Archive for the ‘101s’ Category

Homemade bread

Growing up, I loved watching my mother bake. Whenever she poured cups of sugar into the mixing bowl, it almost felt like watching snow fall. As soon as I had the financial ability to buy myself some flour and baking tools, I started experimenting with the oven.

I started out with the recipes that seemed simple enough, such as chocolate chip cookies and banana bread. And I was able to get reasonably successful results, moving onto more challenging-looking recipes. The final results seemed good enough to move on: just like how I move onto the next piece of music on the piano after sight reading through it once.

Then, I faced a wall. A tall and thick wall called yeast bread.

Being the arrogant young home baker, I decided to challenge bagels. Little did I know how damn difficult it is to make bagels. Things were going fine until I started kneading. The stiff dough wasn’t getting any more elastic, like the recipe mentioned, and my wrists were starting to get a little sore. “This has got to work,” I thought to myself, refusing to accept the possibility of a miserable failure. I had been kneading for over twenty minutes now. The dough must have formed enough gluten bonds or whatever.

Sure enough, my pathetic rings of white dough didn’t rise at all in the oven. I could swear I followed the recipe to the period. But what I had after four hours in the kitchen were stiff flour rocks that couldn’t even get by as bagel chips.

After that, I tried several more times, praying for a loaf of soft, chewable bread out of my oven. Nope. My fifth or sixth attempted resembled bread, but it tasted like uncooked, dry dough in the center. I had no idea what the hell I was doing wrong. I just convinced myself that bread baking was a completely different category and not meant for everyone. Yup, I gave up: I scratched off home-baked bread of the list of things I could enjoy in life.

Then, on a humid summer day last year, I had this sudden urge to give it another try. It had been more than three years since the last attempt, and I didn’t even have yeast. After a quick trip to Whole Foods, I started putting together the dough and kneading. I had good feelings. And look what came out of the oven!

First success - Ciabatta

*congratulatory dance*

Ever since my first loaf of edible bread, I’ve been baking bread nonstop and even signed up for professional courses. I have learned so much from all the trials and errors, as well as the classes. For the next few posts, I’d like to share some of the tips so you can enjoy warm, fresh homemade bread in your own kitchen.

In this introductory post, I’ll go over the basic process of bread baking. I’ll cover each step in much more details in the following posts.

So let’s get started!

Almost every bread recipe will go through the following process:

Mixing & Kneading → First Rise → Shaping → Second Rise → Baking

Let’s take a look at what each stage is all about:

Kneading bread dough

Mixing & Kneading

Tasks are simple enough; you mix in all the ingredients and knead it for some time to get a ball of smooth, homogeneous dough. This step is to build a strong yet soft and elastic network of dough (technically gluten, flour protein, bonds) that would expand evenly and easily when the yeast starts producing gas. Think of it as making the materials for balloons; it should blow up easily without any holes or stiff spots.

First dough rise

The first rise

The bread would be dense and stiff if there was not much air inside. So we let the yeast do their work and release gas into the dough, until the volume doubles. There’s nothing else you do except leaving the bowl in the right temperature and humidity. However, this is only the first rise, meaning that you’ll deflate the dough afterwards; think of it as a warm-up session for “dough blowing” so it expands more easily later on.

Shaping bread dough


After the first rise, now it’s time to shape the dough into a ball, spiral, etc. But before you do any rolling and twisting, the dough needs a little “bench time” (will discuss in depth later). Then you shape the dough into the final shape that will be inflated with the yeast’s gas. Because it will expand much more later, the initial shapes are much thinner and flatter than the final product.

Second dough rise

The second rise

Like the first rise, you let the yeast do its job to inflate the dough. This stage requires setting up the right temperature and humidity as well. The dough is let to expand up to about 80% of the final volume you’d like, since the yeast will continue to release gas up to the point of its death around 140F degrees.

Baking bread


Now it’s time to bake! You put in the inflated dough into the hot even, solidifying the dough into a brown, stable structure of yumminess. As mentioned above, the dough will continue to expand a bit more in the hot oven.

I’ll be posting about each step in more details. Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to add or fix in the articles!


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In the Introduction post, I talked about why having control over your oven is critical to successful baking. Here are the actual tips now.

