BAKING BASICS AND OPTIONS
Hey everyone, with the holidays just ahead, interest in cooking, especially baking, reaches an annual high. Baking Basics and Options can be a big help in answering questions you may have in the weeks ahead. The best part is it’s Free on this site. To get your copy, simply click the box on the right margin. My apologies for editing errors, there seem to have been a layout problem formatting my Word doc. for publication, but I didn’t want to delay getting the book out in view of the season.
This week’s posting is a reminder that if you plan baking projects, or to prepare a dinner for any or all of the holidays ahead, the time to buy the supplies is from now until mid-November. I caught onto this fact the hard way five years ago. That fall I noticed there were deep, constant sales on baking ingredients, vegetables, accessory dishes like cranberries and stuffing mix, even turkeys. A few days after Thanksgiving, I set out, cookie list in hand, with high hopes but was brought up short. The prices had returned to normal, some even higher. I waited in vain for December holiday sales and by Christmas calculated my dinner had cost almost double what it would have the month before.
So please take my advice and begin to stock-up on the items you need for the holidays as you see the sales in the coming weeks, especially the baking supplies. That’s where you’ll realize the biggest savings, since many ‘baking’ ingredients are basic to other dishes in a meal as well, soups, gravies, sauces, puddings. Buying gradually also allows the food costs to be defrayed by amortizing them, rather than having them swell the other holiday expenses.
Another advantage to buying ahead is that it gives people time to examine the options and decide what they want, and in the past few decades, each of the baking basics categories has added a lot of options. Some were introduced for medical reasons, the emergence of the gluten allergy, the increase of diabetes and the attention to managing cholesterol for example. Also, most countries have experienced growing ethnic diversity, adding new food products to the market shelves. Finally, improved air transport, both of people and products, has given rise to an insatiable culinary curiosity, the urge to explore different cuisines and the demand that the ingredients be available.
The result is that we have an amazing array of products to choose from. Whether you’re cooking to accommodate an allergy, please a guest, try something new or just upgrade an old recipe, there’s a solution to your baking needs out there for you. If it isn’t on the store shelf, it’s on the web.
Baking Basics and Options offers a guide to help you decide which item is best for your project, to advise you on what to buy, even what to look for if you’re in doubt. It describes the natural ingredient choices in all four basic categories of baking supplies; flour, sugar, fats (shortening) and dairy, not synthetic s and/or substitutes. There are more than enough of those items, especially sweeteners, to fill their own book, and often selection is determined by specific need.
Probably the most fundamental component in baked goods is flour. The book describes the milling process explaining how the various grades are produced; whole wheat, white, unbleached, bleached, all-purpose, cake and self-rising. It mentions and defines many grains, other than wheat, oat, corn, rice, whose flour is now available, either in the international section of supermarkets and/or in health food or ethnic stores. Included in the alternatives, is potato flour and a discussion of the gluten allergy.
Sugar is another fundamental component of baking. As mentioned above, this is the category with the most alternatives, often synthetic. Not only are there too many to include in this book, but also most substitutes are used in connection with specific diets, medical or cosmetic. Since the majority of ‘sweeteners’ are known by brand names a discussion can be construed as a recommendation. So I’m sticking to the natural traditional sources; sugar cane, beets, corn and honey. If you do choose an alternative sweetener, the important things are to be sure you choose the right one, use the proper amounts and that it bakes as well as sugar.
As with flour, the discussion follows the sugar refining process from cane to kitchen, describing the familiar products; brown sugar, light and dark, white in table, bar, powdered, how to make the last two at home, and molasses. It includes descriptions of extracting beet sugar as well as milling and processing corn into syrup, and a definition of that dreaded word ‘fructose’. Of course honey, the most ancient sweetener is mentioned too. There’s also a guide to using these products interchangeably.
Fats, referred to in baking as shortenings are a bit more complex because they can be either animal derived, like butter and occasionally requested lard, or vegetable based, like Crisco and seed and nut oils. Either way they raise the question of calorie and cholesterol content, but they are responsible for keeping the baked texture light or ‘short’ so it’s important to know how to choose the right one.
The book starts with the bad boys—the Saturated Fats. These are of animal origin and include butter, lard, cream and some tropical plant oils like palm and coconut. The commonality is that they retain solid form at room temperature. Saturated fat is a slow burning energy source and the excess is stored in cells which can accumulate to cause obesity and obstruct normal organ function.
The middle-men are the Trans Fats or Trans Fatty Acids as they are often called. These are liquid oils that have been hydrogenated. Air atoms are forced into them altering them chemically and causing them to solidify. The most familiar examples are margarines and Crisco and the oils most used as bases are sunflower, cottonseed, rapeseed, safflower and soybean. Crisco was introduced in the U.S. in the early 20th century by Procter & Gamble as an alternative to expensive rendered cooking fats. Margarine, a German discovery, dates back to thrifty Napoleon looking for ways to feed his army, gained its foothold both in England and the U.S. through food rationing during WWII.
The problem is that when the oil molecules are solidified by hydrogenating, the body can’t distinguish them from those of saturated fat. Manufacturers have given much attention to this problem and margarines have undergone real changes. Most have phased out hydrogenated oils, eliminating trans fats, and rely on a mixture of vegetable oils and cream or milk. Even those targeted for specific markets, medical or religious, use emulsifiers rather than hydrogenated oils. It’s important to read the labels when buying margarine because there are so many verities on the market.
Polyunsaturated or Monounsaturated oils are clear vegetable, nut or seed oils that remain liquid at room temperature. Some, such as fish oils, contain polyunsaturated oil known as Omega-3 fatty acid which has the positive effect of lowering cholesterol. Other oils may not have so directly beneficial an effect on our health, but they don’t raise cholesterol and may actually lower it as well. Unfortunately, the liquidity prevents most of these oils from ‘setting’ in a cooled baked object, ruining the texture. It’s best to rely on the recipe for guidance.
Unlike flour and sugar, fats have specific storage requirements. Ones that solidify require cold storage; liquid oils should be kept in dark cook places and have limited shelf lives. Improperly handled, they can spoil, or become ’rancid’. The book deals with these questions.
Dairy products are the fourth and final important baking components and eggs are usually the first thought. The regular substitutes are discussed, but so is a non-dairy alternative I found helping a child with a severe allergy. I break my rule and recommend a brand name, because this was such a perfect solution.
Milk has several alternatives, soy and nut milks, which have longer shelf lives and add flavoring are popular. Canned milk is another option. Evaporated milk is excellent for baking, both skim and whole, but they have different applications which the book addresses. Sweetened Condensed Milk is in a class alone.
At this point the book goes on to discuss flavorings, which are also common baking ingredients. The definitions of chocolate designations and when to use vanilla bean are included for example. Extracts are also discussed. The book ends with selected recipes as illustrations.