Even some of the most seasoned cooks I know confess to a can’t do attitude when it comes to baking. It’s as if there’s some mystery set of ninja skills involved in creating a tasty cookie, cake, or pie. It doesn’t take much more than a burned batch of snickerdoodles or an undercooked birthday cake to undermine the confidence of these chefs.
But the thing is, it’s often not the baker’s fault. I’ve been a serious home baker for over 20 years and I’m still surprised at the lack of clarity and detail in many cookbooks and online recipes. While such room for interpretation will let you customize a pot of soup, it can prove catastrophic to precise cookies.
To help, I’m tackling three frequently asked kitchen questions that will make or break your holiday baking this season. Let’s aim for the former.
What’s the difference between “Dutch” and “natural” cocoa?
Dutch cocoa powder (like Droste and Lindt) is treated with an alkali to neutralize its acids. It is typically used in recipes that also include baking powder. Natural cocoa powder (like Hershey’s) contains acids that have not been neutralized, and is almost always found in recipes using baking soda. It’s important not to use the two interchangeably in baked goods, as their pairing with baking powder and/or baking soda is critical to both the taste and texture of the final product.
But what if the recipe just says “cocoa powder”? You’ve got a few clues to help. If you’re working from an American cookbook or magazine (especially an older one), the recipe is most likely calling for natural cocoa. But you can also look at the ingredient list. If it calls for mostly baking powder, the recipe is probably referring to Dutch cocoa. If baking soda is the leavening agent, use natural cocoa. For hot chocolate or chocolate sauce (or any other recipe that doesn’t use a leavening ingredient), feel free to use the cocoa you prefer.
How can I tell if my baking powder or baking soda is fresh?
If you are an avid baker, you probably replace these two staples frequently. If you reserve your baking for the holiday season exclusively, you’ll want to test those cans before you get started. Here’s how:
For baking powder: place 1/4 teaspoon baking powder into 1/2 cup hot water.
For baking soda: place 1/4 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar into 1/2 cup hot water. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.
The mixture should bubble immediately — if so, your baking soda/powder is still good. If not, replace it.
How important is it that ingredients are “room temperature”?
You’ll notice that most baking recipes call for certain ingredients — eggs, butter, milk — to be at room temperature. This is actually quite important for the final outcome. Cold ingredients will not incorporate smoothly or evenly, so your batter won’t get enough “rise” when it hits the oven. This results in dense cakes and hard, flat cookies. Be sure to allow enough time for your ingredients to sit out and warm up (depending on your kitchen and the time of year, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour).
If you’re pressed for time (or simply forgot), you can place eggs in a bowl of warm (not hot) water for 15 minutes. Butter can be diced (or grated on the large holes of a box grater) to speed up the process. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut for milk.
The opposite of this rule applies to pie crusts, pastries, and biscuits. Here, you want your ingredients to be super cold, so when the dough goes into the oven the bits of butter melt, expand, and create those flaky layers.
Bonus tip: if your recipe calls for separated eggs (whether whites, yolks, or both), always do so while they’re cold. Cold yolks stay more intact and are less likely to run into the whites.