Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to common baking and pastry questions.  This is a work in progress so feel free to shoot me a message if you have a question and I’ll be glad to research it for you!  If you find an error in my answers please report it to me and I’ll double check my facts.

Questions:

What is the difference between coating chocolate and regular chocolate?
What is the difference between white, milk, and dark chocolate?
What is the difference between cake, all-purpose, and bread flour?
Is organic really better?
Why do you weigh everything instead of measure?
What can I substitute for corn syrup?
Why are some of your cakes so complicated? I know cakes that are much easier to make.
Why do you use oil in your cakes? Why don’t you use butter?
Isn’t it better to fold in whipped eggs right away rather than letting it sit out?
What is over creaming (over mixing)?
Why do some of your recipes use shortening and not butter?
Can you substitute cocoa butter for butter or shortening?
How can I make very chewy cookies?
Some recipes are too sour. How can I alter the recipe?
How can I make my cake juicy and melt-in-your-mouth?
Why do you fill cakes by volume?

What is the difference between coating chocolate and regular chocolate?

To be true chocolate, the chocolate in question needs to have cocoa butter and cocoa liquor.  Coating chocolate has the cocoa butter removed and replaced with vegetable oils.  This creates a less palatable mouth feel – sometimes it can be pasty feeling or soft and crumbly.  Coating chocolate exists because it is easier to work with than real chocolate.  It is commonly used for quick chocolate decorations, basic piping, and dipping.  Chocolate with cocoa butter requires a process called tempering which is a time consuming process.  Coating chocolate does not require tempering so it’s much quicker to use than regular chocolate.  However, because of the vegetable oils it is not as strong of a product and might not be suitable for elaborate chocolate decorations and piping.

What is the difference between white, milk, and dark chocolate?

White chocolate is chocolate without cocoa liquor so in essence it isn’t really true chocolate.  It also contains lecithin, sugar, milk solids, and vanillin (vanilla flavor).  Dark chocolate contains both cocoa butter and cocoa liquor and can contain lecithin, sugar, and vanillin.  Milk chocolate is dark chocolate but with the addition of milk solids.

What is the difference between cake, all-purpose, and bread flour?

The major difference is the amount of protein contained in each of these flours.  Without over explaining, wheat is classified in three different ways: Hard vs. Soft, Spring vs. Winter, and Red vs. White.  The planted wheat is one from each category.

Bread flour is typically made from hard, red, winter wheat while cake flour is typically made from soft wheat (color and planting season depending on the brand).  Bread flour contains 11% – 13% protein content while cake contains 6% – 9%.  What this means is that bread flour’s gluten content is higher than cakes.  A higher gluten content will typically mean a stronger and chewier product while a lower content means a softer and more tender product.  Artisan breads (like the breads at Panera) are typically made with flour with an 11.5% – 11.7%.

All-purpose flour is actually a blend of bread flour and cake flour resulting in around 11% protein content depending on the blend.  It’s all-purpose’s nature makes it a great choice for the home baker because its flexibility in a multitude of recipes.  While it’s possible to make bread from all-purpose flour, it’s better to use bread flour.

Is organic really better?

This question is better left for personal opinion and is a very hotly debated topic.  The big debate is that organic foods are grown without pesticides or genetic modifications and are better for our bodies and the environment.  Organic foods also tend to be more expensive that conventional grown foods.  The bigger debate is organic vs. local.  The argument is that organic foods sometimes come from other countries and because they lack preservatives and pesticides they don’t stay as fresh as long as conventional so the costs come in with shipping and the environmental impact with jet fuel and such counters any benefit by avoiding chemicals.  Local foods take out the many transportation costs and support local economies and farmers – however, this also means that buying produce is largely seasonal.  Also, local farmers vary between conventional and organic methods as well.  It’s important for you to decide what’s important for you.

Typically, I purchase organic when I’m going to eat the skin of a fruit – like strawberries – or vegetables that are very permeable – like celery.  I also try to purchase organic when it comes to products like pan release / pan spray because they tend to not have silicone in it but you should always read the label to confirm.  I also like to buy organic eggs and milk because the chickens and cows tend to have happier lives – but again check to see if it says free range, free roam, or cage free if this is your goal.

