I’ve been writing articles about food and baking for over ten years—I’m guessing several thousand articles. Sometimes the well just seems to run dry. But for a magazine that we published, I wrote a question and answer column called “Ask the Baker.” I hope you find this answers helpful.
Q: How can I when my bread is done? My mother used to thump the loaf to see if it sounds hollow. That doesn’t seem very accurate.
A: The color of the loaf, how brown it is, in an indicator but not very reliable. The sugar in the loaf caramelizes and turns brown when cooked so a sweeter loaf turns brown more sooner than French bread.
The reliable way to tell when your bread is done is to use a thermometer. The interior of the loaf needs to be at least 190 degrees. Use a probe-type kitchen thermometer and insert it to the center of the bread. I insert the probe from the side or bottom of the loaf to avoid a hole in the top and I make sure that it is over 195 degrees in case there is a cool spot in the bread.
Some crusty breads are baked to 210 degrees. If there are eggs in the bread, bake it to 210 degrees.
Q: The bottoms of my fruit pies tend to be soggy, especially after they sit for a day. I’ve tried baking them longer but then my top crust is over-baked. How can I solve that?
It’s a two-part solution. You’re not getting enough heat to the bottom of the pie, especially with a deep fruit pie. Use a dark nonstick pan, one that will do a better job of absorbing heat. It’s amazing what a difference that makes.
Still, with a deep fruit filling to insulate your bottom crust, you want to bake it longer than the recipe may call for. Use a pie crust shield to protect your top crust. (I always use a shield. Then I don’t worry about that tender, exposed top crust.)
A: Try using bread flour instead of all-purpose flour. Bread flour has a higher gluten content. Gluten creates the chewy texture that we find in good bread and will make your brownies chewier. Be sure to mix your brownie batter for several minutes to develop the gluten strands.
We sell a brownie mix, “Uncle Bob’s Extra Moist and Chewy Brownie Mix.” We used our highest protein (gluten) level bread flour (plus plenty of sugar). And we used the very best cocoa we could find. No wonder we sell thousands.
Q: What is gluten and why does it matter?
A: Gluten is a substance made of the proteins found in wheat flour that gives bread its structure, strength, and texture. Without these marvelous little proteins, bread would not be bread. It also explains why it is so hard to make bread from rice, potato, or oat flour and why wheat flour must be added to rye flour to make bread—only wheat has right types of protein. The gluten makes the bread.
Gluten is developed in the dough when the proteins absorb water and are pulled and stretched in the kneading process. As the proteins are worked, they become long, flexible strands. As the yeast produces gases in the dough, mostly carbon dioxide, these strands trap the gas bubbles and the dough expands. When we put the bread in the oven, the gluten strands coagulate or solidify much as the protein in eggs solidifies as the egg cooks.
If you are making bread with whole wheat flour, you may have a gluten problem: The chaff in the flour tends to cut the gluten strands. Without enough gluten, the bread tends to be crumbly and doesn’t rise enough. You can solve that problem by buying protein (gluten) extracted from wheat flour. If your grocery store doesn’t sell it, we carry wheat gluten.
A: If you are making them from a scratch recipe, the butter or shortening probably melted before baking. The liquid fat, once melted, saturates the flour and bakes into a brick.
Properly made, you should have little pockets of butter layered into the dough. Butter is 15% water so that when you put the crust in the oven, the water turns to steam and that creates your flaky crust.
You have two solutions: Keep your dough cold so the butter doesn’t melt or use a mix. Here’s what you need to do to keep the crust cold so that the batter doesn’t melt:
- Start with rock-hard butter or cold shortening and ice-cold water. (Butter has a lower melting point than does shortening.
- Put your rolling pin in the freezer so that it is cold when you start rolling the dough.
- Work quickly and handle the dough as little as possible.
Of course, the bake shops don’t go to all this trouble. They use a mix. They don’t have to keep the dough chilled, all they do is add water and mix it for less than two minutes in their mixing machine, and they don’t have to hurry their pies to the oven.
We buy that same pie crust mix in 50-pound bags and repackage it (now you know) and repackage it. Now anyone can make a pie.
A: There are many factors that may affect baking time. The obvious factor is the temperature of your particular oven. Other factors play a role like how cold your batter may be or where you place the item to be baked in the oven.
The pan you use may also affect baking time greatly, as much as a third longer time. That’s an hour on your timer, not 45 minutes. Since the depth of the batter changes baking times substantially, the shape of the pan matters. The deeper the batter, the longer the time. Dark pans bake quicker than light-colored pans. Shiny, light-colored pans seem to take forever to bake. Dark metal pans bake quicker than glass or ceramic pans.
Someone once described a recipe as what happened in one kitchen at one time. Just because that recipe worked perfectly for you today, doesn’t mean that it will for Aunt Mabel next week. When we try a new recipe, we always set the baking time for less than what the recipe calls for and check the progress when the timer goes off. After we get to know a recipe, we can set the timer with confidence.