Friday, July 13, 2018

Baking 101

I am not an expert.

I'm not a professional baker and I don't pretend to be. I have never been to pastry school nor have I rubbed elbows with the likes of Peggy Porschen or Candace Nelson, although Candace did follow me on Instagram for, like, two weeks before unfollowing me again.

I do, however, feel I have honed my craft well enough over the years to give solid advice, offer suggestions, and warrant this post. I like to think of it as Elle Woods meets baking. She fictitiously talks Cameron Diaz out of purchasing a truly heinous angora sweater; I merely suggest not using black pepper as a substitution for cayenne pepper in chocolate frosting. And yes, this happened. A (ex) reader of mine didn't have cayenne pepper, wanted to use black pepper and was soliciting my advice. Before some of you come at me with hand beaters and whisks a-blazing, I'm not saying it doesn't work. I've had black pepper in desserts and chocolate bars, but what she wanted to use it for - her child's birthday party - I talked her down, explaining there are certainly better options out there, like omitting the pepper idea altogether. Unfortunately, I was met with a, "Go to hell, what the f*ck do you know?"

Delightful creature.

While, again, I am not an expert, I do know that if I was a child biting into a chocolate cake with a generous pouring of black pepper in the chocolate frosting, regardless of how subtle it was, there would be hell to pay in the form of juice box throwing and mini plastic table flipping. And let's face it. If it turned out vile, she would likely hold me accountable, so I spoke up and suggested she take the route that would appeal to the masses. Adults and children have very different palates and it's important to know your audience.

There is a reason baking has been called a science. Because it is. However, baking can be very therapeutic and quite rewarding, but perhaps even more so when you know the why. Most of the knowledge I've gained came from asking A LOT of questions and reading A LOT of material. Professional chefs, pastry chefs, home economists, cookbooks, websites, magazines, blogs and bloggers provide a wealth of knowledge while baking disasters of your own are certainly humble teachers. Bastards.

The idea for this post came to me after finally getting around to clearing up six years worth of emails. I quickly became distracted skimming through my reader correspondence, asking questions - some personal, but mainly baking. I used to chuckle at them, because again, NOT AN EXPERT, but soon realized I had an obligation to help. If I'm sharing recipes, I better have the knowledge to back it up. I sat at my computer one night with a large cup of tea while binge watching The Office in the background for the eleventy-hundredreth time, skimmed my account and condensed the most asked questions into these few.

And YES. I understand that most, if not all, this information is readily available, scattered throughout the interwebs and I'm certainly not providing anything new, but if there are 200 ways to make a chocolate chip cookie based on technique, I bet you could learn something different from each one.

What's the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Can I use them interchangeably?

While baking powder and baking soda are both leavening agents, how they are activated is where the difference lies.

And no, they are not interchangeable.

Baking powder is essentially a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar (an agent that helps stabilize egg whites during the baking process), and cornstarch. Baking powder begins to work once a liquid comes in contact with it, but it's slow releasing and needs heat to bring out its dynamic personality. Small amounts of carbon dioxide will continue to form until the batter hits the right temperature during the baking process. Once it does, all delicious hell breaks loose and you'll see lift off with your baked goods.

Baking soda is a strong alkaline or a base. Baking soda needs an acid (sour cream, citrus, chocolate) to react. Once they meet, the baking soda activates and works fast, so you need to work quickly and get those baked goods into the oven. And by quickly, I don't mean panicking yourself to the point you're frazzled and stressed. You don't want to mix up a cake batter and leave it on the counter, grab a cup of coffee, casually read the newspaper, throw in a load of laundry, and go back to put it in the oven. You have time, but the longer you take, the more precious air bubbles you lose. Baked goods with baking soda also tend to brown more than with baking powder, but it neutralizes acid and helps create tenderness.

A little cheat sheet I use: Baking soda tends to work at the front of the baking process whereas baking powder works at the back. Baking soda needs an acid to activate; baking powder has an acid, it needs a liquid and high temperatures to activate. It's important to know that both leaveners don't actually make air bubbles; they only expand the ones already there.

Baking soda has a very long shelf life whereas baking powder loses its pizazz after about six months. If you're not sure if your baking powder has lost its loving feeling, pour a teaspoon into a glass of hot water. If it fizzles, you're in business.

Your recipe calls for Dutch-Processed cocoa powder. What is the difference between this and regular cocoa powder? 

Dutch-processed cocoa lacks acidity.

Dutch-processed cocoa begins the same way as its natural cocoa powder counterpart - from cocoa beans, but the process is very different. Natural cocoa powder goes through a Broma process, where the beans are roasted and broken down into cacao nibs. The nibs are further reduced to remove about three-quarters of the cocoa butter until only the cocoa liquor is left. That liquor is then pressed, dried and ground into natural cocoa powder. With Dutch-processed cocoa, the beans are treated with an alkaline solution to neutralize the cocoa's acidity. The result is a powder that is milder, smoother, less acidic, and darker in colour.

Why do I have to add eggs one at a time to my recipe?

Well friends, the answer is simple. It's compatibility. Imagine being invited and willingly going to a party with people you wouldn't normally interact with. The host of the party confidently knew without a doubt that once you all met and got to know each other, you would end up with the most incredible friendship EVER. As the crowd slowly filters in and you mingle, you realize the people really ARE so amazing and you begin making plans with them for the next eighteen weekends. That's how eggs are. Butter/oil and eggs are two fats that don't naturally mix, but the more you incorporate them, the better they are - it's just best to do it slowly.

I don't have brown sugar. Can I substitute with all granulated sugar? 

You can use granulated and brown sugar interchangeably, but it will yield a different result than what you may be expecting in terms of flavour, texture, and even visually. Both sugars sweeten and add flavour to your baked goods while adding softness, tenderness, moisture, body and stability. Granulated sugar will yield a flatter, crispier cookie (due to the sugar crystallizing) whereas brown sugar will yield a chewy, softer and more flavourful cookie (due to the molasses added to the sugar). When a recipe calls for both sugars, you'll end up with a kick-ass-best-of-both-worlds cookie in terms of texture and flavour.

If you find yourself without brown sugar, but somehow, by the power of Grayskull, you have molasses on hand, you can add one tablespoon of molasses to one cup of granulated sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until incorporated and poof. Brown sugar. 

My cookies look nothing like yours and they have spread. What happened? I'm so frustrated!

My heart hurts when a recipe of mine fails you. I know how precious time is and expensive ingredients are, which is why I take pride in everything I post, testing and re-testing (and sometimes re-testing again) to ensure it will work.

The culprit for spreading is actually several reasons.

One. Read your recipe and read it again before you begin baking. Any substitutions or changes, no matter how small they seem, will no longer be deemed as my recipe and may lead to upsetting results.

Two. Neglecting to line your baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. These will act as a buffer between the heat source and the cookies and give them something to grab onto as they're baking.

Three. Your cookie dough wasn't chilled. Many of my cookie recipes require that the dough be chilled for at least 30 minutes. Chilling allows the fat to solidify and slows the melting process during baking (while it simultaneously intensifies the flavour and improves the texture of the final product).

Four. Not all fat is created equal.

If you've used anything other than butter (which is my fat of choice for cookies) this could be the culprit for spreading. Butter gives cookies body and texture. Because it contains cream, it also imparts explosive flavour and lends richness to the baked product. In my personal opinion, cookies made with butter will result in a flavourful, well rounded product.

Shortening and margarine, on the other hand, create a very different texture and flavour. Allow me to go off on a tangent for a minute, friends.

Shortening is a solid fat that is made from vegetable oil. It has the highest melting point and contains the least amount of water. Cookies made with shortening will bake up puffy and tender, but lend no flavour. Margarine is the opposite. It contains vegetable oil and a highest amount of water; it also contributes nothing in terms of flavour. Cookies made with margarine do not have the body to withstand the heat. They will spread way too much and burn before they're done baking, even if you chill the dough.

Coconut oil has gotten lots of love over the past few years for a healthier fat substitute in baked goods and can be used 1:1 ratio. I, personally, have never baked cookies using coconut oil, so I can't comment and would recommend doing your research, but I have used it in quick breads and muffins and it's been lovely. I would, however, steer clear of using coconut oil for cookies that use butter as the main ingredient, like shortbread.

I was rolling out cookie dough and the recipe I used wasn't cooperating after a while. Every time I would try to roll it out, it would shrink on me. I ended up throwing it out, but what a waste! Can you offer advice so this doesn't happen again?

That's painful to hear. Short and sweet, if you roll your dough too many times and you find that it springs back, that simply means you've overworked the protein (activated the gluten) in the flour. However, there's hope. If that happens again, wrap the dough in plastic wrap, place it in the fridge and allow to rest for about 20 minutes. When you roll it again, it'll be as good as new. 

Why do I have to add corn syrup when I'm boiling sugar to make caramel? 

Adding corn syrup simply prevents the sugar from crystallization. The last thing you want in your silky, smooth caramel is a clump of hard, crystallized sugar.

Buttermilk substitutions in cake. What is your take on them?

