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Vinegar & The Chocolate Chip Cookie

Reader John writes:

Joe, I ran across a King Arthur recipe for chocolate chip cookies and it used vinegar. Baking Bits says it adds lift.  Does it make a significant difference in cookies?

That’s an excellent question, John. The short answer is that no, that small amount of vinegar probably won’t make a significant difference in your cookies. But then I’m generally all about the long answer, and for that we need to go and compare the KA version to the classic recipe.

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We done with security warnings now?

Good grief this has take a long time. Round and round with my SSL provider over whose problem it was, and where it was hiding out. Yah! I think we have it figured out now, so readers can drop in without fear that I’m not Joe, and that someone pretending to be Joe might be […]

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My Green Eggs

The below reference to hard boiled eggs spurred reader Tim to ask why it is that over-boiled eggs have that green film on the yolk. He said he’s looked it up at various points but has never gotten a satisfactory answer. Which is just the kind of explanatory challenge that a spaz like me lives for. So Tim, pour yourself a nice beverage and settle back in your chair.

Those green/grey films are a result of couple of different iron sulfides (ferric sulfide and/or ferrous sulfide) that form when eggs are heated over a certain point. Egg whites, you see, are rich in protein. Two of those proteins in particular, methionine and cysteine, contain sulphur. When methionine and cysteine break down they release their sulphur in the form of hydrogen sulfide, which is what gives old eggs that characteristic smell.

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On Replacing Milk Powder

Reader Ellen writes:

[Milk powder] is the bane of anyone who is substantially lactose intolerant…a lot of breads, cookies, doughnuts, salt & vinegar chips, and even flour tortillas…have unknown amounts of lactose. Joe, any thoughts on non-dairy additions that could provide the same texture improvements? More egg yolks?

I can see where that might be a problem, reader Ellen! The good news, at least for home bakers, is that there is no end of substitutes for milk powder when it comes to tenderizing a bread, cookie or crust. Fat (or oil) is probably the most common tenderizer. But really anything that is finely ground and non-wheat can work to undermine gluten or otherwise make the crumb of a baked good less uniform and stable.

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On Buttercream & Cows

Over my extended absence three different readers wrote in to say they were having buttercream consistency problems, specifically with the Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams. All three reported that their buttercream was working well for spreading and cake building, but piping was a problem. Their piped decorations were drooping and/or losing their sharp edges. Can IMBC and SMBC be firmed in any way?

I can think of a few ways to achieve a firmer buttercream texture. One is to scale back the butter a bit, but just by a little, maybe 15% or so. That raises the ratio of meringue and gives the buttercream a bit more body. The other thing you might try is to buy higher quality butter, which tends to be firmer. Lower quality butters tend to have lower melting points, which makes them softer at room temperature. That tends to be truer in the winter months when dairy cows aren’t grazing in the fields as much, but inexpensive butter can be soft at any time of year. “Spend more money” is never welcome advice, but where buttercreams are concerned you tend to do better when you pay up a bit.

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The Amazing Collapsing Brownie

Reader Kiran has a brownie problem:

Almost every time I bake brownies I end up with some version of fudge no matter whose recipe it is. I’m sure it’s something I do. I tried Dori Greenspan, Alice Medrich and David Lebovitz’s recipes without any success. I can bake an impressive cake and very nice cookies but not brownies. They always end up as fudge. More importantly, I notice that the butter floats on the top excessively as if the fudge is drowned in them. Please help.

Kiran, the most likely culprit is over-whisking or over-beating your batter. Thorough whisking and beating is a virtue most of the time, but not where brownies are concerned. Brownies are the spineless wonders of the baking world, loaded with fats, sugars, and non-glutenous solids of various kinds. They have practically zero structure, almost complete invertebrates. Which means that when you whisk them a little too much, you’re setting them up for a fall. Whisking introduces air bubbles, which are a form of leavening. When they heat up they fill with steam and expand, causing the whole mass to rise. 

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Why is there milk powder so many doughnut recipes?

Nice question, reader Bob. Milk powder does a few things in baking application. First, it adds protein, and that along with the extra sugars can be handy if you want a darker, more golden crust. Powdered milk also adds flavor, another nice feature, especially for fast rising breads like doughnuts and white loaves which tend to be bland because of the extra-quick yeast action.

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A New Holiday Tradition?

Reader Steve crushed it last week with this never-before-seen idea: a Halloween “gingerbread” house flavored with cocoa powder instead of gingerbread. Extra design points for the Tim Burton-esque asymmetry and the boarded-up windows and doors, which are truly inspired. I also like the neon-green gummy worms emerging from the mad science basement, preparing to wreak their freakish, mutant vengeance upon the world. Feast your eyes:

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Why is shortening such an important ingredient in pie crusts?

Why not just use all butter? So asks reader Victoria. Victoria, the main reason North American pie makers use shortening (or lard) in their crusts, instead of just using all butter, is to keep the moisture content as low as possible. Butter can be up to 18% water, and that can be a very bad thing for the texture of a crust. 

We talk about gluten a lot on the site. That’s because North American gluten can be a real pain to work with, making pastry tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Gluten is always present in wheat flour, but it takes water to “activate” it, which is to say, cause the gluten molecules to bond to one another in a springy network. So we a.) minimize the amount of water that’s in the crust, and b.) try to work it as little as possible since agitation is the other thing that activates gluten.  

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What is Alum?

Reader Jess writes to say that some of her old family recipes call for alum, but what is it? And is it really necessary? Great questions, Jess. Anyone who’s every watched old Warner Brothers cartoons has probably wondered something similar. You know, when Tweety Bird pours a box of alum down Sylvester’s throat and his head shrinks down to the size of a golf ball. What is that alum stuff and why did people keep it around?

“Alum” is short for aluminum potassium sulfate. It was once a common household item, especially during the war years when people did a lot of home pickling. A pinch of alum in a jar of kosher dills or watermelon rinds kept them firm and crispy. Too much and the result was a serious pucker, since alum is both an acid and an astringent (which is to say, a compound that causes the constricting of mucous membranes and blood vessels).

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