Sure - this stuff is fun, and some is necessary, but without an oven....
An article that really, truly explored baking techniques would probably land in at about 300,000 words. The realm of baking encompasses everything from the everyday biscuit to the most airy sponges, French breads to pizza crusts. The variety of stuff that can be produced with some type of flour, a little moisture and heat is nearly endless, and each particular type of baked good has its own little tips and tricks.
When I first started poking around for pictures to accompany this article, I came across hundreds that show creaming, leaveners at work, baking sheets and bread pans, cute kids icing cookies, and gorgeous cakes in every variety. What I ended up NOT finding was very much information on two of the very most basic techniques required for success - no matter what you're making. The picture search led to an info search - and there just isn't much out there. Really? REALLY?
For the most part, many of the successes and failures encountered come down to two things: temperature and moisture. Yes, you do need the correct fomula for your ingredients - the chemistry is critical. But the recipes (formulas) are available all over - thousands of cookbooks contain millions of great recipes for anything you might want to make. But where's the discussion of heat and water? Cakes rise and fall in response to them, doughs remain soft and pliable or crispy and golden because of them, cheesecakes crack or remain whole, and cookies become chewy and luscious, crispy and airy - or hockey pucks, all because of either heat, moisture or both.
At the same time first came the problems that plague modern bakers - issues with temperature and problems with maintaining the right amount of water inside the oven. We can work with those - while a nice large commercial bakery and all the fancy equipment would be fun to play with, we don't have those. At least not in most kitchens. It's all right. We can work around it. We're going to play part Macgyver, part Mr. Wizard and part Dr. Phil. As a result everything is going to just taste better.
Oven Thermometer - an awesome tool!
This one seems like a given - almost every baked goods recipe starts with "preheat your oven to ..." whatever temperature. Usually 350F for most things, but not always. Breads can go much higher - more delicate cakes and custards lower. Each type of product has its own ideal baking temperature - and some require two different ones.
No big deal - that's what the dials on a modern oven are for - right?
You'd think so - but NO! Oh sure - they'll make you think they're going to come through for you, then turn around and quietly undermine you behind your back, and you'll never even realize exactly why you're heartbroken over a ruined Devil's food cake. Think of your oven as as trying to drag you into the ulimate self destructive co-dependant passive-aggressive relationship on the planet. Your oven is going to make you think it's going to come through for you by appearing to be doing everything correctly, while in reality it's not even close. Time for a relationship check.
Counseling for your oven comes in the form of calibration. Calibration simply means you are double checking to make sure the temperature your asking for is the one you actually get. Oven lose accuacy over time - so while you think you may have one temperature, you actually have something that differs as much as 50-100F hotter or cooler. My own oven was nearly new a year ago, and was already running 30F too cool, which meant I was underbaking everything.
The solution is simple - you can either call in an appliance guy and have them run over on occasion and calibrate your oven for you, which is preferred, or buy an oven themometer and do it yourself. Which is probably cheaper. An oven thermometer - just like in the picture - costs about five bucks, and they're available all over the place. Discount and drug stores - the utensils rack a grocery - and they're worth their weight in gold. They're also easy to use simply stick it in the bottom of your oven - or hang it or rack by the little hook. Set your oven to 350F, wait until it's nice and hot, then check the thermometer against the oven setting. When I did this, the oven said 350F, the thermometer said 320F. As a result I now add 30 degrees to whatever temperature my recipe calls for, and my results have been far better and far more consistent.
Now - on occasion you'll need to replace your oven thermomenter. Do it once a year when you check smoke detector batteries - after a while the little inexpensive thermomenter itself loses calibration, and is no longer accurate. So tell it thank you, let it go and get a new one. You'll probably be very surprised at the improved results you begin getting.
Bread! I just love bread baking...
Temperature not only needs to be accurate, it needs to be consistent as well. Many ovens cycle on and off during the baking process, resulting in a surprising range of temperatures. Overall the average temperature may be where you set it, but there can be a 25F-50F range in there, both above and below your set point. There are two main ways to help avoid this problem. The first is simply not to open the oven door - there's no real need most of the time. I know - it's tempting. I like to just stare at stuff when it's baking too, and I have a glass window in my oven door. But opening the door itself lets in a draft of cold air, and allows the heated air to escape. So avoid it whenever you can.
Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it though - for some reason you need to open the door, and anyway - there's not much you can do about the cyclical nature most ovens have of heating. Or is there?
Ah Ha! Enter the baking stone! Yes, baking stones are used to provide particular results when loaves or pizza crusts are baked on them, and that's great. They result in crispier, more even crusts. Lovely. But - they have a secret super power as well. They hold and radiate heat back into the oven . Think about that - not only have you now calibrated your oven, you now have a means by which to keep it consistently at the right temperature - no matter how the oven is heated, and to a degree, no matter if you have to open the door for some reason. A good example of this is if you spritz the crust of baking bread, French bread in particular.
