If you believed everything you read or heard, you might think that it really is a good idea to cut your onions under running water in your sink (for a variety of reasons, please don’t) or that ketchup is a vegetable. But it’s the things that are more plausible-sounding that get most of us in trouble. This could be true. This sounds true.
Baking is especially rife with such lore that has taken hold not because it’s necessarily accurate but just by sheer repetition.
I spend a lot of time answering reader baking questions by email and in our live weekly Q&A, from smart people who have just been let down by what is too often circulated as conventional wisdom. And I get where they’re coming from, having believed some of the same things myself at one point. It’s taken stacks of books, years of research, interviews, experiments (I even played with pH strips, see below!) and baking experience to help me sort through the noise. And who really has time for all that, if it’s not in your job description?
So I’ve rounded up a few of the most common baking misconceptions I have addressed for readers, as well as the ones I know tend to be repeated — and treated as irrefutable fact.
Sugar is only for sweetness
Sugar is an integral ingredient in a lot of baking. What does it bring to the table? Sweetness, of course. So for those who say they don’t like their desserts too sweet, or who perhaps are looking to cut back on sugar for dietary or medical reasons, the temptation is to start cutting sugar.
This, however, can pose a variety of problems, as sugar does so much more than contribute flavor. Even the flavor is multidimensional, since sugar when cooked creates new flavors through the Maillard reaction (in conjunction with proteins) and caramelization. PJ Hamel at King Arthur Baking Company notes that sugar, like salt, works to enhance the flavor of other ingredients — butter, chocolate, vanilla. It can counteract the more bitter compounds of cocoa and whole-wheat flour. What else? Because it attracts water, sugar helps baked goods retain moisture and maintain it. That’s especially true in the case of honey or other liquid sweeteners. Breads and cakes made with honey will lose water more slowly than those made with table sugar, Harold McGee says in “On Food and Cooking.”
You also need sufficient sugar for creaming, which “is a mechanical method for creating air bubbles, during which granules of sugar trap air between molecules of fat,” Lauren Chattman writes in “The Baking Answer Book.” Cutting back the sugar lessens the ability to get that air and rise, which is sometimes aided by chemical leaveners (baking soda or powder). In addition to a denser result, you may also end up with a greasier mouthfeel. Reducing sugar in bread dough can take away the source of food for the yeast and may slow down or impede the rise. You may also end up with flat meringues and similar desserts made with whipped egg whites, where McGee says sugar helps with stability by thickening the mixture and, in the oven, holding onto water until the proteins in the egg whites have set.
When water combines with the protein found in flour, you get gluten, which helps provide structure and chew to baked goods. But sometimes you don’t want that, or at least too much of that, which is where sugar’s water-attracting skills come in and contribute to tenderness. Remove too much sugar from your recipe, and you may end up with drier cookies or less plush cake.
If you must bake with less sugar, try starting with small reductions. Or, better yet, seek out resources that offer recipes developed with these kinds of needs in mind.
The measurements you use don’t make a difference
When people are dissatisfied with the way something baked — or their baking skills in general — my first question is almost always, “Did you weigh the ingredients?” Using a scale to measure your ingredients goes a long way toward replicating what the recipe developer intended, as well as overall success.
Weight is more precise than the alternative, which is volume. How much of an ingredient you get into a dry measuring cup can vary based on how packed the ingredient is, the way you scooped the ingredient (Was the flour fluffed up? Did you dip and sweep?) and, as I learned, the measuring cup itself. Even different measuring cups with the same advertised volume can hold different amounts. And in one experiment, America’s Test Kitchen found “that the amount of flour that fits into a 1-cup measuring cup can vary by as much as 20 percent, depending upon the light- or heavy-handedness of the baker.” In baking, even small variations in something like flour or sugar, especially when amplified across multiple cups, can be the difference between a great and a not-so-great baked good.
And how about which unit of weight you use? That matters, too. Bakers vastly prefer grams over ounces, as grams are a more precise measurement. Grams are smaller units, which means you get a more exact amount than you would with ounces. Think about it this way — if you were trying to direct someone to where you live, you’d want to give them your actual address and not just the street name, right? Same idea here. While most home scales start getting iffy at amounts 5 grams and under, if you measure out, say, 125 grams of flour (our standard cup) onto a scale, you can be pretty well-assured you’re within an acceptable margin of error.
Salt doesn’t matter in baking
As with sugar, it can be easy to think the contribution of salt to baking is limited to salty flavor. In “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” Samin Nosrat makes a compelling point. “The foundational ingredients of sweets are some of the blandest in the kitchen. Just as you’d never leave flour, butter, eggs, or cream unseasoned in a savory dish, so should you never leave them unseasoned in a dessert. Usually just a pinch or two of salt whisked into a dough, batter, or base is enough to elevate the flavors in pie and cookie doughs, cake batters, tart fillings, and custards alike.”
