We're all looking for that perfect pie, or cookies, or loaf of bread. It doesn't always happen. In our experience, there are four reasons that account for most of the less than perfect products.
Under baking or over baking. This has to be nemesis number one. Breads are often under-baked and cookies are often over-baked. Under baked bread is soggy. Crusty breads will never be crusty if the temperature doesn't get high enough to drive the moisture from the dough. Over baked cookies are dry and hard. Try baking cookies until they just start to brown and see if you don't like them better.
Most soft breads should reach an internal temperature of 190 degrees and most crusty breads should reach a temperature of 200 to 210 degrees. A thermometer is the bread baker's best friend.
To reach internal temperatures such as these, crusts will often be a darker brown than what you often picture in the perfect bread. If you would like a golden crust on your bread instead of a rich brown crust, try draping the loaf with aluminum foil for the last six or eight minutes of baking. The aluminum foil deflects the heat and will protect the crust from becoming too dark.
Not letting it rise enough. And while we're talking of breads . . . if you like your bread light and fluffy, let it rise. The tendency is to stick it in the oven too soon. With a little practice, you'll soon learn to recognize bread that has risen to the maximum. It's soft to the touch—it even looks puffy. Ideally, you'll catch it a little before it starts to blister. (Remember, you will get a little oven spring, even in a hot oven.) If you wait too long and the bread starts to blister, all is not lost. Punch it down, reform the loaf, and let it rise again. (Sometimes, if a single blister shows up and you're in a hurry, you can puncture the blister with a sharp knife and stick the loaf in the oven.)
Improper mixing. We don't mix breads long enough; we mix biscuits, muffins, and pancakes too long. Mixing develops the gluten. It's the gluten that creates the elasticity and chewiness in bread. We want products leavened with baking powder or baking soda to be tender and flaky. Mix the dry ingredients to distribute them well and then combine the dry mixture with the wet ingredients until they are evenly mixed but no more. Leavened products that are over-mixed are tough and leathery.
Improper measurement. We suspect that more often than not, ingredients are not measured properly. In many good recipes, there is some margin for error but even in the good recipes, the product will be better if the ratio of ingredients is correct. Measure liquids in clear containers designed for liquids and at eye level. Use measuring cups that you trust to be correct. (We recently compared four brand name measuring cups. One was off by a full tablespoon in one cup.)
We always weigh flour when we bake. A packed cup of flour can easily weigh 20% more than one that is lightly filled. (Most recipes are based on lightly filled cups.) If you are just starting to convert your recipes from volumes to weights, start out with 4.5 ounces of flour for every cup. Stay with the same flour as much as possible for the same type of product. Different flours have different densities and different flours can act very differently in a recipe. If you weigh your flour and record your results, you can perfect that favorite recipe.
Now you know. These are the nemeses that cause the most problems in the kitchen. Knowing what they are--the common pitfalls of the kitchen--will arm you to be a better baker. As you perfect your craft in these four areas, you will turn out wonderful baked goods.
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