Monday, March 23, 2009

Geeks Guide to Tender Baked Goods

Have you ever read a recipe for pancakes which said "Stir ingredients until mixed. Some lumps are okay."? A few lumps in the pancake batter usually dissolve during cooking. On the other hand, if you stir the batter enough to get it completely smooth, you're likely to end up with tough pancakes. Why? Gluten!

As we learned when making bread, gluten is the protein in flour which makes it sticky. When we make bread, we want the gluten to develop so the dough will be stretchy, and the bread will be chewy. For other baked goods, such as cookies, muffins, and biscuits, developing the gluten will make them tough. I don't know about you, but I like my cookies crispy, my muffins tender, and my biscuits flaky. Tough did not appear anywhere in that list. (Neither did cakes! Cake recipes usually call for cake flour, which has less gluten than regular flour. So a cake batter can be beaten until it's the right consistency, without worrying about tough cakes.)

Two methods are commonly used to mix ingredients without developing the gluten, one is commonly used in cookie recipes, the other in biscuit recipes. Muffins and quick breads can go either way.

Cookie Method
Start by creaming the sugar and butter (or shortening). Then add the eggs, vanilla, and all other wet ingredients. Mix until everything is smooth. Next add the dry ingredients, flour and a leavening agent. Mix just until the dry ingredients are incorporated into the cookie batter. Lastly, stir in any chocolate chips, nuts, or other additions.

The key here is mixing everything except the flour very well, then mixing in the flour just enough. Once the flour is mixed in, stop! No need to keep mixing just for the heck of it.

Biscuit Method
This is the mixing technique used for biscuits and pie crusts. I find it a little harder to do than the cookie method, but if you have a food processor, you can cheat :)

Start with butter (or shortening) and flour. Use cold butter, even frozen if your arm can take it. Cut the butter into a few chunks, then use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour. If you don't have a pastry blender, two knives will do the trick. Hold one in each hand and cross them, scissor fashion. Keep cutting through the butter and flour until you have a crumbly mixture. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is! Food processors do a great job of cutting the butter into the flour though. If you have one, this is the perfect place to use it. Use the blade attachment, not the dough attachment. The goal is still to the cut the butter into the flour.

After the flour and butter are mixed, stir in any remaining dry ingredients. Then add the liquid ingredients all at once, and stir in until just mixed.

If your goal is flaky biscuits, pastries, or pie crusts, go for the biscuit method. If you are baking muffins or quick breads, you can choose either. Cookies work best with the cookie method.

If you've tried the above methods and your baked goods are still tough rather than tender, there's one final secret: use less gluten. You can either buy special pastry flours, or, substitute cake flour for some of the regular flour. Start with subbing 1/6 to 1/4 of the regular flour for cake flour, and see what happens. I do this from time to time in particularly troublesome recipes, and it works great :)


geeky! said...

I highly recommend Alton Brown's book I'm Just Here for More Food:
Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking
. Its pretty awesome and explained to me that "creaming" isnt simply mixing.

Also check out the wikipedia entry.

Alton Brown is my friggin hero.

Anastasia said...

*grins* Alton Brown is my geek cooking idol :)

Thanks for the recommendation!