In my opinion, makeshift buttermilk lacks that certain je ne said quoi. Many sources I've read offer a buttermilk substitution and claim it to be the bees knees, but I respectfully disagree. Buttermilk has a unique and distinctive body that adds tang and moisture to baked goods. I have a tough time wrapping around my head the idea that adding lemon juice or vinegar to milk and waiting for it to curdle (blag) will yield the same results. It's a different chemistry all together, but again, this is just my opinion. I did read somewhere (and please forgive me that I cannot place the source as I feel this is a GENIUS recommendation) that kefir is a great 1:1 ratio substitution for buttermilk.

How do I get that crackly look on top of my brownies?

In my opinion, brownies are best when they're fudgy and dense, but that crackle effect demands to be noticed. Truth be told, most brownies will create a crackle on their own, but to get maximum crackle effect, make sure the butter and sugar are creamed VERY well. Before adding the eggs to the chocolate mixture, be sure to beat each egg completely and thoroughly. By beating the eggs in one at a time, you create air. The air will help the eggs achieve an almost meringue-like layer to the top of the brownies as they're baking. As they cool, it will give you that gorgeous crackle effect you desire. It's also important that you gently fold in the flour and ONLY mix until incorporated. Vigorous mixing at this stage is a waste of an arm cramp. It will knock out all the air you've created and will toughen up your brownies.

Do you like boxed cake mixes? Do you recommend them?

This is, oddly enough, a question I have received a lot.

I hold no prejudice with a boxed cake mix. I have oodles of respect for anyone that can simply ignore or disregard a cake or tray of brownies, regardless of its origin, full stop.

I purchase box mixes and allow my eldest to make them with friends, unsupervised. Aside from the odd piece of eggshell I find post bake, it's cake, it's delicious, and gives them confidence in the kitchen. We all have to start somewhere, some just need a little more time and practice before taking the completely-from-scratch leap and boxed mixes can offer that.

Would you consider writing a cookbook?

No. I have many friends in the culinary world that have written beautiful cookbooks and I'm so insanely proud of them and honoured to display their literary babies in my cookbook arsenal, but it's just not for me. It's a labour of love I'm not willing to take on. I don't know how to write about food; I only know how to share stories about things that happen in my everyday life. I also like that the recipes I do share on my blog are available to anyone at anytime.


I feel it's important that one never stops learning. If you have a baking question, even if it's not my recipe, please do not hesitate to ask - I'd love to help in any way I can. If I don't know the answer, I'll make it my mission to find out for you.

Knowledge is power - and so is showing up to any function with a gorgeous plate of baked goods, made with love BY YOU.

Life is what you bake it. Be a whisk taker and rise to the occasion. It's the yeast you can do.


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12 Responses to “Baking 101”

  1. I love this post, Jenny! Baking has scared me for a long time, but I understood what you said and I'm excited to try out what I've learned. Thanks!!

  2. Hi, Jenny - really enjoyed this post! I've been baking for longer than you're old, and found your advice spot on in every instance. Thanks for passing along your wisdom in a very engaging manner. Thanks! Debbie the NY Baker

  3. I really enjoyed your post! I had no idea that bicarbonate of soda or baking powder didn't actually make air bubbles! Who knew all those bubbles were there just waiting to explode??? I learned so much and wanted to thank you for sharing what you knew! Xxx

  4. I have a question: More times than not, whenever I make cake it sinks in the middle. How do I remedy this? I've read many websites, but just when I think I have it figured out it still happens! Thanks, Katy

  5. I feel smarter! Thank you so much for this fun post! I wonder if boxed brownies will crackle even more if the eggs are whipped beforehand? :) ~Caroline from Colorado <3

  6. I have read several of these on other blogger sites but I really like how you seem to explain things better! I also appreciate the way you wrote it! I would like more of these posts soon. Thank you!

  7. LOL! I think I was the one that wrote and harassed you like a million times asking how to get that crackle effect on top of brownies! I followed your advice and it definitely works! Your brownies are still the best ever!!!!

    1. That's too funny! I think I sent Jenny the same question! It totally works!!

  8. I love this post, Jenny! I've learned much from it and often wondered if you would consider writing a cookbook. I got my answer. :) You're a great storyteller and I love your recipes! I hope to see more soon! ~Linds

  9. This post is FABULOUS!! I have learned so much from it. Thank you for publishing it! I've printed it and attached to my fridge!

  10. This post is amazing! I honestly learned so much from it and I've sent it to everyone I know! Thanks for sharing ur knowledge with us!!

  11. I have learned so much for this post. I like your writing style and I'm so happy to have found you! I hope you start posting again!