Baking ingredients – what are they for?

This week, I baked a disastrous batch of brownies. They were truly awful. I really thought I remembered the correct amounts of all the ingredients, so I kind of winged it, but I was way off. They were dense, somehow tasteless, and sucked the moisture right out of my mouth. It did get me thinking about individual ingredients in baking and what purpose they serve. It’s a fairly common saying that baking is a science, so I started looking into it. But don’t worry, I hated chemistry in school, so I won’t get too technical.

Baking soda – This is the workhorse of kitchens; it can clean, it can be used in baking, it can even soothe diaper rash! It’s known as sodium bicarbonate and is basic (meaning it has a higher pH than water at 8.3). If you want your cake or cookie to be light and fluffy, you’ll need baking soda. BUT, it is activated by liquids and an acid, so don’t leave out the acid. Everyone has mixed baking soda and vinegar together to see the reaction, that’s what’s going on in your batter. Most recipes typically have you mix the wet ingredients separately from the dry ingredients to keep this reaction from prematurely occurring (of course it isn’t as large of a reaction as the vinegar and baking soda because you don’t use as much raw material). Once baking soda mixes with an acid, carbon dioxide is produced. If you overmix your batter, then you can lose that carbon dioxide and cause your baked good to be dense.

Baking powder – Unlike baking soda, baking powder has both an acid and a base. A liquid is needed for the baking powder to react so you get that nice rise in your baked goods. In order for the acid and base to not react while it’s sitting on your shelf, there is a buffer element, such as cornstarch. There are two kinds, a single acting and a double acting. Most likely, the double acting is in your kitchen and that means your baking powder has two different reactions. The first reaction is when the powder is combined with a liquid at room temperature and the second reaction is when the mixture is heated. You can use either baking powder or baking soda, but if you aren’t adding an acid into your batter, go with the baking powder.

Butter/ vegetable oil – You need your fats in baking! They help provide moisture, rich flavor, and can help some recipes rise better. There are solid fats (butter) and liquid fats (vegetable oil). These aren’t the only two examples of fats, but it’s enough to give you an idea for the purpose of this blog. Butter contains some water, and what happens when water is heated? It becomes steam, so butter can help leaven (or raise) your baked goods. There is sweet cream butter and european style butter. Sweet cream is going to have a higher fat content than the european style butter. There is also unsalted and salted. Unsalted means there is no salt added to the butter, you’ll have to add it to the recipe if you want. Salted butter contains salt. Vegetable oil is 100% fat (yikes!) and helps make your baked goods tender and moist. Vegetable oil doesn’t solidify at room temperature, so it’ll keep your goods moist longer. Brownies made with vegetable oil are so rich and delicious! It’s usually what I make my brownies with.

Eggs – Eggs are often used as a binding agent (think meatballs, eggs help keep all the ingredients together). They can also add moisture and help thicken the batter. Yolks have fat so they’re great at making the goods tender. Eggs can also contribute air when they’re beaten. The balance between the eggs and flour can determine the heigh and texture. If you add to many eggs to a cake, for example, it may start to taste custardy. Too little eggs and it may be crumbly.

Flour – Flour provides structure. If you look at your baking recipes, it seems like most of the ingredients by volume is flour… with sugar as a close second. The most common is all-purpose flour, but I recently bought some cake flour. You can’t substitute 1:1, you have to subtract a little all-purpose flour to cake flour.

Sugar – Do I really need to go into what sugar does for your recipe? It contributes to tenderness, moisture, and of course, sweetness!

Vanilla – I’m not sure I have ever actually measured out vanilla, I typically just eyeball it. It enhances the other flavors in the batter.

After researching this post, I think my baking powder may not be effective anymore. It is fairly old and baking powder doesn’t last for forever. I may have forgotten eggs, too… next time, I’ll stick to the recipe and not my memory.


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