HOW TO WIN AT BAKING - Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours - Alanna Taylor-Tobin

Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours - Alanna Taylor-Tobin (2016)


I’ve heard it said that there are two types of people in the world: cooks and bakers. Cooks are hot-tempered creative types who break all the rules and don’t follow directions. A little of this, a bit of that, they can throw together a genius meal using the dregs of your crisper drawer and a skillet. Recipes are tiresome words meant to be skimmed rather than analyzed. Then there are meticulous, exacting bakers. With their obsessive attention to detail and love of structure, they will follow a recipe to the letter.

My advice to you when making these recipes is to be a bit of a cook and a baker. Yes, these recipes have been carefully formulated to work with these exact measurements, ingredients, temperatures, baking pans, etc. So be like a baker and measure accurately, and make the recipe as written, at least the first time around. That said, each kitchen has its own set of variables—weather, oven temperature, baking pan size and material, brands of ingredients used and measuring techniques all have their own bizarre effects on baking. So be like a cook, too: use your senses and intuition to determine if that cake needs a longer baking time than called for, or if your scone dough needs more liquid. If something seems done to you before the timer goes off, pull it out; if it seems underdone, leave it in longer.

Along these lines, here are some general baking tips that should help you be a better baker (and cook).

1. Read, read, read. Before you get started, read through a recipe from start to finish; this will give you a sense of timing and flow before you begin, and there will be no nasty surprises, like chilling times, ingredients or equipment. I always give the recipe a final read-through once my batter is mixed, checking off ingredients in my head to make sure I haven’t left any out. Once you place the goodies in the oven, refresh your memory about what to look for in terms of doneness and bake time. And make sure you pay attention to ingredients. For example, sweet white rice flour is quite different from regular rice flour and the two are not interchangeable. (Read more in “Alternative Grains and Flours”.)

2. Mise en place. I never do this because I have a tiny kitchen and all my baking supplies are already in one place, but many bakers I know like to gather and measure all their ingredients before getting started. This way, you won’t accidentally leave anything out.

3. Know how to measure. Ingredients in this book are given in volume (cups, tablespoons, teaspoons) as well as metric measurements (grams, which are weight, and milliliters, which are volume). To measure by volume, use dry measuring cups for flours, sugars and the like (those little metal cups with handles that come in ¼-cup increments) and use wet measuring cups for liquids (usually glass or plastic pitchers that come in 1- and 2-cup sizes). Weight measurements will give you the most accurate results, particularly for alternative flours that can have wide variations in weight due to the coarseness of the grind, moisture content and clumpiness. If measuring by volume, see step 4.

4. Dip and sweep. When measuring dry ingredients such as flours, grab your bag or jar of flour, a dry measuring cup and a straight knife or (my favorite) a small, offset spatula. If the flour has been sitting for a while, such as a new bag from the grocery store, stick your cup in the bag and fluff it up a bit. Conversely, if your flour is fluffy (say you just bought it in bulk, or you just poured your bag into a storage jar), rap the container on the counter a few times to settle it back down. Now, dip your measuring cup into the container and lift it up so that it’s mounded with flour. Give it the gentlest of taps on the rim of the jar or with your hand to settle any large air pockets. Use your knife or offset spatula to sweep away the excess flour to make a level cup, letting the excess fall back into the jar or bag. Do the same thing when measuring with teaspoons or tablespoons.

5. Use the utensils and mixing techniques called for. When called for, whip, beat, stir, fold or rub in. Beating whipped egg whites into a batter with a spoon will give different results than gently folding them in with a spatula.

6. Use the pan size called for. An inch (2.5 cm) may not seem like a big difference, but a 9-inch (23-cm) round pan has 25 percent more volume than an 8-inch (20-cm) round pan, and this will have a big effect on the shape of your cake and its baking time. Similarly, the material of your baking vessel may transfer heat differently. Glass, ceramic, steel, aluminum and cast iron will give slightly different outcomes, making it essential to channel your inner cook and use visual cues and your instincts to determine doneness.

7. Oven placement matters. Take care to arrange your oven racks as specified in the recipe. For instance, scones burn easily on their bottoms, so baking them toward the top of the oven is essential. Pie, on the other hand, tends to get soggy on the bottom; baking it on the lower rack helps keep the bottom crisp.

8. Oven temperature—it’s anyone’s guess! Most ovens don’t run true to temperature, no matter how fancy and new. My oven is about as ancient as some of the grains in this book, so I am at the mercy of my external oven thermometers, of which I always have two. But these can be inaccurate, too. The best way to see that your oven runs at the proper temperature is to hire a professional to come calibrate it. The second way is to make like a cook and adjust your oven according to your instincts. Are things not browning when they should? Maybe your oven runs cold and you need to turn it up. Are your cookies incinerated? Your oven probably runs a little warm and you should dial down the temperature a bit. Opening the oven door frequently will lower the temperature, too, so try to keep the peeking to a minimum.

9. Use a timer. And also, don’t use a timer. Bake times are approximate and will differ depending on myriad factors, including oven temperature, pan material, the temperature of your kitchen and ingredients, how you measured your ingredients and how frequently you open the oven to check for doneness. So use your eyes, nose and fingers or a toothpick (when applicable) to determine if something is fully baked, regardless of the times given. That said, do set a timer for a little before the earliest done time so you know when to start checking on things.

10. Keep your cool. Freshly baked goods are still cooking from residual heat even after you’ve removed them from the oven, so it’s best to obey the recipe and let things cool or chill for the specified time. Before storing baked goods, let them cool completely so they don’t steam themselves.