When I was a student at Baltimore International Culinary College many years ago, the chef who taught one of my baking classes blew my mind. “All of baking is 5 basic ingredients,” he said. “Butter, milk, eggs, flour, and flavoring, they make everything from pound cake to crepes. HOW you combine these ingredients makes baking magical”.
Baking cakes, pies, cookies, or breads need not be difficult or intimidating, but it does require an understanding of ingredients and mixing methods. Every ingredient has a role in the science and biology going on behind baking.
While a recipe will give you the list of ingredients and a step-by-step procedure, it will never tell you the HOW or WHY behind baking and why you need each to bake great results.
Great baked goods begin with high quality ingredients. Even the finest ingredients must be combined in the proper balance. Each ingredient performs a specific function and has a specific effect on the final product. Ingredients are classified by function as:
Flour, milk, and eggs contain protein. Protein provides structure and toughens the item. Too little protein and it may collapse, too much protein and it may be tough and course-textured.
Sugar, fats, and egg yolks shorten gluten strands, making a cake, muffin or pie dough tender and soft. These ingredients also improve the items’ keeping qualities.
Liquids such as water, milk, juice and eggs bring moisture to the mixture. Moisture is necessary for gluten formation and starch gelatinization, as well as improving shelf-life.
Flour, starches, and milk solids absorb moisture, giving body and structure to baked goods.
Baked goods rise because the gases in the batter expand when heated. They’re leavened by the air trapped when fat and sugar are creamed together, by carbon dioxide released from baking powder and baking soda, and by air trapped in the beaten eggs. Even with yeast or chemicals, all baked goods must rely on natural leaveners – steam and air – to create the proper texture and rise.
Flavorings such as extracts, cocoa, chocolate, spices, salt, sugar, and butter provide the desired flavors. Acidic flavoring ingredients such as sour cream, chocolate and fruit also provide the acid necessary to activate baking soda.
Whether you continue to experiment on your own with written recipes, or enroll in baking classes, an examination of the role of each ingredient will give you the insight to fix common cake faults. If you cake collapses, perhaps you need more leavening or driers. If the cake is too dark, perhaps you have too much tenderizer in the mixture.
These things become apparent when you know the HOWS and WHYs behind baking, something a recipe will never tell you.
Chef Todd Mohr helps home bakers worldwide understand the HOWs and WHYs of baking to make their hobby or profession more successful and enjoyable. You can discover how MIXING is more important than BAKING in his FREE online baking class.