Salt can help bring other flavors into focus, such as the chocolate in brownies or the corn in cornbread, Chattman says. It is even more effective at counteracting bitterness than sugar itself, Shirley Corriher says in “BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking,” citing research conducted by Gary Beauchamp at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, which studies taste and smell.
McGee explains that salt also lowers the point at which starches gel (absorb water, swell and set), which is crucial in baking.
Salt is essential for properly risen bread. Salt slows down fermentation by dehydrating yeast, Chattman says, which allows for the development of flavorful byproducts from the yeast and bacteria at work. That slowdown lets rising dough have enough time to form gluten. Dough without salt will rise too fast on the counter and then collapse in the oven.
Slowing down yeast activity has another welcome outcome: browning, key to color and flavor. Yeast thrives on sugar in the dough (it’s generated by the breakdown of the flour even if the recipe has no added sugar), and if left unchecked, there would be no sugar left to brown in baking, according to King Arthur.
No-knead bread is not ‘real’ bread
Here’s one that, as an avid bread baker, really makes me want to bang my head against the keyboard. Sharing a recipe for no-knead bread has, on many occasions, elicited comments accusing fans of these minimally mixed breads of being lazy or not making “real” bread.
Wrong. Whether you knead by mixer or by hand or let the dough do all the work, the same thing is happening: The proteins in the flour, when combined with water, bond and cross-link to form the gluten network that will give the bread structure and inflate as the dough proofs and bakes. The first two methods involve active mechanical or manual input, while no-knead recipes take a more passive approach. As Andrew Janjigian, author of the bread-centric Wordloaf newsletter, told me, “Bread dough wants to develop itself.” No-knead breads — more like self-kneading, really — typically just require a quick mix in a bowl to bring the ingredients together.
To encourage this process to happen, no-knead recipes tend to be wetter than doughs kneaded other ways. For most people, the difference between a no-knead bread and one mixed with the other methods will be imperceptible when eaten — and even if you can tell, the difference is not necessarily unwelcome.
European-style, high-fat butter is always better
You know that saying, “More is more?” It doesn’t necessarily apply to baking with butter. American butter clocks in around 80 percent fat and 18 percent water, with the rest milk solids, according to King Arthur. European butter increases the fat to 82 to 86 percent. More fat means less water, and that can cause a variety of textural problems in baked goods. As King Arthur discovered, European butter made shortbread greasier and scones flatter, as there was less water to evaporate and create steam for lift.
In “The Book on Pie,” Erin Jeanne McDowell notes there are pros and cons to using European butter in something like pie crust. European butter can be easier to incorporate than American butter when chilled. And because there isn’t as much water to form gluten, it can be easier to roll out — at first. Eventually, that higher amount of fat can start to soften or even melt, resulting in a dough that’s hard to handle.
The important thing to remember is to pay attention to how the recipe was written. Plenty of recipes call for European butter, which is just fine. Otherwise, take care. “Friendly reminder: switching to European style butter in an American recipe isn’t an upgrade, it’s a fundamental alteration of the formula,” cookbook author Stella Parks tweeted a few years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.
Milk mixed with acid is a good buttermilk substitute
I make so many pancakes, biscuits, waffles and scones with buttermilk, I am never without it, especially because it lasts for months in the refrigerator. So it makes me a little bonkers to see the notion treated like gospel that “clabbered milk,” or milk doctored with lemon juice or vinegar, is a great substitute for commercial buttermilk.
As Kerry E. Kaylegian, a food scientist at Penn State who has studied dairy her entire career, told me, buttermilk manufacturers start with milk, add a lactic bacterial culture and let it ferment until the proper flavor and acidity has developed. The thickness may be boosted by dry milk, stabilizers and heat treatment.
To see the differences at work, I made clabbered milk with 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar and enough milk to equal 1 cup and let it sit a little more than 10 minutes. The clabbered milk was no thicker than when I started, nothing like the cultured option. It smelled and tasted like vinegar, while the thick buttermilk smelled and tasted pleasingly sour. Then I checked the acidity with pH paper strips. Remember, the pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with lower numbers more acidic. Store-bought buttermilk registered about 5. The clabbered milk registered 6. Why does that matter? The acid reacts with baking soda, the typical leavener used with buttermilk, to provide lift. Less acid, less rise.
Pancakes made with clabbered milk produced a thin, loose batter that spread more like crepes. While they did rise, they were dwarfed by the buttermilk batch, which boasted a thick, almost scoopable batter. They spread much less in the skillet, resulting in lofty, tender pancakes. Moreover, the clabbered batch was bland other than a slightly metallic and tongue-stinging flavor — probably because the reduced acidity meant the baking soda wasn’t fully neutralized.
So if a recipe calls for buttermilk, try to stick with it. If you must swap, your best bet, according to Parks, is kefir, followed by plain yogurt.