There are so many magical moments in baking, it’s one of the things I love about being a pastry chef. I went to culinary school to learn the techniques of baking, but I also wanted a better understanding of why cakes rise, what makes cookies spread and how to fix a failed recipe. As a cookbook author and teacher, I want to bring out the joy, love, and art of making food with fun recipes that are delicious and beautiful. There is also some basic food science at the heart of these recipes. The reason baking ingredients and measurements matter so much is that slight changes in either can affect the outcome of a recipe. The results are dependent on the quality and types of baking ingredients and the chemistry of mixing them together.
I often get asked about the science of baking. It’s an important area for every pastry chef to master, and if you are interested in the how and why behind which baking ingredients to choose and how they interact, this post is for you.
If you’re not a science person, don’t worry, I’m not really either. Having said that, once I had a little understanding of the ingredients, my baking got a lot better. Science is important to the results and something worth knowing a bit about, but you don’t need to approach your creations like a chemistry project to achieve great results.
Or, you can! If you love science, this may be your gateway to becoming a wonderful pastry chef. That’s the beauty of baking. You get to approach it however you want.
Overview of the Science
There’s a lot going on when you’re baking. I’ll get into the details for different baking ingredients below, but each step of the recipe creates different reactions that lead to the final result.
Some ingredients create structure. Others react with one another to form gases or create chemical reactions that lead to the texture, richness, and flavor you’ve come to love. Gluten, for example, has an elasticity that holds a cake together and allows it to expand during baking to incorporate gases and create a weighty texture.
Every time you mix and fold an ingredient, you are taking part in the chemical process and creating new reactions. If you want to learn more about baking science, I recommend this great article from The Guardian. And read on to learn more about individual baking ingredients and how they react.
A vital part of most baking, fat creates a luxurious texture and helps heighten the flavors in your recipe. If you’ve ever had dry, crumbly pastries, a lack of fat may be part of the problem. Fat is necessary for achieving a rich, soft crumb.
Butter, of course, tastes wonderful. It can also be whipped or creamed to create different textures and helps cakes and other treats rise and give them a beautiful crumb.
There are different kinds of butter and you can play with all of them to see which you like best. For the most part, I stick to unsalted butter, so I can control how much salt is in my recipes. American butter tends to have less fat content than its European counterparts. In Europe, the butterfat content is at least 82%, whereas American butter is closer to 80%. You can often buy European butter in American grocery stores, but there are also domestic butters that have higher fat content and are typically labeled “European-style” butter.
I have just started playing around with vegan butter, which is often made from a mix of different oils, such as coconut, cashew, palm, soy, and other plant-based oils. I’ve had really good results in pie crusts, buttercream, brioche, and most other recipes.
Most often, you’ll use a mild oil with little flavor when baking. It is mostly used to give baked goods a super moist texture and can be used in conjunction with butter if you want more flavor (there are also some recipes that call for specific, more flavorful oils).
Many recipes you make will be made of flour. There are all kinds of flour, and each serves its own purpose and creates different textures. The most common flours are made from wheat, and each brand of flour has a different protein content. I tested all the recipes in my book, Zoë Bakes Cakes, with Gold Medal Flour, which has a protein content of about 10.5 percent. King Arthur Baking Company flour has closer to 11.7 percent protein, so if you’re finding that your baked goods are too dry with King Arthur Flour, try decreasing the amount of flour by a couple of tablespoons. You can also find local flours, milled fresh and they have an incredible flavor. Baking is an experiment and if you want to try swapping out some different types of flour, you’ll learn something new each time you test.
The best way to measure your flour is with a scale! It is easy to scoop too little or too much with a measuring cup, but a scale is accurate every time.
Gluten Free Flour
Gluten is a protein in wheat. I get asked all the time if people can swap different flours in my recipes. A Cup4Cup, Better Batter, or gluten-free all-purpose flours from King Arthur Baking Company and Bob’s Red Mill work quite well in a lot of recipes as a direct swap for all-purpose wheat flour.
