Baking 101

Baking 101: FAQ in real-talk terms

You’ve got questions. I’ve got a few answers and explanations.  

Baking is a science and we’ve got a sweet tooth.  With a bit of knowledge and kitchen-feel under our belts, we’re sweet successes in the kitchen.  Here are some of the very frequently asked questions when it comes to stepping in the kitchen with cake in mind.  Let’s talk. Let’s bake. Let’s get real. 

•  I only have salted butter and I’m going to use it, ok? By now you might have noticed that most all of the baking recipes on this site call for unsalted butter.  It’s pretty standard in baking to use unsalted butter in recipes because, among other reasons, we want to be able to control the amount of salt we’re adding to our baked treats.  You’ll find a much more thorough explanation here if you’re a butter nerd like I am: Why We Use Unsalted Butter.  That being said, if you only have salted butter on hand, of course you can still make some mighty fine cookies.  Just decrease the salt in the recipe by about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.  Or.. heck, if you like baked goods with a salty kick, keep the salt as directed in the recipe.  Arm yourself with information and then do whatever the heck you want.  We’re adulting well, wouldn’t you say? 

•  Alright, but can I make this gluten-free? Well the answer to this is two-fold.  Yes and also, no.  You can certainly make most cakes and cookies gluten-free if you know what you’re doing… in which case you’re probably a wizard and I think that’s wonderful.  The answer would be a firm NO if you think you can just dump a bunch of coconut flour into a recipe instead of all-purpose flour, close your eyes, and hope for success.  Life just isn’t that friendly.  In my experience, I’ve had some wonderful success with one-for-one gluten-free flour blends, my absolute favorite being Cup-4-Cup flour– add an extra egg yolk or whole egg and you’re in business!  

Why do my cookies go from fine to totally flat in the oven? There are a few reasons cookies can flatten to a mess in the oven.  The most common culprits are fat and oven temperature.  They all play a role and though cookies seem fairly simple, there is a delicate balance. In most cookies, our fat will be butter.  Whether softened or melted to brown, butter will spread once it hits the oven.  If the oven is too hot or the dough is too warm, the fat will melt before the cookie has baked enough structure to hold itself.  I find that refrigerating cookie dough before baking it helps the fat to melt slower, giving the cookie enough time to bake themselves some structure before they oozes all over the baking sheet.  Another helpful cookie baking tip?  Increase the flour in a traditional cookie recipe from 2 1/4 cup to 2 1/2 cup and always scoop cookie dough onto room temperature (not warm from the oven) baking sheets lined with parchment paper (not greased with additional fat).  

My very favorite cookies:  Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies and Peanut Butter, Bacon and Dark Chocolate Cookies

 High-altitude baking, please help. Tough.  This one is really tough.  Would now be a good time to mention that I actually live below sea level? I don’t have a lot (read: any) experience with high-altitude baking. I’m known to buy all my baked treats when I go to places like… Denver. BUT!  King Arthur Flour has some information when it comes to high-altitude baking and since I have no experience with this I’m not going to pretend that I do.  Also I wish you god-speed and the very best of luck.  I’m down here in the swamps rooting for you. 

•  Dutch-processed cocoa.  I don’t get it. When it comes to cocoa powder there are two types in baking:  natural cocoa powder and Dutch-processed cocoa powder.  Long story short, natural cocoa powder is an acidic element in baking.  Dutch-processed has been treated in such a way so that the acidic element has been removed from it. This sort of thing matters when it comes to whether or not you’re using baking soda or baking powder in a recipe.  Baking is science.  Here are more details!

•  What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda and can I just use the baking soda that I have freshening my fridge if I’m out of baking powder?  Let’s start by looking at both our baking powder and baking soda with our eyeballs.  I find that baking powder looks slightly more fluffy and light while baking soda looks slightly more grainy and just a touch more coarse.  Both are used to lift and leaven our baked goods.  Baking soda is also known as sodium bicarbonate. It is activated by heat and acid in the oven.  Baking powder is a mixture of sodium bicaronate, an acid, and cornstarch (that’s why it looks slightly fluffier than soda). Because it contains its own acid, it is activated before it hits the oven and then once again once it hits the heat of the oven.  It’s science and it’s delicious.  There’s more of a thorough explanation here: What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder.  Are baking soda and baking powder interchangable? Not exactly.  If you’re setting off on a baking adventure, it’s essential that you have both on hand. It’s hard to successfully and consistently tweak the balance of acid and leavening without these two very important baking essentials. 

•  Honestly, why with all the buttermilk? Buttermilk is one of my favorite ingredients in baking.  It’s has a thickness and weight, it contributes an acidic element to our baked goods (so if we’re using baking soda, it’s all sorts of activated), and it adds a light tartness to our baked goods.  It’s like velvet. The problem is, most of us don’t drink buttermilk so it might not be a staple in our refrigerators.  If that’s the case, here are some easy buttermilk substitutes that add viscosity and acid to whatever dairy we’re adding to our baked goods.  

•  WTF with self-rising flour?  You’re right.  You’re going along, minding your own business and BAM!  A recipe calls for self-rising flour.  Self rising flour is a combination of all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.  It is commonly found in Southern recipes… biscuits, cakes… that sort of thing.  To make your own self rising flour, whisk together 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  I find that self-rising flour is often made with a softer wheat than traditional all-purpose flour so I like to combine half all-purpose flour with half cake flour when making my own self-rising flour.  

•  Follow up:  Why are there 18 different types of flour and does it matter if I exchange them willy nilly?  Yes it matters.  Just about everything matters in baking.  Here are the difference between baking flours.  For most recipes, it’s a great idea to have plenty of all-purpose flour on hand. 

•  What is a stick of butter? Here in the United States, our butter is typically sold in 1/2 or 1 pound blocks divided into two or four ‘sticks’.  A stick of butter is equal to 1/2 cup or 4 ounces/ 8 tablespoons / 110g.  Math. We got this, right? 

 Large eggs?  But Ina Garten only uses extra large eggs and she knows everything.   You’re right.  You’re not wrong and frankly I don’t know why Ina is trying to confuse us all.  Large eggs are standard in baking.  If we all decide to use the same egg size, we’ll all be on the same page in regards to how much liquid is going into our baked goods.  Large eggs typically weigh about 2 ounces while an extra large eggs comes in at 2.25 ounces.  That’s a strong difference in moisture once you start to add several eggs to a recipe.  Unless you’re baking an Ina recipe, stick with large eggs.  If you’re making and Ina recipe and you only have large eggs in your refrigerator like a normal baker… take a peek at these conversions.  Oh… and speaking of Ina recipes, these Apple Pie Bars are incredible and we don’t have to futz with eggs.  See also: Why We Use Large Eggs In Baking

 What is a double boiler?  You’re asking great questions. A double boiler is a set of two different saucepans that, when layered together, have a natural space between them.  Typically in the bottom saucepan we’ll add water, place the second saucepan atop the first allowing the water to gently boil and gently heat the pan on top of it.  This type of heat is  more gentle than a single saucepan over a flame and is often used to gently melt chocolate because… as you may know… chocolate can be finicky to melt and seize… making you (if you’re like me) want to cry. 

You can buy a three-piece double boiler pot and lid.  That’s totally a fine thing to do. 

You can also simply buy the top pan in a double boiler situation, using a pan that you might already have in your collection as the water simmering pan. 

OR you could dig through your cupboards for a heat-proof pyrex-type bowl that fits well over a medium saucepan already in your collection, combine the two, use a good pot holder, and use this as a DIY and totally functional double boiler.  Good, right? 

Now! Have any questions?  Ask them below!  We’ll get chatting! 

xo Joy