From correct cooking times to over-whipped egg whites, culinary expert Anna Olson answers the most asked-about questions about baking.
1. What size eggs do I use when baking?
Most baking recipes, if not stated outright, want you to bake using large eggs. What bakers like about large size eggs is that they have an easy standard measure by weight. A large egg is 2 oz – the yolk is an ounce and the white is an ounce.
2. Why do baking recipes call for unsalted butter?
Using unsalted butter means YOU are in charge of the salt, especially because salt requirements vary depending on the recipe and, when using salted butter, you really don’t know how much salt you are adding. Also unsalted butter is sweeter and fresher tasting.
3. Why do dessert recipes call for salt? Do I really need to add it?
Salt is used in baking for the same reason we use it in cooking: to season. Salt tempers sweetness and elevates other flavours, like chocolate, balancing the tastes on our palate. You can omit salt in baking without compromising the chemistry in baking, except for yeast doughs. Salt slows fermentation, which is a good thing, since it allows flavour and texture to develop gradually.
4. What’s the difference between Dutch process and regular cocoa powder?
Dutch process cocoa undergoes an alkalizing treatment that removes some of the acidity, resulting in a cocoa powder that has a rich, dark colour and deep chocolate flavour. The reason some recipes specify one or the other is because of how the cocoa interacts with the leaveners (baking powder/baking soda). If a recipe doesn’t specify, then you can presume it’s fine to use either type.
5. What’s the secret to a good meringue?
Egg whites whip to a fuller volume at room temperature, and the addition of acidity (a little lemon juice or vinegar) allows the proteins in meringue to stretch, again promoting a greater volume. And guess what? You don’t need to whip your egg whites on high speed. One speed slower buys you time, so you can reach that soft, medium or stiff peak perfectly with time to judge that you got it right (lift your beaters – a big curl = soft peak, a gentle curl = medium peaks, and upright = stiff peaks)
6. What can I do if I’ve over-whipped my egg whites? Can I still use them?
You don’t want to use over-whipped egg whites because they have been stretched to their biggest volume, so when they hit the heat of the oven they will expand further and the bubbles will burst, collapsing your cake, or if in a mousse, they will collapse under the weight of the ingredients.
But you don’t have to throw away your whites and start again. Give the over-whipped whites a good 15 minutes (about the time it takes to have a cup of tea….ahhh). In that time the meringue will start to collapse and a pool of liquid will form at the bottom. Now you can re-whip the whites on MEDIUM speed (even if you’ve added sugar) to the point you missed the first time around.
7. When I whip cream and then store it, it collapses after an hour. How can I prevent this?
To stabilize whipped cream, so that it doesn’t liquefy (and so you can use it on cakes and other desserts), stir in 1 Tbsp (15 ml) of instant skim milk powder into the liquid cream when you start to whip it. It won’t change the taste or texture, but will hold every swirl and swish in place.
8. When a recipe calls for couverture or baking chocolate, can I use chocolate chips?
Unfortunately not. Chocolate chips are meant to be stirred into cookies, brownies and cakes as the last step, and are manufactured so that they hold their “chip” shape. They are not meant to be melted and then folded into cake batters, mousses or frostings. Couverture or baking chocolate is designed just for that purpose. You can find baking squares in grocery stores, but if you have a chance to buy good quality chocolate (it will specify it’s percentage of cocoa on its label), do so.
9. I have a convection oven – should I bake using the convection fan?
The function of a convection fan is to move around hot air, so that things brown evenly. This is great when you are roasting a chicken or potatoes, but not always the case with baking.
Generally I prefer to bake with the fan off, for consistent results. If you want to run the fan for things like crisps, pies and cookies, turn the thermostat 15-25°F lower to compensate. For delicate recipes like cakes, cheesecakes and custards, I always bake with the fan off.
10. When I bake, sometimes my items take longer/less time than the recipe states. Why is that?
While baking is certainly seen as a precise area of the cooking world, baking times are a bit of a variable. Ovens themselves vary dramatically, and the size of your oven, how it heats and how well it holds the temperature can greatly impact a recipe. Small ovens lose heat quickly once the oven door has opened, and other ovens can have an erratic airflow when more than one pan or tray is baking. Even my oven has “hot spots” that I have come to know over time. If baking with a convection oven, set the temperature to about 25°F cooler than the called-for temperature.
I recommend keeping a thermometer inside your oven and monitor it. Setting the oven to 350°F does not always mean it stays or reaches 350°F (or it can go above). Any wide temperature fluctuations (25°F or more) can often be fixed by calling for a service person to calibrate it. If you find that your cakes sink in the middle on a regular basis, this could be a sign that your oven temperature is fluctuating as your cakes bake – this often can be fixed with a calibration.
Many recipes, mine included, call for a temperature range because of this variability of ovens. When baking cakes, do follow the timing guidelines but also use a tester inserted into the centre of the cake to check for doneness, use colour/browning as your guide with cookies and squares and use the “jiggle” test to check cheesecakes and custards (they should still jiggle in the centre when gently moved).
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