If you are creating your own flour mix or experimenting with nut flours, keep in mind that the lack of gluten means the flour will not add any structure to the recipe and you may need some kind of gum, like xanthan or psyllium powder.
When a recipe calls for cake flour and you want to use gluten-free all-purpose flour, you can try replacing 2 tablespoons of all-purpose gluten-free flour with corn starch, per cup. So, 1 cup gluten-free AP flour, minus 2 tablespoons, plus 2 tablespoons of corn starch.
Check out my gluten-free recipes here. Two other great resources for delicious gluten-free dessert recipes are my friends Amanda Paa at heartbeetkitchen.com and Aran Goyoaga at arangoyoaga.com, who you may know as the writer of Canelle et Vanille. I also have a gluten-free bread book called Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
Whole Wheat Flour
If you’re trying to eat more whole grains you can also swap some all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. As a general rule of thumb, start by replacing ⅓ of the flour in the recipe with whole wheat and see if you like the texture. If you do and would like to try adding more, you can try swapping up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat. Whole wheat absorbs more liquid than all-purpose flour, so you may need to add more liquid to your recipe.
Leaveners are probably the element of baking most people think of when they reference “the chemistry of baking.” These include baking powder, baking soda, and yeast which are vital to so many recipes. One of the questions I always get is “does baking soda go bad?” The answer is yes. It is important to check the expiration date of both your baking soda and baking powder. If your baking powder or baking soda expires, it likely won’t react the way it should in your recipe. The same goes for any dry, active, or instant yeast products. Be sure to keep them in your fridge once you’ve opened them and check the expiration date before trying to use them or your bread may not rise! This is also why you need to feed a sourdough starter and let it reach its peak before using it in a recipe.
Baking powder contains both an alkali (base) and an acid, making it less powerful than baking soda, but it creates carbon dioxide on its own. It requires liquid and heat to react and helps cakes rise, sometimes on its own and sometimes in conjunction with baking soda.
Baking soda is an alkali and needs acid to create the carbon dioxide for a reaction. It is used with acidic ingredients like buttermilk, sour cream, cocoa powder, and brown sugar to help achieve a nice rise. It is also more powerful than baking powder and is used in smaller amounts to avoid imparting a bitter flavor.
Yeast is used in bread recipes and there are several options to choose from. In the recipes in my Bread in 5 books you can use any brand or type, including “granulated,” “active dry,” “instant,” or “bread machine.” There’s also sourdough, if you have the time and want to try a fun project. How does yeast work? Fine Cooking Magazine has a fantastic explanation:
“As bread dough is mixed and kneaded, millions of air bubbles are trapped and dispersed throughout the dough. Meanwhile, the yeast in the dough metabolizes the starches and sugars in the flour, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. This gas inflates the network of air bubbles, causing the bread to rise. During rising, the yeast divides and multiplies, producing more carbon dioxide. As long as there is ample air and food (carbohydrates) in the dough, the yeast will multiply until its activity is stopped by the oven’s heat.”—Fine Cooking Magazine
If you bake with yeast frequently, you can buy it in bulk and store it in the freezer to extend its shelf life. Use it straight from the freezer or store smaller amounts in the fridge and use it within a few months. The most important thing to remember with yeast is that you can kill it with hot water. My bread recipes call for water no warmer than 100°F.
How did I wait this long to get to the sweeteners? What would a pastry or dessert be without the sweetness? Sugars also play a role in texture and help give pastries and cakes tenderness. So don’t go cutting the sugar in half off the bat – there’s a reason it’s there and it’s not just to make the dessert sweet.
The big jar of sugar your mom or grandma has on her shelf, that’s probably good old-fashioned white granulated sugar. It’s by far the most common type of sugar used in recipes. However, there are several other kinds of sugar that add flavor to your recipe as well as help keep your desserts moist. Each one varies in color, flavor, and sweetness. When in doubt, you can almost always use classic white sugar in a recipe, but the others have different profiles.
