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How Baking Works

How Baking Works

Baking is a fine science. Every ingredient plays a distinct, carefully balanced role. For example, lets take a look at chocolate chip cookies.

Flour : The Basis of Structure

There would be no substance to a chocolate chip cookie without flour. When mixed with liquid, the protein in flour forms elastic, web-like sheets of gluten. These create the structure of the cookie. The more you mix, the stronger this structure becomes (and the chewier your cookies will get). The kind of flour you use also defines how much structure you'll end up with. All-purpose flour holds the middle ground in protein content, which is why it's popular for cookies. Cake flour is low in protein, which makes it ideal for delicate baked goods such as cakes. On the opposite spectrum is high-protein bread flour, which creates the firm structure needed for yeast breads.

Sugar : Flavor, Texture, and Browning

Of course, sugar adds the sweet taste expected in cookies and other baked goods. But it also affects tenderness, crispness and browning. If you cut back on the granulated sugar in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, the texture will be softer, dry and chewy, almost bready like a scone. The color will be more pale than golden brown. If you cut back on the brown sugar, you are also apt to get less puff. Brown sugar contains molasses, which is acidic and reacts with baking soda to help give the cookie its lift. If you increase the sugar (any type), your cookie may become cloyingly sweet and overly moist. It is also likely to spread more since the sugar is binding up the liquid that would otherwise interact with flour proteins to form structure-building gluten.

Leavener : The Rise

That brings us to the leavener, which is usually baking soda and/or baking powder. In baked goods such as cookies, the leavener is a carefully balanced measurement designed to give the cookie its maximum rise. If you decrease the baking soda and/or baking powder, your cookie may not rise at all. If you increase it, your cookie may rise so high that it falls. Additional leavener may also introduce off flavors to the cookie. Eggs also contribute to leavening as well as to tenderness and structure.

Fat : Tenderizer and Flavor Carrier

Finally, there is the fat. In baking, fat contributes to tenderness by helping coat some of the flour and protect it from liquid, which in turn limits gluten development. In a cookie recipe, this helps prevent the cookies from becoming overly chewy. Lower the fat, and you are likely to create a chewier cookie. Increase the fat, and you will create a more tender cookie. For flavor, butter is the best. But butter has a low melting point, so it tends to cause cookies to spread. For less spread, cut back on the butter and replace it in part with vegetable shortening. This will create a more tender, slightly chewy cookie.

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