Oven baking

#1. Get to know your oven

Unless you are an avid baker or a cook who spent a month over deciding which oven to buy, you probably haven’t paid too much attention to your oven. It’s generally simple enough for one to use it without a manual — you heat it, open it, stick your food in, then shut it. However, it’s important to know how your oven actually heats. Not all ovens heat equally, just like you don’t always fit into a medium shirt; sometimes you are a small, and sometimes you are a large. Same thing for the oven: the recipe might say preheat your oven for 20 minutes, but it may not be ready for another ten minutes; it says to place the pan in the lower rack, but your oven’s floor plate might be too hot.

Although most modern models are, it’s also important to note whether it’s got a top broiler (so heat’s provided from the top too) and whether it’s a convection oven (comes with devices to circulate the heat more evenly). If it’s not a convection oven, you need to turn your pan around at least once to bake more evenly. I usually rotate mine three times.

Probably one of the most debated oven topic is gas vs. electric. It’s simply the difference in the ways they are heated, but they can create a few major differences in the oven’s performance. Generally gas ovens are perceived to heat a little less evenly, have more temperature spikes, and generate more moist heat. On the other hand, electric ovens are perceived to heat more evenly, with more stable temperatures, and provide drier heat. Either should work fine, as long as you are aware of how it behaves when you bake. I personally prefer an electric one.

#2. Preheat, preheat, preheat.

I cannot say this enough: start your oven as you start mixing the batter (or as you prepare the dough for the second rise). The oven needs to be hot enough that it will still retain the heat when your batter goes in. If you heat it just enough that it reaches the desired temperature, it will lose the heat quickly during the few seconds you have it open. I’ve seen ovens that beep when it’s supposedly ready, but let it heat for another few minutes.

A critical device when you are preheating: an oven thermometer. Don’t trust the beep or your intuition, and get one of the cheap ones (only cost $4). They work great. My oven has a built-in digital thermometer, but it’s often off by ten to fifteen degrees.

Oven thermometer

#3. What pan are you using?

I used to never pay attention to the material of the pan I used. When I discovered a couple of Pyrex pans a few years ago in my parents’ house, I started using it a lot because they looked so pretty when done. However, soon I realized my brownies and pies were not turning out right and it would taking much longer to bake.

There are three major types of baking pans you will see: dark metal, lighter and shiny metal, and glass. Oven is constantly turning on and off, trying to maintain the set temperature. Even though glass takes longer to heat up, it does a great job of holding a stable temperature and cooking more evenly, where as metal can get hot spots. However, because it takes longer to heat up in the beginning, glass may not be suitable for items that you bake at high temperatures for short times. Stick to cakes and brownies when it comes to glass pans.

On the other hand, metal heats up more quickly, making it great for items like biscuits and cookies. Now, dark pans with a dull finish absorb heat faster than shiny ones which reflect it off. That means using a dark pan might burn the bottom of your cookies when the tops are not ready yet, in opposite to glass where the top might brown faster when the bottom is not ready. If that’s a frequent case for your glass pans, it could help to lower the temperature by 20 to 25 degrees and cook for ten to fifteen minutes longer.

The new material, silicone, has gotten popular over the past few years. I haven’t tried it out much, but from others, it has gained popularity for easy removals and cleanups and there haven’t been any major compromises in terms of heat retention and even cooking.

#4. Where to place your pan

Usually the safe place is the bottom third, as the bottom takes longer to cook than the top, which could brown too fast if you place it too high. If you are sticking in multiple pans at once, rotate them as the pans at the bottom will not brown properly on top.

Oven baking

#5. Be quick!

Whatever you do, whether putting in your pan, rotating, or giving it some steam, do it as quickly as you can so you lose the least amount of heat possible to prevent temperature spikes. Be ready to do whatever you do before you open the oven. I’ve witnessed too many cases where someone would leave the oven door wide open while looking for oven mitts.

#6. Is it done yet? Is it?

“Bake until done” is a very vague term. Some might like crispy cookies, where as some might like it softer. So your own judgement is the best call. But how do you tell?