- Brown Sugar – granulated white sugar with added molasses. Light vs Dark brown sugar is just a matter of how much molasses is added to the sugar. I use them interchangeably.
- Confectioners’ (Powdered) Sugar – granulated white sugar processed into a powder. In professional kitchens this is often called 10x sugar, becasue it is pulverized 10x more than granulated sugar. It often has a wee bit of cornstarch added to prevent clumping.
- Superfine (Caster) Sugar – granulated white sugar that is processed into smaller crystals, but not quite a powder. Because of the small size of the crystals it is used when you need the sugar to melt quickly into a mixture.
- White Granulated Sugar – Most commonly made from either sugar beets or sugar cane. You can also find coconut sugar and other types, but they are harder to come by and will impart a different flavor profile.
- Raw sugar – sugar that is crystalized before being seperated into white sugar and molasses. This is a different process from the brown sugar.
Make sure to follow specific recipes when using different types of sugar.
Many of my recipes will call for different liquid sweeteners, each one adds its own unique flavor. Liquid sweeteners behave differently than sugar crystals, so I don’t recommend trying to use them interchangeably. Use these liquid sweeteners as a recipe calls for them:
- Maple Syrup
- Corn Syrup
We all know that dairy comes in many forms and textures. Depending on the type of dairy, it can add flavor, texture, moisture, fat, acid or all of the above. When choosing dairy, this is what I look for:
You can use almost any type of milk in most recipes that call for it. I often use whole milk because its added fat adds richness, especially in cakes, but lower-fat milks or non-dairy milks can be used in place of whole milk. Just be aware of any sweeteners added to the milk you choose, as it can change the flavor of your recipe. You’ll also find buttermilk in a lot of recipes because it adds acid and sharp flavor and can help dough rise when mixed with baking soda.
Cream cheese and mascarpone are two of the common cheeses used in baking, but you can find a recipe for a wide variety of cheese. Both mascarpone and cream cheese are super soft cheeses that whip well and add nice texture and flavor. Be aware of fat content in your cheeses and use full fat when you can. For cream cheese, I like Philadelphia brand. If you can’t get it, then use a cream cheese that doesn’t have all kinds of gums.
You’ll sense a theme here, but when it comes to cream you again want to pay attention to fat. Higher fat cream is more stable. And it’s delicious. Heavy whipping cream is one of my staples because it can be used as everything from a leavener to a whipped cream topping (sweetened or not, depending on what you’re eating it with!). Pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized seem to work the same in recipes.
Yogurt is a common substitute for sour cream, and can also add rich, tangy flavor to recipes. I like Greek-style whole yogurt, but full-fat plain yogurt is a good option, too.
An egg’s two parts, the egg whites and yolk, serve different purposes. The whites are mostly protein and add strength and, when whipped, rise. The yolk is mostly fat and adds color and flavor.
Whites can be whipped into pillowy meringues, and whole eggs add density and texture to pastries. In some recipes you will separate the yolks and whites, which is much easier to do when the eggs are chilled. You also want to bring eggs to room temperature before using them in most recipes. Avoid frozen or pasteurized egg whites when trying to whip into a meringue.
Fresh, unpasteurized whole eggs will last a couple of weeks in the refrigerator before they start losing effectiveness, and both egg whites and yolks can be stored in the fridge or freezer after dividing. Whites will last in the fridge for a couple of weeks and in the freezer for months. Yolks last for a few days in the fridge and up to a month in the freezer.
I always use fresh, unpasteurized eggs in my recipes instead of pasteurized eggs.
Spices and Extracts
The spices and extracts you add to a recipe are what bring out those little flavor bursts. Sometimes the effects are subtle, and others are bold.
