There is an old saying that cooking is an art, but baking is a science. This explains why cooks who can whip up a dinner without a recipe often fall flat when they try to bake. (Rachel Ray, anyone?) To be a successful baker, following the recipe is crucial – as is understanding a few basic concepts.
What is Baking?
Baking is cooking food using convection (dry heat). Usually, this is done with an oven, but it can also be accomplished on hot stones or ashes. Baking is used primarily for making foods such as breads, cakes, pastries, pies, tarts, cookies, quiches, and crackers.
Accurate measuring is the cornerstone to good baking. In the United States, to measure properly you’ll need a see-through glass or plastic liquid measuring cup (used only for wet ingredients) and dry measuring cups, which usually come in a set ranging from ? cup to 1 cup. For dry measuring cups, stainless steel is best, but if you can’t afford thick, sturdy stainless steel, it’s better to stick with thick plastic ones. (Thin metal cups bend and make measuring difficult.) In addition, you’ll need a set of measuring spoons, either of heavy plastic or heavy stainless steel.
When measuring dry ingredients, spoon them into the measuring device. If you’re measuring flour, fluff it with a fork first. One exception to this advice is measuring brown sugar, which is almost always “packed” or pressed firmly into measuring cups or spoons.
If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sifted flour, for example, and you neglect to do the sifting, you’ll end up with more flour in the recipe than is actually called for. This can make the resulting baked good hard and tough – which is why sifting when called for in a recipe is a no-skip step. To sift, use a special tool called a sifter. Fill the sifter with the ingredient(s) and squeeze the handle or shake the tool. The ingredients will move through the tool and fall into a bowl you’ve placed beneath the sifter. If you don’t have a sifter, a sieve will work. Just place the ingredients in the sieve and shake.
Shortening vs. Butter
Many baking recipes call for either butter or shortening and many people wonder if they can substitute one for the other. First, it’s important to understand both butter and shortening are a type of fat. Butter is made from milk, while shortening can be made from a variety of oils or fats. Possibly the best known shortening in the United States is Crisco - and it’s entirely made of vegetable oil.
Butter tends to add more flavor to recipes, while shortening usually produces baked goods that are lighter and fluffier. So while you can generally substitute one for the other, the end result is usually quite different.
Now all you need are some great recipes. Here are some favorites: