Aug 20, 2013

Know Your Ingredients: The building blocks of Baked Goods

When it comes to making food, I've found that there tend to be three potential peaks of interest.  There is interest in cooking, interest in baking, and interest in ignoring the whole thing and getting take out.  For the sake of a shorter post today, we're going to leave the third category to their own devices.

There is definitely a divide between cooks and bakers though.  Many people can do both, but they usually will have a strong preference.  I know several people who love to cook who are intimidated by baking.  One an item goes into the oven, you can no longer tweak it and fiddle with it.  It is completely transformed in the oven with some form of magic.  And if the magic fails, there is no salvaging the result.

Baking is chemistry. And I think we could get more kids excited about chemistry if we taught it that way. Whether it's a cookie, cake, pie, bread, souffle or muffins, there is a balance between things that strengthen and toughen, and things that soften and tenderize.  Flour, egg whites, and milk solids are some of the most common proteins that make up the tougheners.  Fats such as butter, shortening, and oil are tenderizers, along with egg yolks, sugar, and leaveners (such as yeast, baking powder, and baking soda).

Why is this balance important?  Well, a baked good made only with tougheners would have the texture of something approximating a brick. A baked good with no tougheners in it wouldn't hold together, and would end up nothing but goop.  But a well balanced baked good will be like a well built building.  Enough structure to keep it solid, but with plenty of open space and windows.  Of course the combination of baking and building reminds me of this scene from Charlie and the Chocolate factory (If you don't remember the scene, I put the clip to the right).  What we're looking for is a balance between flaky and tender. Something that is structurally sound, but is also fun to eat. No broken teeth, no strained jaw, no disturbing and unexpected textures.

It's all well and good to say that we need a balance, but what is it, and how can I find it?  That's the real question, right?  First of all, it is really helpful to use a scale, because the ratios that we want to use are weight based, not volume based. There can be a significant difference in the amount of flour that is in 1 cup, depending on how it is measured, who measured it, etc. So measuring by weight is a much better way to go.

Shirley Corriher, in Bakewise, walks through how to make a poundcake using only ratios.  If you want a taste of her writing before trying to track down a giant tome (although the giant tome is TOTALLY WORTH IT), you can check out an article that she wrote on this topic here.  Michael Ruhlman also has a book entitled Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.  I must admit, I have not had a chance to check out his book yet.  However, there is also an app called Ratio, which provides the ratio of 28 different applications, from bread and pasta dough to cake batter, to stock and roux.  The app I have found rather useful, and has me intrigued to check out the book.

The image from the recipe itself.
With that said, this is the first of a set of posts on zucchini bread.  I started writing it as one single post, and realized that it would be way too long, and way too much information to put in one post.  With the torrent on squash that I get from my CSA, I decided to make some zuchhini bread. I have very few stand by recipes, and zucchini bread has never been a complicated application.  So I went online to find a nice, simple recipe that I could mindlessly throw together. This recipe from Paula Deen looked like it would fit the bill nicely (and surprisingly for a Paula Deen recipe, it has no butter in it at all!).

I mixed up the batter, doing a little bit of a double take on the amount of sugar, but following the recipe exactly, up until the point of adding nuts, which I don't do. I put my pans in the oven, having noticed that the batter looked a bit thin.  Then, as the bread began to bake, I watched in horror as my precious air bubbles were popping on the surface of the loaves. When I saw those air bubbles popping, I was really afraid that this meant that my recipe was over-leavened, and that my zucchini bread was going to be dense and chewy.  Luckily, it came out ok.  Very sweet, but ok.  It took a long time to finish baking, and the resulting loaves felt a little greasy on the sides and on the bottom, but the general flavor profile was still quite tasty.

Question 1. Were the problems with the loaf due to my error, or flaws in the recipe?
Question 2. If it's the recipe, can it be fixed? How?
Question 3. By just using ratios, can we make more than one successful recipe?  If not, how would those changes affect the finished product?

Hopefully this will help show that looking carefully at a recipe isn't that scary, and will help teach you how to look at a recipe that failed.  If it does, it's not necessarily your fault.

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