How to Read Recipes for Baking

A copy of the recipe I used for baking my sweet-bread. Please follow it to the letter for a great sweet-bread

Hi. Thanks for stopping by. I am still waiting for questions, because I enjoy explaining things, teaching, and in general helping people to create baking goods from scratch. There is no comparison between store-bought pastries and the one you creat in your kitchen (even if it is not perfect). So what are you waiting for?  There is no such thing as a “stupid” question (some answers maybe stupid, but it is only me who does the answering and I already forgave myself). I hope you will do the same.

Alternatively, you could share with us your latest masterpiece.

Won the Coveted Award of the Worst Looking Brownie in the West; No. 2 (Silver Award) for being the Best Useless International Cake, 2010

I am sure you are questioning the reason(s) for separating the recipes for baking and cooking.  In addition, you are puzzled by the title, because you are reading recipes for years and did not think there is a need to be educated about how to read them.

I do not blame you for being a cynic because I was at your place not so long ago.  If you are anything like me, you do not want to feel stupid or exposing yourself to be vulnerable, so you do not ask questions in public.  You will make every effort to find the answers to your secret questions by reading, by surfing on the Internet and perhaps even through consulting with a limited number of close friends. If none of these methods deliver results, then you just “file” the question.

Before I continue, I’d like to tell you that if you see a beautiful photograph of a cake in a cookbook that looks as if it wants to leap off the page right into your mouth, most likely, it was created by a person that asked a lot of questions and read and tested plenty of recipes.

A few years back, I used to teach classes about analyzing recipes and I recall as one of the student asked me if I think that people should go to a cooking school to learn how to read recipes. Before I had a chance to respond, the entire class burst into laugh. I let the class enjoy their mental health promoting activities and when the “noise” subsided, I answered loud and clear: YES, I DO.  This response created an entire sixty seconds of silence.

Of course I did not mean it seriously, but I wanted to emphasize the importance of understanding the recipe you are getting ready to use to bake a cake.  When you are reading a book, any book, and you come across a paragraph, or a larger section of the book that is not clear to you, don’t you stop and try to re-read it, or make a note of it to discuss it with your friends? A recipe can be that “unclear” paragraph.  Chef-Instructors recommend that you try your hand at pastries before learning how to cook, because that is the best way to learn proportions, percentages, the importance of accuracy in measuring/weighing ingredients, and to determine if the recipe is balanced.

OOOPs! Not this kind of balance

And we just reached the key point of this post: …..”determine if the recipe is balanced;”  I am sure you read multiple times in cookbooks and other “foodies” publications the steps you need to take before placing your dough or batter in the pre-heated oven to bake:

  • Read the entire recipe
  • Check if you have all the ingredients in-house (if not, prepare a shopping list)
  • Set out all the ingredients to be handy and at room temperature, unless the recipe directs you otherwise
  • Check if you have the equipment(s) needed for completing your tasks (i.e. the type and size of bake ware, rolling pin, thermometer, graters, zesters, etc.)
  • Pre-heat the oven to the recommended temperature
  • Make sure you understand the method(s) of preparation (set the ingredients in the same order as it will be used)
  • Never use a recipe that you feel uncomfortable with

But, the list did not contain the phrase: ….”Check if the recipe is in balance” and how would you do that?

As you know, most baking products contain the same 5 ingredients: flour, sugar, fat, leavening agent and a liquid.  For a successful cake, these ingredients need to be in balance. What makes the difference between the various baking products is the method we use to combine the ingredients, and the ratio of one ingredient to the other.

The importance of the ratios of the ingredients in a recipe is discussed in many cookbooks, professional publications and food shows. I have touched briefly in earlier posts what we call  the “bakers’ percentages” formula that professional bakers follow. The formula presents the quantity of each ingredient in the recipe as a percentage of the flour’s weight (the flour weight is always 100%).  I strongly recommend keeping some basic formulas in your kitchen posted somewhere visible. You will not believe how much better your baking products will be and how many error-free cakes you will be producing with the help of this little secret.

The three principles of the formula is:

  • The weight of the sugar should be equal to the weight of the flour;
  • The weight of the eggs should be equal or greater than the weight of the fat;
  • The weight of the liquid should be equal the weight of the sugar (or flour)

The above formula is for “lean” cakes (also called shortened cakes)

Nobody told me that I need to know calculus to bake a cake?

For high-ratio cakes:

  • The weight of the sugar should be equal or greater than the weight of the flour
  • The weight of the eggs should be greater than the weight of the fat;
  • The weight of the liquid should b equal to the weight of the sugar (or flour)

The advantages of using the Bakers’ Percentages Formula (and knowledge about basic dough formula parameters) that it enable us…

  • To predict the outcome; we can assure the success or predict the failure of a cake
  • To compare recipes more accurately (i.e. which is drier, saltier, sweeter, denser, etc.);
  • to spot faulty recipes or predict the characteristics of the resulting cake, if using the recipe as it is written;
  • to alter or add a single-ingredient percentage without changing the other ingredients’ percentages
  • to accurately and easily scale for different batch sizes.
  • to convert measurement-units easily (i.e. pounds, ounces, kilograms, or grams.).
  • to scaling recipes up or down easily and accurately

I have baked two yeast-leavened sweet breads with nearly comparable recipes; but the key word is “nearly,” but not quite. I will post the recipes, the methods I used in combining the ingredients (with photos) and the resulting baking products in the next post. You will see, that what we may call a minor difference in the two recipes, created a major distinction between the two sweet breads.

I would like to hear from you if you have baked a cake with a recipe that needed to be adjusted because it was out of balance.