I often get asked what’s the secret to being a great baker. There is no secret; it’s basically a lot of practice, patience and trial and error (in my case, mostly error.) Unlike cooking, where you can add a pinch of this and a pinch of that and end up with a masterpiece, baking is way more scientific and unforgiving. That’s why it is important to follow recipes religiously. Here is a round-up of definitions, tips and techniques you’ll often come across in recipes — they’re the things I get asked about the most. I’m constantly adding to this page, so if you have any questions please drop me a line here.
- Creaming: You’ll often be required to cream softened butter and sugar in recipes. You can do this by using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, a hand-held mixer or even a good old-fashioned bowl and wooden spoon. Basically, what you are doing is stirring the butter and sugar together until the mixture is light, fluffy and almost doubled in volume. This typically takes about two to three minutes if you’re using a mixer. Creaming incorporates air into the mixture and helps your baked goods to rise.
- Folding: This is a technique where you are combining a lighter, delicate ingredient (such as flour, whipped cream or egg whites) into a heavier batter (as is the case in my Pan di Spagna recipe.) Some recipes also call for folding ingredients of different temperatures into a batter — such as melted chocolate, for example. It’s a technique that allows you to gently mix ingredients together without deflating your batter. You can use either a rubber spatula or a whisk to cut into the centre of your batter, slowly scrape the bottom of your bowl and come back up. You’ll know your batter is ready when all your ingredients are evenly combined and your batter is smooth. Folding requires a pretty delicate hand so it’s important not to rush it.
One of the basic ingredients in baking. A lot of recipes require butter to be a specific temperature or consistency. It’s important to respect what your recipe calls for because it has a big impact on the final product. Many recipes call for softened or room temperature butter. It usually takes about 2-3 hours for refrigerated butter to come to room temperature if it’s sitting on your countertop. You can tell your butter is softened enough if your finger leaves an indentation in the butter when you press into it.
Some recipes may call for cold butter. It’s important for the butter to be chilled in these recipes because as the dough bakes, the cold butter melts and the resulting steam creates those light and flaky layers of deliciousness we all love in baked goodies such as pie crusts and croissants.
- Salted vs Unsalted Butter: Most recipes call for unsalted butter. It’s easier to control the amount of salt in your recipe if you use unsalted butter, especially since different brands of butter use varying amounts of salt.
- White Sugar: When recipes call for “sugar”, they usually mean white sugar. This is the same fine granulated kind you probably put in your coffee. White sugar is made from either cane or sugar beets and is the type of sugar most commonly used in baking.
- Brown Sugar: Brown sugar is basically white sugar with molasses added to it. It adds a deeper, richer flavour to recipes as well as extra moisture.
- All-purpose flour: This is a flour that has a low protein and gluten content. It’s also known as plain flour.
- Cake or pastry flour: Cake flour is more finely milled than all-purpose flour and also has a lower protein and gluten content. It’s a light, delicate flour that is perfect for cakes — especially sponge and angel food cakes — because it rises really well and produces a fine crumb.
- Bread flour: Bread flour has a much higher protein and gluten content than other flours. This type of flour is typically used in breads because it produces a chewy texture. It’s also great in certain cookie recipes when you’re trying to achieve a dense, thick cookie — like in my The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies — Part Deux recipe.
- Cocoa Powder:
- Natural cocoa powder: Cocoa powder is produced from the remains of cocoa beans that have been fermented, roasted and ground down. Natural or raw cocoa powder is a medium brown colour, unsweetened and highly acidic. Most of the cocoa powder sold in grocery stores is natural cocoa powder. It is usually used in conjunction with baking soda — an alkali — in recipes to balance out its acidity. It has a deep chocolate flavour.
- Dutch Processed cocoa powder: This is natural, unsweetened cocoa powder that has been treated with an alkali to make it pH neutral. Dutch process cocoa is darker in colour that raw cocoa and has a milder chocolate flavour.
- Black cocoa powder: This is a heavily-Dutched cocoa powder that has had all its acidity neutralized. It lends a very dark, dramatic colour to baked goods, as well as a milder, less-bitter chocolate flavour. It should be used sparingly in recipes. I use black cocoa powder in my Seriously Fudgy Brownies.