I also tend to only buy certain versions of conventional foods.  Tomatoes are an excellent example.  I heard a rumor, although I never confirmed it, that tomatoes are shipped green and are ripened using a gas.  To avoid this I buy vine ripened.  Now whether this is true or not is still up for research but I felt this was worth mentioning.

Why do you weigh everything instead of measure?

Short answer is I was taught at school to weigh everything, but this probably won’t satisfy your curiosity so I’ll explain more : )

Reason #1: When you weigh something it will always weigh the same no matter what.  8 oz of flour will always weigh 8 oz no matter when or where or how you weigh it.  However, a cup of flour may not always be a full cup or weigh the same amount each time.  At smaller measures this may seem insignificant but when producing in bulk weight needs to be exact because you can make more mistakes.  For example if you had to weigh out 10 cups of flour if every cup was a little off you could end up with only 9 cups of flour or even 11 cups depending on how you were off. Plus try to imagine a bakery that makes tons of cakes using cups and spoons to make all their batters – completely inefficient.

Reason #2: It’s much much faster.  When you have a list of ingredients it’s much easier and faster to just put a bowl on a scale and weigh out the ingredients than use different spoons, cups, and liquid measuring cups.  When you can pour out an ingredient until it reaches a specific weight it’s quicker than having to scoop out 5 cups and making sure it’s level and such.  Plus you don’t have to remember which ingredients get packed down (typically brown sugar) and which ones don’t (flour) – something you have to do when you measure as opposed to weigh.

Reason #3: It simplifies everything.  Imagine for a second all the tools you’ll need to measure.  At a minimum you’ll need 1/8 tsp, 1/4 tsp, 1/2 tsp, 1 tsp, 1 TBSP, 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, 1 cup, and a liquid measuring cup (possibly in two sizes as well).  Now replace all of that with just one scale.  Less dishes and less tools you need to look for and use.  Granted you may want to have these tools in the event you come across a recipe that does not use weights but you will want to weigh out the ingredients as you go and convert the recipe.

So those are my top three reasons for weighing out ingredients instead of measuring.  I strongly recommend getting a digital scale and learning how to use it.  For example: to tare out a bowl on my scale I place the bowl on my scale while it’s off and turn it on.  The scale automatically registers the bowl’s weight behind the scenes and tells me that I’m at zero so anything I put into the bowl is now weighed without me having to calculate the bowl’s weight.  You can get a decent digital scale from Bed, Bath, and Beyond or your cake supply shop for between $30-$50.  The more the scale can weigh before reading an error as well as the more accurate it is will make it more expensive. Visit my Kitchen Equipment I’m Picky About page for more advice on what to look for in a kitchen scale.

If these weren’t enough reason to convert you to weights, check out BraveTart’s post on why you should weigh.

Grams and Kilograms (the metric system) will always be more accurate than ounces and pounds.  That’s because grams are much smaller weights than ounces.  So for recipes where you measure out such a small amount that it doesn’t register in ounces it will most definitely have a weight in grams.  The reason I don’t use grams is because I was taught mostly with ounces – the only class that used grams was my breads class.  I really should switch over but it’s much easier for me to mentally visualize ounces than grams.

When it comes to flavorings, you really don’t need to measure or weigh.  If you’re looking for consistency then you should definitely weigh out the spice or extract you’re using but in many of my recipes from school we used a term called TT or “to taste.”  Many times we would sample the recipe as we made it or eyeball the amount of spice we wanted.  Whenever I make a new recipe, or use a recipe I haven’t made in a while, if it has a weight or measurement for the flavoring I will follow what the recipe says and see how the final product came out.  If I feel there isn’t enough flavor then I will make a note to add more.  I also try out new recipes before I think about adjusting them in any other fashion.

What can I substitute for corn syrup?

Ah so you’re not a fan of corn syrup either hm?  Well while I’m not totally 100% opposed to corn syrup (I’m already eating dessert, I’m kidding myself if I pretend that not using corn syrup will actually make it healthier), I do tend to avoid it when I can.  It’s said your body doesn’t necessarily process corn syrup in the same way as it does other sugars and with everything seeming to have corn syrup in it it’s hard to eat it in “moderation.”

