Clever and useful tips for your kitchen.
Ever wondered what would happen to the appearance of a cake if you reduce (or forget to add) the sugar? The white chocolate and almond cupcakes on the right have no added sugar (by mistake!) while those on the left have the normal amount of sugar.
Sugar is often only associated with sweetness (and calories) but it is also responsible for affecting many other characteristics of a cake, including how it looks. There are three ways in which a reduced amount of sugar can affect the appearance (all of which you can clearly see in this pic):
- Sugar promotes both the Maillard reaction (the reaction between proteins and sugar) and caramelisation which are both responsible for browning. This is why the cupcakes with more sugar have a darker, thicker crust.
- When sugar is heated during baking it dissolves and adds extra liquid to a mixture. This makes the batter thinner and more prone to spreading, which in turn, helps them to rise with a smoother surface. You’ll notice the cupcakes with less sugar haven’t spread as much and have retained a more definite shape.
- Sugar helps cake rise to their full potential by raising the coagulation temperature of the eggs, giving the mixture more time to rise and expand before the cake structure sets. This explains why the cupcakes with more sugar have filled the paper cases and those with less haven’t.
- The first and most common reason (and what happened to the meringues in the front of this pic) is that the oven temperature is too high. The intense heat will cause the air bubbles in the mixture to expand efficiently, causing it to rise, spread and crack. The meringues behind them were from a second batch that were baked in an oven preheated to 10°C lower (yep, sometimes that’s all it takes!) and resulted in perfect, smooth-crusted meringues without cracks.
- The second reason is that the mixture has been whisked on high speed with an electric mixer. The furious and quick incorporation of air into the egg whites will form an airy foam with lots of large air bubbles. When baked these large masses of air have a greater ability to expand than smaller air bubbles, causing the mixture to rise, spread and crack unevenly. If this is the case, the best solution is to whisk the egg whites and sugar mixture on medium or medium-high speed which will form a denser foam made up of lots of tiny, even bubbles that, when heated, will only expand slightly, if at all, minimizing any rising, spreading and cracking.
Yeast doughs need to be left in a warm, draught-free place to prove after kneading (known as the bulk prove), and usually again after shaping (known as the final prove). Proving is important as it ‘exercises’ the strands of gluten, making them stronger and helping to develop the structure of the bread. It also develops flavour. Yeast is active between 0.5°C–54.5°C but is at its happiest between 25°C–28°C.
This means, depending on the weather and the temperature of your kitchen, you may need to create a warm micro-environment to prove your dough, particularly on very cold days. There are a number of ways you can do this for the bulk and / or final prove stage:
- Pour some hot tap water into a saucepan and place the dough in a covered heatproof bowl over it, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bowl and replacing the hot water as it cools.
- Turn just your pilot light on in your oven to heat your oven very gently. Place the dough in a covered heatproof bowl on the middle rack, close the door and leave to prove.
- Place the dough in a covered heatproof bowl on a wooden board on top of a preheated oven.
- Place the dough in a covered heatproof bowl in a sunny windowsill or a spot outside in dappled sunlight (as long there is no draught).
Some like ‘em crisp, some like ‘em chewy. If you fall into the chewy camp with your meringues it is easy to make sure they have this hard-to-resist texture by taking them from the oven as soon as they have finished baking and cooling them at room temperature. For crisp meringues, turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar and leave them in the oven to cool.read less
When making a pie or tart there is no need to grease the tin before you line it with pastry – the high butter content in the pastry will naturally stop it from sticking to the tin. If you grease your tin, the pastry is more likely to slip down the sides/shrink during baking leaving you with a tart case that with very short sides and not much room for your filling.read less
As soon as your cake mixture is ready, bake it straight away. If a finished cake mixture sits for too long before going into the oven you won’t get the best results –especially cakes with egg whites (they will lose volume and won’t rise as much) and those with bicarbonate of soda and/or an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or buttermilk (they will end up with a ‘holey’ texture).read less
Here’s why: read more
When whisking eggs for your baking it is always best to use the freshest eggs possible.
Eggs, when fresh, are acidic and this acidity means that the egg proteins are tightly knit. You can see this egg is fresh because the yolk is plump and round and the inner white is clearly defined and is holding onto the yolk tightly – an indication that those protein bonds are keeping it from spreading on the plate.
As an egg ages, it becomes more alkaline and the proteins start to pull away from each other, causing the yolk to lose it's form and the white to become thinner and more likely to spread on a plate when cracked.
So why is this important when whisking eggs? Less fresh eggs will whisk to a foam more quickly than fresher ones, and you’ll achieve a slightly greater volume, but the resulting foam will be less stable than one made with fresh eggs. A fresh-egg foam will be more stable thanks to the strong protein bonds and therefore more likely to holds its shape and retain the air you have incorporated through whisking.
Pic: @neelashearerread less
When pressing biscuits with a fork to flatten before baking make sure you dip the fork into a little flour and then tap it to remove any excess. The light coating of flour will stop the fork from sticking to the biscuit dough.read less
Over-whisked egg whites are easy to recognize – they become a lumpy, curdled-looking mess and ooze excess liquid. Yep, not pretty, and unfortunately once they reach this stage there is no way to fix them. Over-whisking egg whites are common, but if you know what is going on they are easy to avoid:
When you start to whisk, the protein bonds in the egg whites are pulled apart and uncoil, breaking up the original thick viscose liquid structure. As whisking continues, the proteins then loosely re-link and re-bond around tiny air bubbles and moisture to create a foam. If you continue to whisk, these protein bonds will eventually tighten so much that they are no longer able to hold moisture, forcing the moisture out, breaking down the foam and turning it into a curdled mess.
The best way to avoid this is to whisk your egg whites by hand with a balloon whisk or, if using an electric mixture, on medium (or at least no higher than medium-high). Keep a really close eye on it, stopping frequently and checking when you are close to the point you want to reach (usually soft or firm peaks) and only whisking for brief portions of time after this. Whisking by hand, because it is naturally slower, will give you far more control over your foam than whisking with an electric mixer and hence there will be less chance of over-whisking.read less
In baking, eggs are generally best used at room temperature when they are easier to incorporate into mixtures. If whisking, you can incorporate greater quantities of air if the eggs aren’t chilled – important when making sponge cakes or meringue mixtures. So take the eggs from the fridge at least one hour before you start baking or pop them in a warm (not hot) bowl of water for 5-10 minutes to bring them to room temperature quickly.read less
In Australia, the standard tablespoon measure holds 20ml or 4 teaspoons. However, in the US, UK and New Zealand a tablespoon holds 15mls or 3 teaspoons. More often than not it is the 15ml tablespoon sold in our local stores while our recipes are written using the 20ml tablespoon! Check the size of your spoon and adjust the quantities if necessary - it won't make a big difference when you are measuring ingredients such as flour and sugar, but if measuring concentrated ingredients such as baking powder or yeast, it can cause real imbalances in your baking.read less
The difference between a well puffed choux pastry and one that falls flat on its face is often due to how quickly you add the eggs to your butter and flour mixture and the quantity of egg actually added. The puff at the bottom of this picture was made with choux pastry that was too wet. The eggs were added too quickly, and as a result too much was incorporated. When baked, it ended up spreading and being like a ‘biscuit’ on the tray. The other choux puff was made with choux pastry that had the eggs added very gradually. As a result the correct amount was added and the final choux puff rose beautifully and held its shape. Choux pastry can be tricky but once you’ve mastered it you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about!read less