour used for bread and pasta is hard flour, with much more protein. Cake flour is softer, with less protein. Some other grains contain these proteins, but none so much as wheat.
The Role of Eggs and Dairy in Baking
If baking was born of gluten, then it came of age through eggs and dairy. Eggs, butter, cheese, milk, cream and yoghurt all add flavour and texture to a vast tradition of baked goods.
Milk proteins, present in all dairy products made as they are from milk, add moisture, colour and flavour to batter or dough. They tenderise the crumb, and add strength and structure. Lactic acid enhances flavour.
Eggs add volume and hold everything together. Egg whites add moisture and stability, whilst eggs yolks add colour, flavour, and rich texture.
Gluten Free Baking and Vegan Baking
As the prevalence of food allergies and intolerances rises, so does the desire for gluten free baking and vegan baking. Both have their limitations and possibilities, and the key here is expectation. Food technology is ever expanding, and new products help make these alternative ways of baking more possible.
A brownie made without eggs or butter will never achieve what its traditional counterpart will. But something different, with alternative ingredients is possible.
Gluten free bread will never have the crumb structure that gluten provides. But there are ways to make something similar that be can be enjoyed as bread.
The trick is to not attempt to mimic. Make something new that fits the requirements and works for the ingredients at hand.