While measuring dry and liquid ingredients, be sure to use the appropriate measuring cups. Dry measuring cups for measuring dry ingredients are slightly different to liquid measuring cups for liquid ingredients. The most precise way of baking involves using a scale to measure out ingredients – by weight. However I understand that not many people own kitchen scales, so I will be, more than not, using volume measurement rather than weight. Certain recipes are quite fussy and require a weighted quantity, so please try to obtain a kitchen scale – it’s one of the most useful, coveted kitchen tools I own – truly useful and you can buy one for around $20-25.
Weighing by mass can be inaccurate because dry ingredients such as flour can get packed down over time. This can produce varying results but there is a way to attempt to overcome this without the use of a scale. This method is know as the Scoop & Sweep Method. Using a spoon, loosen the flour by stirring it around and then lightly scoop flour into your measuring cup until it mounds on the top. Then, using the back of a knife, sweep the flat edge along the top edge of the measuring cup until all the excess flour has fallen off and what you are left with is the cup’s exact measure. This is the Scoop & Sweep Method and is most accurate when measuring ingredients by weight. Never tap on the measuring cup or push down on the flour. This will pack in the flour and you will end up using more flour than the recipe calls for.
Sifting or Whisking?
When dry ingredients are required to be sifted, with the exception of finicky recipes, measuring them into a bowl and whisking with a wire whisk is generally an acceptable method. When whisking instead of sifting, please make sure to whisk thoroughly, ensuring that there are no lumps of ingredients remaining in your bowl. Sifting is not necessary unless I specify so in the recipe. For example, when making macarons, sifting is a necessary step as the fine quality of the almond flour is paramount to a successful macaron.
Cake flour yields a much softer, fluffier cake than all-purpose flour. Keep in mind this also leads to less structural integrity. The protein (gluten) content in cake flour is around 7%, while that of all-purpose flour is about 10-14%. Gluten, if overdeveloped (during mixing) can lead to a tough and somewhat chewy product. To make cake flour, place 1 c of all-purpose flour in a bowl. Remove 2 T of the all-purpose flour and replace with 2 T of cornstarch. The cornstarch contains no protein, thus adding volume to the flour and therefore decreasing the total protein content. This recipe for cake flour can be multiplied, accordingly.
Hand Mixer vs. Stand Mixer
In these recipes I will refer to using a stand mixer, quite often, as that is the tool I use most. Do not, however, be put off by this, if you do not own one. You may use a handheld mixer in the same vein. Just remember that the amount of time you beat certain ingredients is highly important to achieving desired consistencies in your cakes, so be sure to follow my directions to a T.
Temperature of Ingredients
Secondly, while baking, it is crucial to have all ingredients at room temperature unless otherwise specified. Sometimes, the idea to whip up something comes to us on a whim and we don’t have time to wait for ingredients to come to room temperature. This is easily fixable. For butter, cut the amount of butter you need into small chunks and microwave at 30% for 7-10 seconds at a time. Once you can easily make an impression in the butter using your finger, you are set. For eggs, fill a deep container with your eggs and very warm water to cover. Let this sit for about 7 minutes and voila – room temperature eggs!
A method I often use for creating batters is called the Reverse Creaming Method. Traditionally, we cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy and then add the eggs, followed by the dry ingredients. Using this method, it’s very possible to create a tough cake based on over beating the dry ingredients into the batter. When flour is over incorporated, the flour can develop too much gluten, causing toughness in the baked cake. The Reverse Creaming Method, discovered in the 1980’s by one of my baking heroes, Rose Levy Berenbaum, uses a genius technique to prevent the formation of too much gluten, hence a perfect cake every time! We start by combining all the dry ingredients into your mixing bowl and mixing until well combined. Then add your softened butter or fat along with around 2/3 of your liquid and mix to coat the flour with the fat. This provides a protective barrier against the over-development of gluten at any stage of the batter formation. Then the recipe proceeds with the addition of the remainder of the liquid mixed with the eggs and a thorough beating of the batter. Because the flour is coated with the fat, using this method to produce cakes guarantees a perfectly springy, fluffy cake every time. I’ve adapted this method to most all of my cake recipes and I hope you will find this to be a fantastic solution to a very common problem in baking.
Salt in Baking
Sometimes, especially these days with the abundant use of kosher and sea salts, integrating salt into a baking recipe is difficult due to the large size of the crystals. Here are a couple of tips that help disperse the salt into your batters or doughs smoothly, so no one will be biting into salt crystals that haven’t dissolved during baking. These methods also work extremely well in frostings and fillings and anywhere you need the salt to pervade uniformly throughout.
1. Using either a mortar and pestle or a mini food processor, grind the salt until its granules are very tiny, similar to a powder. Store in a separate jar labeled “Baking Salt.” Use in your baking recipes.
2. Dissolve your salt in the liquid portion of the ingredients you will be using in your recipe. For example if a recipe requires 1/2 t salt and 1 cup of milk, mix the salt into the milk (rather than add it to the dry ingredients as recipes usually direct us to do) and let it sit for a few minutes to dissolve. Then proceed with the recipe.
I prefer the first method, since the salt is so finely ground that it integrates well into the other ingredients consistently. The second method is handy but is not as consistent as the first.
There are three main types of food coloring – liquid, gel, and powder. Liquid coloring is akin to the type you can purchase at any grocery store. They are usually sold in sets of four colors (red, yellow, green, and blue) and are ideal for such things as coloring Easter eggs. They do not work well in cakes or other baked items or in frosting. In cakes, the liquid coloring is not as effective as other types of dye and you’d have to use a much greater quantity of coloring to obtain deeper colors. In frosting, the liquid colorants alter the consistency of the frosting leaving a less than desirable result. Gel colors are most successful in coloring baked goods and frostings because they do not alter consistency. Additionally they impart a full, concentrated burst of color in small doses. Gel colors are available in craft supply stores as well as baking supply stores and are finding their way into some specialty grocery stores as well. Two very common brands are Wilton and Americolor. Powdered food coloring is probably the most efficient use of color. The pigment is super saturated, therefore allowing very small amounts to produce high intensity color. Powdered colors are less accessible (you can find them online).