Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Art of Baking

Baking is cooking by dry heat. It can be done in brick ovens, over hot stones, in hot ashes, and underneath hot coals. Usually, however, baking refers to cooking something in a regular oven, with the dry heat coming from underneath the item. We most often refer to cakes, pastries, and breads as baked goods. Yet, other things -- such as apples, baked beans, and casseroles -- can be baked, as well.

The dry heat of baking alters the starch in a food. Partly through caramelization of the sugars, it pleasantly browns the surface of the food, as well. Baking partially seals the moisture in the food, but not completely. Thus, many baked foods must be eaten before they completely dry and turn stale.

Braising, which is more commonly used for meats, is similar to baking, except that it employs moisture along with the source of dry heat. The item to be braised is placed in a closed pan into which liquid is added. The item is cooked slowly, allowing the moisture to steam up and infuse the food.

Many baked goods use flour, which is a powder made by grinding cereal grains. Wheat flour, the most commonly used flour, is made from hard wheat, soft wheat, or both. Hard wheat is high in protein. Soft wheat is lower in protein.

Hard wheat is higher in gluten than is soft wheat. There is a botannical definition of gluten, which you can look up if you would like to do some deeper study. This botannical definition is more exact. For purposes of baking, though, it's easier to just say that gluten is an elastic substance formed by the proteins in wheat. The gluten in a bread gives the bread formation and shape. It's usually safe to say that the protein content of a flour and the gluten content of the flour are pretty much the same.

Since differing amounts of protein/gluten affect the texture of a baked good, different formulations of wheat flour are good for baking different things.

All-purpose flour (known as plain flour in Great Britain) is made from a blend of hard wheat and soft wheat. You might find some variation in the ratio of hard to soft according to brand. Depending on the type of baking you do, this difference might even be enough to affect the outcome somewhat. You may discover that you prefer one brand over another.

For various reasons, all-purpose flour is usually "bleached" using certain chemicals. The chemicals are approved for human consumption. However, the process does remove some nutrients, just as refining white flour from whole wheat does. Thus, the American FDA requires that certain nutrients be re-added to the flour. This produces "enriched" flour.

Flour that is allowed to bleach naturally, rather than by chemical process, is called "unbleached" flour.

Technically, bleached flour is better for certain things. Some people think it produces better pie crusts, cookies, quick cakes, and pancakes, while unbleached flour is good for yeast bread, Danish pastry, and puffed pastry. Personally, I use bleached and unbleached interchangeably and actually prefer the idea of using unbleached flour. A serious baker might disagree with me, though.

Bleached flour has less protein than unbleached.

Whatever you are baking, you won't go too wrong using all-purpose flour. You may decide that this is the only type of flour you need, particularly if you don't do a lot of baking. If you want the best results or if you bake a lot, however, you will probably want to add bread flour and cake flour to your pantry.

Bread flour is made from hard, high-protein wheat. It has more gluten strength and protein content than all-purpose flour. It is unbleached. Sometimes, it is conditioned with ascorbic acid. The ascorbic acid increases the volume and creates better texture. Bread flour is the best flour to use when baking yeast products.

Cake flour has a fine-texture. It is a soft-wheat flour, and it has the lowest protein content of any flour. As you might guess, it also has a high starch content. It is bleached by chlorination, which leaves the flour slightly acidic. This makes a cake set faster and also distributes the fat in a batter more evenly. This improves the texture. When you are making baked goods with a high ratio of sugar to flour, this flour will hold its rise better than other flours. This means that your cake or other baked product will be less likely to collapse. This flour is obviously excellent for baking fine-textured cakes with greater volume. It's also used for some quick breads, muffins, and cookies. If you don't have cake flour on hand, you can get way with substituting all-purpose flour if you remember to subtract two tablespoons of flour for each cup used in the recipe.

Pastry Flour, like cake flour, is made with soft wheat. It falls somewhere between all-purpose flour and cake flour in its protein content and in its baking qualities. It is used for making biscuits, pie crusts, brownies, cookies, and quick breads. Pastry flour produces a tender, but crumbly pastry. It is not suitable for yeast breads. You can find whole wheat pastry flour. Personally, I use whole-wheat flour for biscuits and pie crusts, but if you make a lot of pie crusts or pastries, you may want to experiment with pastry flour in order to obtain the best results.

Self-rising flour, sometimes called phosphated flour, is a low-protein flour. It has salt and leavning already added. It's a great product for making biscuits and quick breads. Never use it with yeast, however. Also, if you substitute it in a recipe that calls for all-purpose or bread flour, don't forget to leave out the salt or other leavning agents in the recipe. If you would like to make your own self-rising flour, you can find recipes on the Internet.

Durum flour and Semolina flour are made from durum wheat, and they are the hardest flours. They are used primarily for making Italian pastas.

Gluten flour is made from spring wheat and has a high protein content, as the name would suggest. It is often used in breaks made for people with diabetes or mixed with non-wheat or low-protein wheat flours to produce a stronger product.

Whole wheat flour (called whole meal flour in Great Britain) is made from the whole kernel of wheat. As we all know, whole wheat provides more fiber and nutrient content than white flours do. However, it does not have as high a gluten level was white flour, so many whole-wheat yeast bread recipes recipes call for the cook to mix the whole-wheat with all-purpose or bread flour. You can convert many recipes that call for white flour to a more whole-wheat based product if you keep this rule of thumb in mind. There are also formulas that you can find on the Internet that tell you the best way to substitute whole wheat for white.

Breads and cakes made with whole wheat are usually denser and heartier than those made with white flours. Don't expect a whole wheat bread or cake to rise as high as one made with white flour. Enjoy the hearty texture and taste.

Whole wheat may be very finely ground or it may be more coarsely ground. In graham flour, which is a special grind of whole wheat flour, different parts of the wheat kernel are ground differently. One part is ground very finely and other parts are ground more coarsely. Then, the ground parts are mixed back together. This produces a whole-grain product that bakes well and keeps well.

Whatever type of flour you use, remember that it is perishable. Check how long the flour can be stored and buy only the quantity that you will use in that time period.

Baking tip: Place a bay leaf in a canister of flour. Bay leaves are natural insect repellents and will help keep away pests like flour weevils.

Happy Home Keeping!

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