While cooking cuisine is an art where you can wing recipes based on personal taste and flare, baking is more closely aligned with science where to make a good bread or desert you need to be precise in your measurements and stick to a plan. Here are some general baking tips that I have found useful.
Recipes versus Personal Flare – There is lots of room for personal flare in baking, but it’s usually on back end when you’re plating or decorating, or shaping a loaf of bread. However, strive to follow baking recipes as precisely as possible, at least initially. You will find over time that at your elevation or climate certain changes need to be made, or for your oven temperature setting and baking times need to be adjusted. The first few times you make something though, like Crème Anglaise, you need to be very precise, then you can modify & enhance.
Olive Oil versus Vegetable Oil – Of all the oils used in the kitchen, olive oil is the best in terms of price, health, an versatility. Even though olive oil has a lower smoke temperature than other oils, I cook almost exclusively with it. That being said, olive oil has a distinctive taste that can enhance cuisine, but can throw off desserts. Sunflower is good neutral oil for baking, it is inexpensive, has a reasonably high smoke temperature, provides good texture, and adds minimal taste to the product. Also, I would recommend you never use olive oil in a deep fryer best to use vegetable oil, not only is it the cheapest option, it is neutral in taste and has a high smoke point.
Baking Mats – Every baker should have baking mats, or as they are sometimes called silplats. You should use these only to line your baking sheets and keep the ones you use for baking separate from the those you use for cooking. Do not use them for cutting as you will ruin them. When making crust or Napoleon pastries, I roll the dough onto siplats so I can easily move them from the counter to the frig for cooling and can stack them easily in the fridge. I also use them for rolling out the dough when making pie crust. Bottom line, making mats save you money over time versus parchment paper and they keep your sheets clean.
Making Cake Flour – There are essentially three type of flour used in baking; All Purpose, Bread, and Baking. After that there are variations, such as bleached and unbleached, whole wheat, rye, coconut, etc. What separates the three types of flour is the amount of protein. Bread flour has the highest protein and Cake flour the least. Using bread flour results in high structure and more density, while using cake flour gives a fluffier finish but with less structure. Protein contain gluten (or glue), which is where dough elasticity or structure comes from. So for example, you would use bread flour for of course bread, but also for a wedding cake, while you’d use cake flour for Angle Food cake. Some recipes call for a combination of multiple flours, such as when making croissants. Since it is hard to find cake flour, and when you do it is inexplicably expensive, it’s best to simply make your own.
To make cake flour, start with one cup of all purpose and remove 2 tablespoons. Next add 2 tablespoons of corn starch. Now shift the mixture a minimum of two times to a) get the corn starch evenly distributed and b) to make the cake flour more airy (fluffy).
Butter versus Margarine – I shouldn’t have to say this, but never substitute margarine for butter when baking. For one thing, you need the fats in butter and more important, butter is healthy and margarine is not. The diet industry has a done a great job convincing you that eating fats is why your fat, however that is not true. In fact studies have shown that eating high fat dairy actually leads to weight loss. The reason your fat is because you eat too much processed food (like margarine) and don’t exercise. Stop denying yourself tasty food (in moderation) in the name of health and take the dog for a walk.
Convention versus Convection Oven – I bake almost exclusively in a convection oven (fan). You generally need to lower the temperature ~6 degs F for every 100 F the recipe calls for (~25 degs F for 400F recipe), and you need to shorten the baking time, in general 25%. Convection cooking is good for breads that our baked outside of a mold/pan and cookies. However, cakes and breads in molds/pans can get dry on top before the center gets done, but if you’re layering your cake and cutting the tops off so you have a smooth soft surface, this can be a good thing. I have three ovens in my kitchen and one convection oven is dedicated to baking only so I don’t flavor the oven with cooking odors.
Induction versus Gas or Electric Stove Top – Induction heating provides the most precise way to make sauces or creams where the temperature needs to be controlled. They also provide the fastest way to heat things so if you are caramelizing sugar it can be a faster process. I use small countertop induction units, they cost about $100 each so I have two. You do have to have special pots/pans, but they don’t cost more than others. If nothing else, having countertop induction units gives you more flexibility in the kitchen as you can easily expand and contract your cooking space. It’s great to have these during the holidays or when you are hosting a dinner party outside.
Salt in Baking – Not all salts are created equal, as the sodium concentration can vary (the saltiness). In baking, always try to use the type of salt the recipe calls for. Kosher salt does not have added iodine, so is a common salt. Sea salt usually has a fine grain and soft taste. Flake salt is good for topping some desserts.
Baking at Altitude (@ 7000 feet above sea level)
- Temperature Adjustment: Raise the temp at altitude. For example a recipe calls for 425 F baking temp, raise the temp ~20-25 F.
- Baking Powder Adjustment: If a recipe calls for baking powder, lower the amount you use by 1/8th tsp per tsp. This keeps the flour from over stretching.
- Water Adjustment: Increase water in the following ratio, 3.5 TBL added for every 5 TBL in recipe. Water sublimates into steam at a lower temp
- An alternative to adding water is to use an additional two eggs for every egg in the recipe. The egg proteins re-enforce the dough’s structure.
- Sugar Adjustment: Reduce sugar by half as the added water evaporating will concentrate sugars
Note: These are all suggestions that depend on the recipe, so you have to experiment for your elevation. My suggestion is that you only try one adjustment at a time and see what adjustment yields the best outcome.