Here are four viable substitutes: simple syrup, honey, maple syrup, and molasses.  For simple syrup you’ll have to make it yourself.  Take whatever the amount of corn syrup is needed in the recipe and weigh that much out in granulated sugar. Add enough water to make the sugar completely wet so when you run your hand through it there are no clumps.  Add 1/8 oz of cream of tartar for every 12 ounces or so of sugar (no need to go less than that if you need a smaller amount) and boil to 235-240 degrees F.  Instant syrup.  The downsides to this method is that it’s time consuming (you have to make it and let it cool down before you can use it) and it does risk crystallization even with the cream of tartar in it.  This is not a practical solution when you need less than 8 ounces of corn syrup – though you can always make 8 ounces of simple syrup and refrigerate whatever you don’t use. Be sure to read my advice to making the perfect simple syrup here.

Honey is nature’s syrup and it’s said that corn syrup was developed by man as a way to create cheap honey.  Honey is easy to find, easy to use, and comes in a variety of flavors depending on which pollen was used.  Clover honey is the mass produced honey but many chefs prefer orange blossom honey.  The downsides are that honey can be expensive to use and imparts a flavor to your baked good.

Maple syrup is the slightly evaporated sap from maple trees.  Like honey it’s easy to find and easy to use.  Make sure you’re using real maple syrup because many maple syrups (I’ll be nice and not name names) are actually just corn syrup flavored to taste like maple syrup.  One good way to know if you’ve got real maple syrup is if it needs to be refrigerated – real maple syrup should be refrigerated.  Of course, you could always check the label.  Real maple syrup can be pricey to use and can impart flavor – both downsides it shares with honey.

Molasses is a by-product of refined sugar from sugar cane.  It’s widely available, easy to use, and not as expensive as maple syrup or honey.  However, of the four substitutes it will impart the strongest flavor potentially changing your recipe completely.  However, you can use this in combination with any of the other syrups to help lighten the flavor.

Why are some of your cakes so complicated?  I know cakes that are much easier to make.

True, cakes like the vanilla chiffon genoise, the strawberry spiral cake, and my devil’s food chocolate cake are little more difficult than other cakes.  These are made using the whipping method or a combination of the whipping method and the blending method.  The whipping method involves whipping up egg whites, egg yolks, whole eggs, or a combination of those.  Whipped egg imparts a ton of volume to your cake and egg also provides a lot of structure to your cake – in the end whipped cakes will always be springier, lighter, and spongier than their blended counterparts.  That being said blended cakes are just as good as whipped cakes!  It just depends on what texture you are going for and how much time you have on your hands.  I also like doing whipped cakes for my episodes so that I can teach lots of techniques in one episode – cake making and making a meringue for example.  Once you’ve made a bunch of whipped cakes and meringues though it becomes second nature and you can make them pretty quickly.

The whipping method is the traditional way to make genoise cakes so if you’re avoiding the whipping method avoid making cakes that have genoise in its name.  Many sponge cake roulades/rolls use the whipping method (the pumpkin roll being an exception) so be aware of that as well.  If you’re looking for an easy cake that is delicious and uses the blending method try the yellow butter cake.

Why do you use oil in your cakes?  Why don’t you use butter?

You can use butter in most cases as a substitute for oil.  The short answer is – my recipe calls for oil.  Here’s the long answer: Butter and oil are both fats and both serve similar purposes such as tenderizing the cake and adding moisture.  Butter has an extra function in that it helps leaven baked goods because it has water in it (water turns to steam in the oven), contains trapped air (air expands when it gets hot), and it can create air cells in the batter to allow leavening to occur.  Oil is 100% fat so it does not contain any water and because it doesn’t have emulsifiers and is liquid at room temperature it doesn’t create air cells or trap air.  However, because oil is so high in fat it is the best ingredient to make a baked good very tender and moist.  Whipped cakes that have lots of whipped components (meringue, whipped egg yolks) have lots of air cells already so butter’s leavening potential isn’t as necessary as it’s ability to tenderize and moisten, and since oil is more efficient at tenderizing and moistening oil is the better choice.

