Thursday, January 28, 2016

Baking ninja tactics, Part I: Ingredient ninja tactics

Hey everyone, I've been enjoying writing some posts that synthesize my breadbaking knowledge in a way that is useful.  Here are some "ninja tactics":  ideas that save time, effort and money.

1. Homemade brown sugar.  Stop me if this has ever happened to you: you're in the mood to make cookies, but when you go to get the brown sugar, it's a solid block.  Use this tip, and you'll never need to buy brown sugar again.

Some people think brown sugar is more natural or raw than white sugar. Not so!  It's just white sugar that has had molasses added back in.  So as long as you have white sugar and molasses, you can make brown sugar anytime.

For a cup of sugar, I typically add a tablespoon of molasses and then use a fork to mix them together.  It's not an exact science.

Could the brown color be more uniform?  Yes.  Does it matter? No.
2. Homemade buttermilk.  Before I knew about this trick, I never made buttermilk biscuits because I was too lazy to go out and buy buttermilk.  Unlike brown sugar, no one, and I mean NO ONE, just has buttermilk lying around.  If you keep buttermilk lying around, I don't want to know.

But here's two secrets for you: 1) you can make buttermilk by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to a cup of milk, cream or half and half.

2) Most acidic milk products (sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk) are interchangeable in recipes.  You just need to make sure that it's the correct consistency.

For example, today I did want to bake buttermilk biscuits.  I had milk and yogurt, so I used half of each.  My favorite pancake recipe is one that originally used milk but I modified to use sour cream.

The key when you are going from non-acidic (milk, cream and half/half) to acidic (buttermilk, sour cream, crema, creme fraiche or yogurt) is making sure your recipe also includes baking soda.  Baking powder and baking soda are both leavening agents that release carbon dioxide in the presence of heat. The main ingredient in baking powder and baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a base.  It requires an acid to activate.  Baking powder has its own acid added to it (cream of tarter), while baking soda does not.  By adding a little bit of baking powder to your recipe, you'll take full advantage of the buttermilk's acid-y goodness, creating a light fluffy biscuit or pancake.

3. Grating the butter instead of cutting it into a dough.  This ninja tactic is SUCH a time saver, I can't even tell you.  I got this tip from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, and now I make biscuits and pie crusts SO much more often as a result.

Here's the thing.  I hate cutting butter into dough.  Using two forks for half an hour to break butter up into small pieces makes me want to scream.  Even though you can use a food processor, you have to clean the dang thing afterwards.  Instead, I use a box grater and grate the cold butter directly into the flour.  It's less mess, takes way less time, and creates butter pieces that are the perfect size.

4. Measure big amounts by weight - and small amounts by volume.  I think measuring ingredients by weight is the most accurate way to bake, particularly for ingredients that are hard to pack, like flour and butter.

 Measuring ingredients by weight also cuts down on the number of dirty dishes generated, because you can add everything directly into one bowl.  However, there's a downside to accurate weighing, and it's this: when you are hunched over your kitchen scale, sprinkling small amounts of salt or yeast into the bowl to get some minute measurement like 7 grams, and each sprinkle isn't enough to register on the scale.  That is madness.

or you eyeball it.  Life's too short to measure out 1/8 teaspoon of anything.
Which is why, if a recipe calls for a small amount of something and I have a choice between weight and volume, I'll choose volume.  One dirty teaspoon is a small price to pay for sanity.

Because I only ever use my tablespoon and teaspoon, the labels are worn off.  

Once again, I've written a post only to realize that it's way too long.  I've divided it into two posts that are more thematic.  To check out my post on technique and tool ninja tactics, go here.


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