I came across this article from Whole Foods and thought it contained some useful information that would come in handy for the holidays.
- For superior flavor, use the freshest ingredients available. Flour, eggs, butter and spices can all pick up flavors from other things on the shelf, so buy fresh for the best results.
- If your fruit isn’t as ripe as you’d like it, speed up the process by putting it in a small paper bag with a ripe or overripe banana. The excess natural gas from the banana helps accelerate the ripening process.
- Dried spices lose their potency and freshness within six months to a year from the date they are first opened, so spices you used last year may need to be replaced.
- If you want homemade goodies but are short on time or skill, purchase some of the ingredients pre-made, like pie crusts, tart shells, lady fingers and freshly whipped cream.
Cakes & Pies
- If your cake doesn’t look done in the time allotted by the recipe, see if it’s springy to the touch and insert a toothpick. If it’s got a spring to it and the toothpick comes out clean—you should be good.
- Undercooked cakes tend to sink in the middle and may be unusually heavy.
- Overcooked cakes are dry and have thick crusts.
- For flaky pie crust, keep all of your ingredients super cold to keep the butter from melting. Chill the bowl, freeze small pieces of butter, use ice water and a machine (not your warm hands) to blend ingredients and work in the coolest corner of your kitchen.
- For a great apple pie, variety is the secret ingredient. Each type of apple has its own unique qualities. Combine them for a complex flavor and pleasing texture.
- To help lessen cracking in your loaves of holiday bread, let the batter sit in the loaf pan for 20 minutes prior to baking.
- To keep crisp cookies crisp, store them, when cooled, in a tin or can with a loose cover.
- To keep soft cookies soft, store them in an airtight container with apple or bread slices, changing frequently. They help mellow and moisten the cookies.
- Pay careful attention to pan size. Bars baked in a pan that’s too small result in a cake-like treat—not a toothy, chewy one. Bars baked in a pan that’s too large tend to be dry and crumbly.
- Resist the temptation to check on your creation while it’s baking. Opening and closing the oven door affects the outcome.
The ABCs of Flour
What makes a certain flour good for one recipe and bad for another? Gluten! When flour is moistened and mixed for dough or batter, gluten forms from the protein in the flour. Some flours have more protein, some less, forming more or less gluten, which is key to making breads expand and cakes stick together. For the best baking results, learn about these three basic types of flour:
- All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat. The balance of gluten from these creates the texture you want for quick breads, pie crust, cookies and most everyday uses.
- Bread flour has a higher gluten-forming protein content, creating dough that is nice and elastic. This makes it ideal for making kneaded breads.
- Cake flour is made with soft wheat, producing less gluten, so your cake will have that perfect delicate and slightly crumbly texture. Note that self-rising cake flour is different.
Always the top choice for the best baking, studies confirm that butter is also a better choice than commonly-used vegetable shortenings and margarines when it comes to nutrition. Though it contains saturated fats and cholesterol, butter does not raise cholesterol levels in the blood in the same way as do the trans-fats found in hydrogenated oils.
Flakier pastries, higher cakes, chewier cookies and better flavor are some of the results you will get from European-style butters. Their higher proportion of butterfat to water is one reason. Another is that they start with the best quality cream. You can truly taste the difference!
The best chocolate contains only cocoa butter, and no other fats. Read the label, and if the chocolate contains vegetable oils, it isn’t the best quality chocolate you can buy. Here’s a quick primer on the types of chocolate:
- Milk Chocolate contains milk solids along with cocoa solids and cocoa. Though it is great for eating, it isn’t the best for baking.
- Semi-sweet chocolate is good for all-purpose baking.
- Bittersweet chocolate has less sugar than semi-sweet, so it has a more assertive chocolate flavor.
- Unsweetened baking chocolate should contain only cocoa butter and cocoa solids. It has an intense chocolate flavor and only used for baking.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder can provide the most intense chocolate flavor of all, without the fat. It should contain only cocoa solids separated from the cocoa butter.
- White chocolate contains cocoa butter without the cocoa solids, so it lacks the flavor of chocolate.
- Remember that chocolate easily absorbs odors — never store it alongside strong-smelling foods. Otherwise, your crowd-pleasing chocolate cake may smell like onions or cheese.
- It’s best to melt chocolate over indirect heat, so as not to burn it. One proven method is to chop your chocolate into small, bite-size pieces before placing them into a stainless-steel bowl and then setting the bowl over a saucepan or pot of hot, gently simmering (not rapidly boiling) water. As the chocolate melts, it should be stirred constantly.
Updating your recipes to healthier alternatives can be a fun and creative process. Experiment with your recipes, trying out a variety of alternative ingredients to discover new tastes that appeal to you and your family. The Guide to Substitutions for Cooking & Baking provides tips for altering sweeteners, flours, eggs, and more.