The Art of Baking – a dry heat method of cooking Definition of Baking
Baking is defined as cooking food in an oven using dry heat. That’s all well and good, but since baking is one of the primary ways in which we cook food, let’s take a minute to look at baking, in depth. When we think of the term “baking” we are generally talking about cakes, breads, and pastries. We will discuss oven roasting of meat and vegetables in the Roasting section.
History of Baking
Baking was originally accomplished in the coals of a fire, or on a hearth. The Italian peasant bread, focaccia, comes from the Italian word for hearth. Notice that it is the same root as the word “focus.” The hearth was, literally and figuratively, the center, or focus, of the home. From the earliest, unleavened breads from the Middle East and the Americas to risen breads to elaborate cakes and pastries, history leaves us record of baking in many ancient civilizations, including Babylon, Egypt, Rome and Greece.
Types of Ovens
Several free-standing brick ovens have been uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii. Other ovens of the ancient world include clay and even mud ovens, and later, in the 1600’s, cast metal ovens, such as the Dutch oven. Although brick and clay ovens are still in wide use all over the world as well as in America, most home bakers will have access to a conventional oven, a convection oven and/or a microwave oven.
Conventional ovens consist of a metal box with several racks and upper and lower thermostatically controlled heating elements of some sort (gas or electric). Preheating a conventional oven first heats the air in the oven and then the metal box itself. Cooking is primarily done through means of radiant heat. Heat is transferred from the walls of the oven to the food through the air in the oven. Some conduction occurs, as well.
Conduction is the transfer of heat through direct contact. For example, cakes are baked with radiant heat from the oven itself, and heat is also conducted from the cake pan (which of course has heated up) directly to the batter. This is why baked goods are generally darker at the edges where they meet the pan: the food is being cooked through two heat transfer processes at once.
Convection ovens are similar to conventional ovens, but they also have a fan inside that creates an air current inside the oven. Regular convection ovens have a fan that blows air, but true convection ovens also have a third heating element, located right behind the fan, so the fan blows heated air. In general, convection ovens speed the cooking process, harnessing radiant heat energy, conductive heat energy as well as convective heat energy. If you have a convection oven, your baking times will be shorter, and you will most likely have to set the thermostat anywhere from 25 to 50 degrees lower than your recipes call for, unless they were developed using a convection oven.
Microwave ovens send energy into food in the form of waves that excite “lopsided” molecules, namely: water. Microwave ovens can heat quickly, but since water boils at 212 degrees, food will never get hot enough to brown. For that reason, most home cooks eschew the microwave for cooking, but they are very useful and efficient when it comes to reheating foods.
Baking V. Roasting
The age old question of which came first, baking or roasting. No I have that confused with something else. Seriously, I get asked what’s the difference between baking and roasting all the time. People want to know why we bake bread but roast chicken since they are both essentially the same dry heat cooking method. You have baked clams but roasted bruschetta. To make matters even more confusing, there are baked potatoes and oven roasted potatoes.
To help clear this up, I wrote a blog called Baked or Roasted – You Decide that might help or may even confuse you more.
Since we have pretty well established that baking starts with dough or a batter, let us take a moment to examine the different methods we have for making a batter or dough. We’ll discuss methods for making bread dough elsewhere. Many of these methods outline the manner in which fats are incorporated into the batter or dough.
In the creaming method, fats are mixed with sugar to form a mixture that is either smooth and creamy (cookie dough) or light and fluffy (cakes). Then, eggs are added one at a time, followed by adding dry ingredients (flours + salt + spices + chemical leaveners) alternately with wet ingredients (milk/water + liquid flavorings). The resultant batter can be very thick, as in cookie dough, or “spoonable,” like cake batter. Rarely does the creaming method produce a batter that is truly pourable. So why combine ingredients this way? The initial creaming of the fat with the sugar creates lots of little air bubbles (fewer for cookies, many more for cakes). The sharp edges of the sugar actually cut into the butter and create a bunch of little air pockets. Upon heating, the air in the pockets expands, helping the dough/batter to rise.
Beating the eggs in early allows even more air to be whipped in (think of meringue) in the initial mixing stages. In the creaming method, it is very important that you do not skimp on the creaming of the fats/sugar/eggs. The more air pockets you have to begin with, the more rise you will get, regardless of how much baking powder or baking soda you add to the batter.
