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Tuesday, September 14

Baking 101 - Temperature

I've been asked by a very good friend to explore the world of baking (thanks Lowki!!).  But, 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. 

So, how do I cover all that in one post?  The answer?  I can't.  Therefore, today I'll begin a series of posts about baking.  I'll try to add at least one post per day until I've covered the gamut of information available out there...and trust me...that's ALOT!!  When I first started poking around for information to post, I came across hundreds of websites that explain 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 most basic techniques required for success - no matter what you're making.  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 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.

For millenia people were perfectly all right with whatever they could bake at their own open hearths - which is a surprisingly diverse number of breads and sweets.  That is, until 1490, when an enclosed oven was developed in Alsace, France - and what we think of as baking was begun.  Separating the food from the fire, venting the smoke, and attempting to control the temperature were the first steps toward producing a perfect Angel food cake, Toll House cookies, or a great New York style cheesecake - none of which could have happened without the modern oven.  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 (and certainly not in mine).  It's all right. We can work around it.  We're going to play part Macgyver, part Mr. Wizard and part Dr. Phil...and as a result, everything is going to just taste better.

Let's start with Temperature

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.  Ovens lose accuacy over time - so while you think you may have one temperature, you actually have something that differs by as much as 50-100F hotter or cooler.  My own oven is a few years old, and it runs 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 definitely cheaper.  An oven thermometer costs about five bucks, and they're available all over the place. Discount and drug stores, the utensils rack at your local Walmart...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 on a 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, say 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.

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...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 how 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, and that solves the 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?

Next post will handle moisture, but will pick up where this one leaves off.  ENJOY!!

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