What you've done so far, is to begin taking control of the baking process. If you manage the temperature that carefully, you've taken the first steps to mastery. Now let me put on my MacGyver hat for a minute. There are commercial baking stones available all over the place - and they work like a charm. Most upscale kitchen supply places have them, and you can find a great variety through retailers like Amazon. No problem getting one.
Except the expense - much of which is because of shipping costs. If you have a local place to get one, you'll do better but you're still paying a premium. If you have the means and want a quick solution - knock yourself out. Or, you could pull a maneuver and do something just as good for a lot less money. In my oven are paving stones - the same ones you'd use for a sidewalk. They're thin, they're masonry, and they work just as well as a baking stone. If you go this route just be careful of what you pick up - make sure that you get simple untreated bricks. Many sheets of masonry, especially the older ones, are made of asbestos. I don't know what that does to your bread, but I don't want to take responsibility for that. Don't do it. Think of what you're after - something that will trap and radiate heat. Bricks do that really well. The one drawback - I honestly have no idea what they'd do, mechanically or chemically, if you bake directly on one. I use a baking sheet scattered with cornmeal for bread, and usually grill pizza crusts, so it's not an issue for me.
Cast iron will work as a fill-in for that matter. If you don't mind keeping a careful eye on your cast iron cookware in order to preserve its seasoning, then go ahead and throw a few pieces on the bottom rack of your oven. That'll work in a pinch - or until you find your brick pavers or baking stone. All righty? So - know the temperature of your oven, and keep it consistent. Let's go on.
Ok - now that you've got a handle on temperature - the next step is to take control of moisture. Unlike temperature moisture won't be an issue most of the time. Most cakes, cupcakes or cookies don't really need a big control of moisture - they contain their own in the form of butter or other liquids, and manager quite nicely if left alone. Other things don't - custards, cheescakes, flourless cakes, and most breads.
Commerical ovens have elaborate systems for keeping a particular mositure level in an oven for baking particular things. However, the simplest and easiest method is to use a bain marie .
Bain marie is French for water bath, and the term applies to anything in which water is used as an insulator. Large steam tables at cafeterias, double boilers, and casseroles of water in your oven are all bain marie . The one we're concerned with here is the last one. One mistake people often make is to think that the purpose of a water bath is to release steam. It is - to a degree. But more importantly it's to insulate. Take a look at the picture - those are little custards in those cups, and they'll probably go into a 350F oven. The tricky part is that the water cannot heat above 212F - the boiling point of water. Which means that the parts of the dessert most in contact with the water will cook at a lower, more gentle temperature. Sure - you need the additional steam that the water will generate as well - part of what keeps cheesecakes from cracking during baking. But the insulation is the more important aspect here.
A water bath is simplicity itself - simply use a container with deep sides large enough to hold your actual baking pan - just like the second picture. Add hot water deep enough to come halfway up the sides of your baking container, and you're good. Make sure the water is hot or boiling when you start the baking process, or you'll completley throw off the baking times. The oven will have to heat the water as well as the product if you use cold or cool water. If the water is hot, it acts almost like a baking stone itself, helping keep the heat inside the oven consistent, and consistently gentle.
French Bread, Part 1
French Bread, Part 2
Steam is the final element in what I consider the basics of baking. There are times when you need steam, but not a bain marie - most particularly during bread baking. It's just not that hard to generate - check out the videos on French bread and you'll see how I rigged it in my own minimally equipped kitchen.
You can use two methods - for simple steam, place a cast iron skillet in the bottom of your oven. After it preheats, and the skillet itself is hot, then fill it with ice water when you place your dough or bread in the oven. The skillet stays hot enough to do this because of the properties of cast iron itself. Easy as that - the water will gently steam, helping ensure soft exteriors on breads - plain white sandwich bread for example. Which is amazing homemade.
If you want a crispy crust, then the secret weapon is a spray bottle as well as the skillet of water. Gently misting the exterior of the bread at 3 minute intervals for the first few minutes of cooking will ensure the exterior stays flexible enough for the yeast to do its thing - expandind as the bread rises in the heat. Stopping this step will allow the crust to set, and subsequently turn golden and crispy - which will contrast beautifully with the chewy inside. In a nutshell y'all - that's the trick to great bread.
So there you are - I wanted to give you more than just a trick - I wanted to give you the 'whys' - which is the first step in taking control. Once you know how to prevent problems to begin with, you won't need all the stuff to correct them. Your relationship with your oven comes first - and subsequently what you develope with your baked goods will be far more smooth and successful. Think of the head of a dysfunctional family who says 'enough!' That's you - take charge. You'll love what you end up with.
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