When adding the flour and liquid, it is important to mix as little as possible while still getting the ingredients well combined. The less you mix, the less gluten is developed, resulting in a more tender final product. Adding flour before adding the liquid helps to coat the flour with fat, further inhibiting gluten production. If you add liquid first, and then add flour, you will end up with a chewier final product since more gluten will be activated.
The muffin method is the method by which we make muffins, scones, pancake and waffle batter and other quick breads. It’s a pretty easy method, but like many easy things, it must be done correctly to be successful. In the muffin method, all dry ingredients are combined (flour + salt + sugar + chemical leaveners + spices).
All wet ingredients are combined (milk/water + liquid fats + eggs + liquid flavorings).
Then, the wet ingredients are poured onto the dry ingredients and gently mixed. Lumps are okay in this method—they will settle out on their own. Since you’re not taking the extra step of coating the flour with fat, it is extra important that you mix gently so you don’t activate the gluten.
When incorporating the wet with the dry, don’t think “mix,” think “fold.” You want to gently fold the ingredients together to make a batter. This folding shouldn’t take any longer than about ten to fifteen seconds. Then, even if it’s lumpy, as Alton Brown says, “Just walk away.”
In reality, you want to get your batter into tins and into the oven (or on the griddle) relatively quickly so the chemical leavening can do its job.
The biscuit method is the method used to make biscuits, scones and many pie doughs. In the mixing method, dry ingredients are combined (flour + sugar + salt + chemical leaveners + dry flavorings).
Then, chunks of cold, solid fat (butter, lard, shortening or a mixture) is cut into the dry ingredients) with either forks or another mechanical helper or by hand), until the fat is about the size of peas. This method allows some of the flour to be coated with fat, adding to tenderness while leaving enough fat in large pieces to melt during the baking process and create steam. This adds texture and leavening to the final product.
Once the cold fat is cut in, cold liquids are added (ice water/milk/buttermilk/cream). It is important to keep the fats very cold in this method. If the fats begin to soften before you are finished, put your bowl in the freezer for a few minutes so they firm up. Once the liquid is incorporated, mix minimally, shape and bake.
The two stage mixing method was originally applied to high ratio cakes. The term high ratio refers to a high ratio of water to flour held together by the emulsifiers in the “new fangled” solid shortenings. Since the emulsifiers could hold more water, the batter could also hold more sugar, since sugar dissolves in water. This helped to increase shelf life and moistness in cakes.
Since we have become more health conscious about the effect of trans fats, solid shortenings have fallen out of favor somewhat. The two-stage mixing method, however, is an effective method for creating a meltingly tender, fine crumbed cake.
In the two-stage method, you mix all dry ingredients in the mixing bowl (flour + sugar + salt + chemical leaveners + dry spices). Then, mix the eggs with about ¼ of the liquid ingredients (milk/water + wet flavorings).
Make sure that all dry ingredients are well mixed in the bowl, and then add butter at cool room temperature plus the egg mixture. Mix on low to moisten all the ingredients, and then beat on medium for a couple of minutes to develop the structure of the batter. The batter will get light and fluffy.
Next, add the rest of the milk in three additions, scraping the bowl and mixing for a few seconds between additions. Batter made using this method is generally a bit thinner that batter made with the creaming method. Since dry + wet + eggs are mixed in at the same time, you will not get the same amount of air bubbles that you will with the creaming method. Your final product will have a tighter, more velvety crumb and have a very melting mouth feel.
The egg foam method is the method we use for making genoise, angel food cake, and meringue-type cookies. In this mixing method, most (if not all) of the leavening comes from an extended beating of either egg whites or whole eggs with sugar. Then, the dry ingredients are gently folded in.
Batter made with the egg foam method of mixing are generally very thick and light. It is best to bake them immediately and let them cool in the pan upside down, as the structure of these cakes is very delicate until cool.
There are also some “hybrid” mixing methods where eggs are separated, the yolks are added according to the creaming method or the muffin method, then the whites are beaten to medium peaks and folded in before baking. This creates a batter with extra lift—from chemical leaveners, air bubbles created during creaming and air bubbles in the egg foam—and a drier end product.
Now that you know the major mixing methods, the world is your oyster. You can take almost any cake recipe that calls for the creaming method and apply the two-stage method. Note the results, and then use the method that you like best.
Read a recipe, name the general mixing method, based on the instructions, and then adapt it how you see fit. Not all mixing methods are interchangeable, but you can usually use choose between creaming or two-stage, creaming or muffin or even adapting a recipe with whole eggs to the hybrid method described above. It all depends on the final texture you seek: tender, chewy, light and dry or moist and velvety.