I hate to admit this, but baking can be a bit iffy. Sometimes pie crusts turn out flaky. But other times, they end up as hard to chew as a bathtub mat. Same kind of problems with cakes and biscuits, too…
It turns out, to be a good baker you have to be patient! You also have to follow the directions closely. I have trouble with both those requirements. When the recipe says to let the dough rest in the fridge for half an hour, I figure, “No way! Even I don’t have time to rest!” And when the recipe says to sift the dry ingredients together, I figure, “Wha’? The flour is presifted. I’ll just stir the stuff up with a fork.” And as far as taking care with my measuring is concerned, I always figure a little more of a good thing never hurts…
Alton Brown, science chef extraordinaire and author of I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking, is the guy who’s set me straight. He says getting tasty results out of your oven means being ULTRA careful with the mixing. Alton doesn’t like to use measuring cups and spoons for dry ingredients. He says a cup of flour can weigh between 3 and 6 ounces, depending on the kind of flour and how you sift and measure it. He doesn’t like sifting much, either. He has another solution to ensure consistently good baking.
Alton weighs all his dry ingredients (like they’ve been doing in Europe, forever). That takes care of differences in volume between sifted and unsifted flour. Then he dumps his dry ingredients into his food processor and gives them a good whirl.
This method makes sure that the ingredients are evenly blended. But it also adds lots of air to the mix… air that would otherwise have been added during sifting.
It turns out you need lots of hot air to react with the baking soda and baking powder in your recipe. These leavening agents release gases when they get wet and warm. The gas bubbles rise through the dough, creating air pockets that make your baking light and airy. The more air, the more bubbles. The more bubbles, the more tender and delicious your cakes and pastries will be.
If your recipe gives you a choice between weighing or measuring your dry ingredients, get yourself a good digital kitchen scale and start weighing. Then mix everything thoroughly in your food processor. Voila! You’ll be dining on air in no time!
As a New Year’s project, I’m working out some weights for my own recipes in Cook Up A Story. You can still get good results carefully measuring your dry ingredients. But you can be a lot more confident if you weigh them. I’ll be posting weights here shortly, so we can all be better bakers in 2012. Watch this space.