Friday, August 27, 2010

Testing for doneness; Betty's turn!

Is it done?

The scariest part of baking for me is knowing when cookies or cakes need to come out of the oven.

Cakes are done at 195 to 205 degrees F. Cheese cake is done at 160 to 165 degrees.

Soft breads like challah are generally done at 180 to 190 degrees. Other breads should bake to 200 to 210 degrees.

I have read that brownies are done anywhere from 165 to 225 degrees--not too helpful. Here I try to follow the recipe to the letter regarding pan size and baking temperature. For a fudgy brownie, a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the pan can have some wet batter on it as long as it has a few dry crumbs.

Cookies can be difficult especially if they're dark in color. We weigh out the dough for each cookie (usually an ounce). The dough has usually been chilled and comes out of the refrigerator about a half hour before baking. This consistency helps standardize cookie baking time. Look for "wetness" to disappear. Cookies that are more done looking can come off the tray early. Watch for edges just starting to brown on pale cookies. For dark cookies, just get to know the recipe and be consistent. If you handle the dough the same each time, the baking time should be the same each time.

Recipes and cookbooks often suggest various ways to check for doneness. Tapping on the bottom of a loaf of bread and listening for a hollow sound is a common one; "springing back quickly" when touched by a fingertip is a test for cakes. The color of cookies or cakes is another suggestion. But what does "hollow" sound like? How quickly is "quickly"? How brown is "golden brown" -- closer to gold, or to brown? Subjective measures aren't very helpful.

We have several different instant-read thermometers in our kitchen. Our favorite one is digital; there's no guessing as to what the temperature is, and it registers quickly. Best of all, it turns off automatically after a few minutes; we've had others that had to be turned off by the user, and we invariably would forget to do so -- and in 24 hours, the expensive battery was dead.Make sure your thermometer is accurate; an inaccurate thermometer is useless. You can calibrate your thermometer in ice water; the thermometer should read 32˚F. Instructions for calibrating are usually included with the thermometer.

Get a thermometer you trust, and have fun baking!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How to Weigh Ingredients

My previous post could have been titled, "Why to Weigh Ingredients," so read that first if you aren't convinced you need to read this one. I'll discuss how to make the most of your kitchen scale.

I have two scales in my home kitchen; an analog scale and a digital one. The analog one has a shiny red metal casing, a big dial that goes up to about 2-1/4 lb., and a little metal pan that rests on a bracket on top. I use it often -- I toss letters and packages on top of the pan to see if they need more postage, fill the pan with tomatoes or mangos when I have recipes that require me to know how much I have to work with, and, very occasionally, use it to estimate how much of an ingredient I have for baking -- just to make sure I have enough before I start a recipe.

But when I want to measure ingredients for baking, I pull out the boring, scientific-looking digital scale, with its useless flat pan and its technical numbers. Why? Because baking is, in many ways, chemistry. You need accurate measurements to get successful results, and consistent results. If you have two ounces too much or too little flour in a cake, your leavening (baking powder or baking soda, often) won't be in the right proportion, and the result will be a cake disaster.

The digital scale has another advantage -- the tare feature. If you think you don't know what this is, think about the prepared-foods counter in your supermarket. You ask the server to give you a tall container of cole slaw. So that you don't pay $6/lb for the plastic container as well as for the salad it contains, the server has a tare amount or button that subtracts the weight of the container from the total. It's that simple. In your kitchen, what this means is that you can put the empty bowl -- any bowl -- on the scale. Press "tare" or "zero," the scale reads "0", and then you start putting the ingredient you want to measure into the bowl until you have enough. Want to add a different ingredient? Press "tare" again, the scale goes back to zero, and you add the next ingredient. My favorite way to measure flour or sugar involves sifting it as I go; I put the bowl AND THE SIEVE (set in the bowl) on the scale, tare the scale, and then start putting flour into the sieve. I stop to shake or stir the flour through the sieve as needed, until the scale shows that I have the desired amount of what is now sifted, weighed flour. (Don't stop sifting when there's still unsifted flour in the sieve -- that's part of the total measurement, too.) No piles of flour on a piece of waxed paper, no careful piling of flour into the cup, trying not to compact it again. You don't dirty an extra measuring cup, either.