Extracts are made from the natural essence of things like almond, mint, orange, etc. It is important to use pure extracts instead of imitation to get the true flavor and avoid any chemical taste. Be aware of how much you use, because extracts have a powerful flavor.
You may have seen my large bottles of vanilla on my show, Zoë Bakes on Magnolia Network. Here is my recipe for homemade vanilla extract (you’ll love how easy it is to make!) and here is everything you need to know about using vanilla beans.
How to Keep Baking Ingredients Fresh
There are three main ways to keep your baking ingredients fresh:
- Pay attention to expiration dates
- Use airtight containers
- Store in a cool, dry place
Baking soda, for example, can absorb odors and the box it comes in doesn’t reseal. Items that come in airtight containers can be left in the original packaging. One other tip is to buy smaller jars of spices you don’t use often. The ground versions will keep, but if you buy a large container it may lose its potency and flavor before you can use it up. I recommend buying whole spices, which last longer, and grinding them yourself for the best flavor.
FAQ About Baking Ingredients
What do you add to the cakes to make them moist? This is something I talk about a lot in my Zoë Bakes Cakes book, both in the Ingredients and Cake Academy sections. It can be fat, liquid, mixing technique and baking times at play.
When baking do you prefer your eggs to be at room temperature? This should be indicated in the ingredient section of the recipe. If it says 2 eggs, at room temperature, then let them sit out. If it doesn’t indicate the temperature, in most cases they blend into the recipe better when room temperature or whites whip up better when warm.
What’s the best substitute for eggs in baking? I have tried egg replacer in a few recipes with success, but I don’t have a lot of experience with replacing eggs in recipes. I would suggest you check out a baker who specializes in vegan or egg-free recipes for best results. See my vegan desserts post for a few suggestions.
How long can egg whites stay in the fridge before using them for macarons, pavlovas, etc? The fresher the better for whipping. Egg whites lose their strength as they sit, so if you can use them right away, your meringue and everything you make with it will have more structure and lift. If it doesn’t matter to the recipe how old the eggs are, then you can store them for about 5 days. Frozen and defrosted egg white lose quite a bit of strength, so I don’t recommend for meringue.
Do you store eggs in the fridge or leave them at room temperature? For food safety you should refrigerate eggs. But, they can sit on the counter for hours before you need to use them in your recipe.
When whipping egg whites for meringue or souffle, is it best to use room temperature eggs? Yes, warm egg whites have more elasticity, so they will whip up with more volume. In my book, Zoë Bakes Cakes, I share my tip for warming eggs in a bowl of warm water to get them to temperature faster. Works like a charm.
Most foolproof way to temper chocolate? I learned how to temper chocolate in culinary school and did some chocolate work when I was working in restaurants, but it isn’t something I do often and is a skill that requires practice to get in the swing of it. I did a video on the technique I know best. Here is a link to other methods that I haven’t tried, but sound interesting.
How to reuse and store leftover tempered chocolate? Store chocolate in a cool, dark place. Chocolate can always be melted and retempered, see above.
What brand chocolate do you use for baking? You can find my preferred brands in this post about Baking with Chocolate.
What is your preferred chocolate brand for ganache? Tips to getting it right? See the link in the question above for brands. I have a whole section of my Cake Academy in Zoë Bakes Cakes about making and troubleshooting ganache. Use a good quality chocolate and heat the cream just to simmer, turn off the heat, add chopped chocolate, swirl the pan until the ganache is submerged, let it sit to melt for 3 minutes, then gently whisk smooth.
How do you reuse the ganache after pouring it over cakes, so you don’t end up wasting it? Set the cake on a wire cooling rack, then place it over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pour the ganache over the cake and the excess will fall onto the parchment. Once the cake has been removed, scrape the ganache off of the parchment. If it has set up, remelt until it will go through a sieve, which will catch any cake. Store the strained ganache in the refrigerator (5 days) or freezer (2 months) until you need it again.