Whether you’re an avid baker or a first-time cook, baking is a science that, with practice, results in better and better final products.
Understanding how the main ingredients in these recipes work is a major step toward fine-tuning your baking so that you get your desired result every single time!
What do these baking ingredients actually do?
What does flour do?
Flour is present in nearly every baking endeavor, either as the main base or as a few tablespoons’ worth mixed in. And yeah, it makes sense that flour provides the “oomph” to a mixture and gives it a fuller body, but what exactly does it do?
Flour is made from grinding a grain to a fine powder; usually it’s made from wheat, but it can also be made out of rice, quinoa or nuts. Whatever it’s made from, all grains and nuts have a certain amount of protein in them, and in wheat flour that protein is referred to as gluten. And both types of proteins (wheat gluten and gluten-free proteins) react the same way when mixed and heated.
When mixed or kneaded, gluten proteins bind together to create webs of protein within the mixture. When it’s heated, the webs set, creating a solid structure that makes baked goods seemingly “grow” as they are baked.
The best example of this process is a simple loaf of bread. Flour is added to water and yeast before being kneaded vigorously, often several times over. You’ll notice that kneaded bread begins to form a smooth dough that, if you were to pinch off a piece, appears slightly stretchy. That stretch is made from the gluten binding together during the kneading process! Once baked, the inside of the loaf has tiny air bubbles trapped in a web of baked flour, and the bread’s beautiful shape is held in place by these tiny bridges of bread within the structure.
The amount of mixing/kneading and heat varies for different kinds of treats. Cookies, for example, need barely any mixing at all and just a few minutes of baking for them to achieve the desired structure, while breads need plenty more of both! Every kind of flour also has a different level of protein, so some flours may need more kneading, less baking, or some other variant of the process!
What do baking fats do?
Common baking fats include butter, vegetable oil, lard and shortening, but they can also extend to any liquid or animal-based fats, like coconut oil, ghee, margarine and more!
Fat is added to baking mixtures for a few reasons: flavor, fluffiness and tenderness.
Baking fats coat gluten molecules to prohibit their binding which, as we’ve already seen, can be used to determine the rise and structure of the baked good. This results in a tender, looser structure. For example, bread has a tough structure because the gluten has virtually nothing to stop it from binding, whereas cookies have a loose, crumbly texture from the higher fat content.
Fats also contribute to a fluffier, airier texture, such as in buttercream frosting and chocolate mousse. Creaming butter (fat) and sugar allows the sharp sugar crystals to create miniscule pockets of air in the butter, creating a light, fluffy mixture.
Fats are also great flavor-carriers, especially when used in sweeter baked goods.
What do eggs do?
Eggs play a vital role in the baking process, with both the egg-whites and egg yolks playing separate but equally important roles.
The high protein content in egg-whites provides structure to the mixture, just like flour. It also introduces moisture to the batter without making the mixture runny, binding the ingredients together as it heats and bakes.
The egg yolks provide fat to the mixture which, like we’ve already seen, helps create a smooth, tender and moist texture. Yolks also give the mixture a golden tinge of color that makes the baked goods oh-so appetizing!
What do baking soda and baking powder do?
Baking soda and baking powder perform virtually the same task, but they are far from interchangeable.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a chemical compound that releases carbon dioxide when it comes into contact with acid and liquid. Your fifth-grade baking soda volcano explosion is exactly what happens in baked goods, just on a smaller scale. When you add baking soda to a mixture with acid and liquid, all those bubbles of CO2 that are created help the mixture rise into a beautiful, fluffy structure.
Baking powder contains baking soda and an acid, which means you only need some form of liquid to activate the same process. If you run out of baking powder, you can create the same effect by using baking soda alongside an acid, such as vinegar or cream of tartar.
What does salt do?
Salt is one of the most underrated baking ingredients and, quite possibly, severely underused.
- Salt adds flavor by balancing the sweetness in desserts and uplifting more subtle flavors in savory goods.
- Salt strengthens gluten structure, creating a stronger dough with more rise.
- Salt attracts and retains water, keeping your baked goods moist and fresh for longer.
- Different salts have different flavor profiles, so pay attention to whether your recipe calls for kosher salt, fleur-de-sel (a French word for “sea salt”) and regular salt.
- Salt breaks down the protein in eggs, thinning out the mixture and making it easier to brush or mix evenly.
- Since salt holds water, it can control the rate at which yeast rises. The more salt there is, the less water there is for the yeast to absorb, resulting in a tighter structure.
What does yeast do?
Yeast performs similarly to baking soda and baking powder, with slightly different results and processes.
Technically, yeast is a living single-celled organism closer to a fungus than a chemical, and it requires food in order to release the carbon dioxide and alcohol many baking goods depend on it for.
Let’s consider our loaf of bread we talked about earlier.
We already know that flour and liquid combine to create the web-like structure of a bread dough, but now we need to add carbon dioxide to fill the pockets of space within that web. Yeast provides that service by metabolizing simple sugars and releasing it as CO2 and alcohol.
Where do these simple sugars come from? Well, when flour, water and yeast interact with each other, large starch molecules in flour break down into simple sugars, which the yeast fungus then consumes and converts into carbon dioxide. Those carbon dioxide bubbles get trapped in the gluten web formed by kneading the flour together with the water, and with the combination of heat and rest, the bread dough rises and creates that springy, airy structure we all love so much.
So, there you have it! Some of these mysterious ingredients are finally a little more clear, and you can begin to experiment with your baking with a higher degree of understanding.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/HoaLuu