For cakes, bake until the center is set and golden. Insert a toothpick deep into the center to see if it comes off clean. If it does, it’s done. Usually the edges start to pull away from sides of the pan too. If you like your brownies and such a little gooey, however, take it out when the toothpick comes out with a little bit of moist better. It will solidify as you cool it on the rack. The same thing for the cookies — keep your eyes on the oven as the baking times are much shorter. The residual heat of the pan will keep cooking the cookies for another minute or two, so take it out when they look a little soft.

For yeast bread, an instant-reading thermometer is your god. The general guidelines are crispy, golden brown surface, hollow sound when tapping on the bottom, etc., but when everything else looks perfectly done, the very center could still be gooey. The inside temperature should read 200 to 210 Fahrenheit degrees to ensure it’s actually done.

Instant-read thermometer

If it’s getting too dark on top but not done yet, there are a few things you can try: place it lower in the oven; or cover up the top with some aluminum foil; or lower the temperature a bit and cook for a longer period of time. On the other hand, if your cookies are brown on the bottom when they need to be cooked more, place them on the higher rack or double up the cookie pan with another.

Most importantly, as mentioned in my earlier post, keep the oven shut to minimize temperature spikes.


#7. Cleaning

Crumbs and spills left in the oven will turn into burnt black scums and gunk that are just impossible to clean up. But before you go scrub it down, know your oven type to prevent any damage. The most common ones are self-cleaning, textured, and regular, non-self-cleaning ovens.

For the self-cleaning ones, run the cycle whenever you need to. Most spills will turn into piles of ash that can be easily cleaned with a damp dishcloth. Make sure you keep a window open during the cycle to let out the smoke.

Textured ovens are continuous cleaning ovens, of which the specially designed surface burns off the residues as you to continue to use the oven. Just use a damp cloth to wipe it down. No oven cleaners or abrasive for neither of the oven types.

Now what I have: regular, not-self-cleaning ovens. The best cleaning habit is to clean up any spills right after you finish using the oven. (when it’s cooled down of course!) Otherwise, you’ll have all sorts of burnt stuff stuck to the surface. Some lay a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom — if you do that, make sure you aren’t blocking any vents. If you are itching to do a thorough cleanup, get some oven cleaner and a gentle scrubbing pad. Make sure you keep your window open too. If you are looking for less chemical-induced solutions, try baking soda or vinegar, mixed with some mild dish detergent. Spray some on and heat up the oven for a few, then when it’s cooled down, gently scrub and wipe it down. Repeat.

Hope you find some of this helpful. And please share if you have any other tips! : )

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Oven 101: Introduction

Before you read on, let’s run through a quick checklist:

• When it comes to preheating, I solely rely on the temperature dial or the digital screen.
• When I’m done with my batter, I stick it into the oven right away.
• There should be no difference in using a metal or a glass pan for baking.
• I never think about where exactly in the oven to place my pan.
• When I’m really busy, I stick in more than two pans of cookies or pies and breads together.
• Once it’s in, I don’t touch the pan until it’s done.
• I constantly open the oven door to check on my stuff. I don’t want it to burn! (or I’m just impatient)
• I take my bread out when it looks…about done. Browned enough.
• I never clean my oven. Who does anyway?

0-1: You are already a master with your oven, but read in case you find something helpful.
2-4: Your cookies will turn out more evenly if you read the post and keep in mind some of the tips.
5-7: Now don’t blame the burnt muffins on the lack of professional equipment.
8-9: Must read on.

Cooking is impossible without heat. Or it is about heat. (By the way, have you read Heat by Buford? An extremely rich, entertaining read. Highly recommended.) More specifically, it is about the transformation of the molecules caused by heat, in combination with many other reactants and catalysts. No matter how carefully and skillfully you put together your cake batter, the cake will never rise if you don’t heat it up in the oven. But the story gets more complicated. The cake may not turn out well if you don’t properly control your oven to heat it appropriately. In other words, the right amount of heat in the right setup for the right length of time needs to be applied for all the chemicals in your batter and dough to do the right tricks on time.

The next post will highlight some of the common mistakes, both critical and subtle, that home bakers often make. I hope some of the tips will become useful to you. The more control you have over your oven, the more control you will have over how your kitchen creations turn out.

Go on to read the tips here.

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