Baking demystified. The basics. 

Baking, my first true love when it comes to the kitchen. I don’t get poetic and soppy when it comes to food but I’ll admit that making a good looking loaf of bread or scone makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. It clearly doesn’t take much to please me!

If you have a look at my Instagram page you’d probably think I’m a baker and not a chef. For some reason the baking side of things of my business has taken off like wildfire over the past 2 years. I also seem to get the craziest requests. When I ask clients why they have come to me specifically they tell me other bakers turn their requests down! Don’t know of it says something about me and my missing screws but hey, whatever. I love a challenge. Which brings me to the topic of this post, challenges when baking. Apparently baking isn’t as straightforward to everyone as I thought. When I talk and tweet about it it’s almost always the most popular topic. So I’ve decided to do a series of blog posts detailing the various aspects of baking.

Baking is a science, there is no way one can explain it away in just one post. So I’ve chosen to start everything off with the basics and fundamentals of the subject. As the weeks go by I’ll keep adding more posts,sibjects and tips. I’ll cover fondant cakes, muffins, biscuits and cookies, breads and whatever else we can think of. First, the basics…

What is baking? 

It may sound like a silly question but it’s not as straightforward as you may think. There are a whole lot of things that happen when one bakes. Every single ingredient is key to the entire process working and coming together into a final product.

When you place dough in an oven the liquids in the dough have already begun reacting with the chemicals you’ve added (baking powder, bicarb) or raising agents (yeast, air). As this series gets more posts over the next few weeks I will tackle each one of these topics. The types of raising agents and what they do and how to work with them like an expert.

So you’ve got your cake in the oven, have you ever wondered what happens in there to make your gooey sponge cake dough that soft piece of calories-laden heaven?

  1. When the heat hits the cake tin with your dough the heat immediately because to cause the liquids in the dough to steam.
  2. The steam and heat then cause the sugars in the dough to melt
  3. The melting sugar, steam and liquids then begin to make the starches in the flour to cook and thicken
  4. The thickening and cooking starches then begin to trap the rising air that the bicarb/baking powder is creating and all the other rising gases the dough is producing
  5. The melting sugars now begin to caramelize and harden, as do the egg proteins and starches. They harden whilst also trapping the air that is being produced by the dough mixture.

And voila. A cake is born. Simple huh?

So why did I break it all down like that? Coz it leads us nicely into my next topic…

Why does my cake always flop? 

Cakes flop because you have fiddled with one or all of the processes I’ve mentioned above. A cake is a delicate thing that is made via scientific and not so sexy means. When it comes to science (if you’re not like me and didn’t flunk the subject at school)  you’d have a vague memory of how science is about a whole lot of small, rather insignificant things coming together and being mixed to become one rather very significant thing that does a whole lot of things you didn’t think it could do. Baking is more or less the same. If you take one of the components out or fiddle too much your final product will not be the same.

It’s such a precise subject that in a professional pastry kitchen even the air flow and temperature of the kitchen is carefully regulated and monitored.

So back to the question, why do your cakes flop?

  1. When you open the oven door within the first 20mins of baking you’re messing with the pressure the rising steam on the cake has created. This will lead to a sunken cake.
  2. As the cake bakes you use a knife or large object to poke it to check if its done. This is basically like building a deck of cards and deciding you’d like to see what the bottom card at the base looks like so you pull it out. You’re making a rather convenient chimney or vent for all the rising gasses in the cake to escape from. Don’t do it. Rather use a toothpick or get a proper cake needle.
  3. Your eggs and ingredients we all straight out of the fridge when you mixed the ingredients. ALWAYS use ingredients that are at room temperature. The reason being putting a cold dough into a hot oven slows the cooking process down. It means the inside of the dough will cook at a much slower rate than the outside…which results in a flopped cake. A cold cake also doesn’t get hot enough fast enough to allow that build up of steam.
  4. You’ve let your dough sit out for too long. Ever wonder why recipes always ask you mix the wet and dry ingredients separately first? It’s no chefs trying to be pedantic assholes, it’s because raising agents like bicarb of soda and baking powder begin working as soon as they come in touch with wet ingredients. So the longer you keep a dough out the less strength the raising agents will have. As soon as you’ve mixed your dough pop it into the oven.
  5. You didn’t pre-heat your oven. The reason you need to pre-heat your oven to the right temperature is because of the steps I mentioned above. The steam and melting of sugars need to begin immediately as your dough gets into the oven, if your oven isn’t hot enough it will slow this process down, resulting in a flopped cake.

Why do I have to follow this stupid recipe? 

There are steps to every baking recipe and each one is in a sequence linked to other steps. It’s important to follow them.

  1. When a cake recipe asks you to beat sugar until it’s fluffy, we aren’t trying to be romantic, it’s an important, THE most important step in my eyes. By beating the sugar and butter or egg for a good 5 minutes at the beginning of your mixing process you’re breaking the fats in the butter up, which means the cake will bake more evenly. You’re also emulsifying the fats and beating air into them, this will make for a lighter and fluffier cake. The beaten butter should resemble a thick mayonnaise after you’ve beaten it properly.
  2. When a recipe says sieve the flour, it’s actually helping you with aeration. When you sieve flour you’re removing any impurities and lumps, you’re also filling the flour with gaps of air. You may not see it with your naked eye but sieved flour makes for a lighter bake.

Are ingredients important? 

Yes. The type of sugar used for a cake is essential. Sugars all melt at different rates and temperatures. If a recipes asks for granulated sugar please don’t use castor sugar.

  • If a recipe just says “egg” this means you should use large eggs. The default category of eggs used for baking are the large variety.
  • Bicarb of soda and baking powder are two completely different things. Baking powder is a blend made from bicarb, cream of tartar and salt. They are not interchangeable.
  • Salt. If a recipe says add salt but you decide not to because you don’t like salt this will effect your final product. The reason some recipes ask for salt is because salt helps regulate how quick the chemicals react in the cake.
  • Butter. I am a firm believer in butter. Butter gives more flavour, melts better and just makes things so much more better. Margarine is probably one of the worst things ever invented. Having said that, there are some baking margarines that will make for cakes that are perfectly fine. If you don’t know the difference, butter is made from milk whilst margarine is made from an emulsion of vegetable fats and other ingredients.

Over the next few weeks I’ll cover the following 4 topics linked to baking and go more in depth about it all:

  • Icing and cake decorations
  • Biscuits, cookies and small savouries
  • Bread
  • Muffins and cupcakes

2 thoughts on “Baking demystified. The basics. 

  1. Thank you LesDaChef. Your blog much appreciated.
    It’s much clearer now. I love the butter part, the one part I don’t compromise on.

    Will be looking forward to the next topics.

  2. Very interesting!!

    I often leave out Salt because the recipe will ask for unsalted butter but I only have salted so instead I use salted butter and leave out the extra salt. Is that still okay?

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