What to measure? Just about anything. Just think of how easy it will be to measure your dry ingredients; no sifting (unless you are trying to get out lumps, you don't have to sift if you don't need to aerate) , no bit-by-bit adding of shortening (6.7 ounces per cup) to a measuring cup, wondering if it's too much or too little or if there's an air bubble. Weigh peanut butter (9.1 oz. per cup) right into the mixing bowl instead of trying to pack it into a cup, and you've saved time and mess. I've found that I can put a recipe together much faster when I weigh instead of scoop. It is hardly worth it to pull out the scale for tiny amounts, like a teaspoon of salt (.02 ounces or 6 grams); your scale probably isn't that accurate, anyway. Even the digital scales may only measure in increments of 5 grams, so it will jump from 5 to 10 and you don't know if you have the right amount of salt. In this case, measuring spoons are the better choice. But for larger amounts, use the scale.

You can cover a digital scale with plastic wrap to cut down on clean-up, or just put a bowl on it, tare it, and measure your ingredients.

So, to conclude: if you weigh instead of measure, you gain accuracy and speed, and avoid mess and frustration. What's not to like?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Weighty Subject

When I was learning to bake, I measured everything in my mother's glass measuring cups. They were intended for liquid, and she didn't have dry ingredient measuring cups. Sugar wasn't too difficult to measure this way -- you could pour it into the cup, give the cup a little shake, and it would settle into place so you could read how much was in there and adjust the amount. Flour, however, was a pain in the neck to measure. You'd have to spoon it into the cup, level it carefully with the tip of the spoon while bending over so that your eye was at the level of the line you were aiming for, and keep shifting bits of it around, hoping you were getting the right amount. Brown sugar has to be packed into the cup for an accurate measure; sometimes you'd pack it down so hard that it would hold the shape of the cup when you were done, and sometimes you just didn't want to put all that energy into it and you'd pack it less firmly.

And then there was shortening. What a mess! My mother's method was probably more accurate than most; she employed the Archimedes Principle. If you needed a quarter of a cup of shortening, you'd take a one-cup measure, put three-quarters of a cup of water into it, and add shortening until the level of the water reached the one cup measure. You'd tip the water out into the sink (holding the shortening in with a spatula or spoon and hoping it wouldn't fall into the sink) and there was your 1/4 c. of shortening -- wet, but accurate. The cup, your hands, the spoon and counter-top were probably all smeared with the stuff. (This method also works for peanut butter.)

For years, I read that weighing was the most accurate way to measure ingredients. It makes sense. If you pack that brown sugar in tightly, you've got more in there than if you don't pack it at all. If your flour is compacted, you've got more in there than if it's sifted and fluffy, and the difference can mean a heavy cake or a light cake. If you like the way a recipe turns out and you want to be able to repeat that success, you need to measure the same way every time -- but if you are using volume (cup) measurements, it's hard to do.

How much does a cup of flour weigh? How about sugar? Is white sugar the same as brown? How tightly packed should the grated carrots for a carrot cake be? How about coconut? Finally, with the publication of Shirley O. Corriher's books "Cookwise" and "Bakewise," I got the information at my fingertips. The books have ingredients and their weights in a chart in the back. The information is also available at several places on-line, including the King Arthur Flour website, and there's a calculator at this site that has more information than you will need in a lifetime.

Just to get you started: a cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.4 ounces. A cup of white sugar weighs 7 ounces, and a cup of brown about 8 (I say "about" because dark brown sugar weighs more than light brown, but 8 oz. seems to work with either). A cup of butter is 8 oz. Please don't use shortening, but if you must, a cup weighs 6.7 oz. Those carrots? 3.9 oz per cup. Walnuts and pecans are 3.5 oz. per cup. Cocoa (remember to sift it!) is 2.9 oz. per cup, and chocolate chips are 6 oz. per cup. You can keep using those glass measuring cups for liquid -- a cup of milk is a cup of milk, and you can't pack it any tighter! E-mail me if you want a weight measurement that isn't here and that you can't find on-line.

My next post will be on how to weigh ingredients!