Of course you can still use butter!  Clarified butter, which is pretty much just oil, is an excellent substitute for vegetable oil.  Or you can just use butter as it is.  Just realize that your cake may have more volume and may be weaker.  When a cake is leavened it is naturally tenderized at the same time because the air cells are stretched thin.  A cake that is leavened a lot has very thin air cells and may be very delicate – it may also collapse under its own weight.  Butter and oil (as do all fats) also tenderize products in a more direct way by coating the structure building components of a batter (egg proteins, gluten proteins, and starch granules).  When these components are coated they cannot link together to form structure and cannot bond to/absorb water.  Since butter contains less fat than oil, oil coats the structure builders more during the mixing process and because it is liquid it coats the structure builders more thoroughly.  The water in butter also helps starches and proteins build structure so as much as it helps tenderize it can also help toughen a product.

Oil also provides better moistness to a baked product than butter, and even water, can.  Because oil is liquid at room temperature and at body temperature, the moistness it contributes is easily noticeable.  Since butter is somewhat soft at room temperature it provides some moistness but not as much as oil does.  Water does not provide as much moistness as oil because water is absorbed by the starch in the batter during the baking process, bound to proteins during the baking process, and water also evaporates during the baking process – of course we can always add water back in by using simple syrup.  Note that moistness and moisture are different.  Moisture is water.  Moistness is the sensation of something being liquid.  When we say something is moist we mean it is very liquid-like.

If you find stuff like this fascinating (like I do) then you must check out Paula Figoni’s How Baking Works.  This was our text book in school and I still refer to it now!

Isn’t it better to fold in whipped eggs right away rather than letting it sit out?

 

Yes it is true that you should use whipped eggs, like a meringue, right away. As a meringue sits out it, it will start to deflate and lose air cells which means a loss in volume. All of my chefs in school and all of my recipes explicitly say whip up the egg whites and then fold them in. I, being the rebel that I am, do not and here’s why:

First, when working in a bake shop you have access to lots of bowls and mixers so theoretically you could whip up your egg whites and your batter at the same time using two different bowls. At home though you might not have that luxury. Remember that I recommend wiping out the mixing bowl with vinegar before whipping up egg whites to make sure they whip up correctly. It’s easier to keep your bowl extra clean from the beginning than washing it after mixing the batter. In other words, many batters have a fat in it (oil, shortening, butter) which can prevent egg whites from whipping up. I find that it’s just easier to do the egg whites first so I don’t have to worry about any speck of fat from the batter interfering with my meringue.

Second, along those same lines, you have to clean a mixing bowl full of batter before you can whip up egg whites but you do not have to wash a bowl out to mix the batter after whipping up egg whites. Since the meringue won’t interfere with the batter it’s just one less time you have to wash the bowl. So basically, once you finish scraping the egg whites out of your mixer you can start with your batter – no washing needed.

In the end, as long as you’re quick you won’t lose that many air cells and your meringue will not weaken all that much. Remember too that if your batter contains baking powder or baking soda those chemical reactions are already taking place filling your batter in carbon dioxide. So unless both your batter and your meringue or ready to go you’ll be losing air from somewhere. Personally, I’ll take the path that has the fewest steps (and the fewest times I need to wash dishes!)

What is over creaming (over mixing)?

Mixing is a process used in baking that performs many functions. The most obvious function is that it evenly disperses all of the ingredients.

Another important function of mixing is to incorporate air. While being mixed doughs and batter physically trap air. Baking soda or baking powder reacts with acids in the batter or dough and start releasing carbon dioxide which also gets trapped in the dough. The result is a lighter dough that is flexible, easier to handle, and easier to mix. The more important function for the trapped air is to create air cells that contribute to the actual leavening of the baked good. Notice that baking powder and baking soda don’t create the leavening for baked goods by just physically lifting the dough up in the baking process – as many people think. While those ingredients do contribute to some leavening in the oven, hot air and especially steam contribute much more to that kind of leavening.

Mixing also helps create the proper texture for your baked good. The air cells that are created start off as very large and mixing helps break those air cells up and makes them small and regular.

With doughs, bread doughs in specific, gluten is also developed during the mixing process. The constant kneading of the mixing process helps strengthen the gluten strands which help with the overall structure of the dough. Gluten development is less important in batters because the dough is so over hydrated that it’s pretty much diluted to the point where it hardly contributes to structure – instead starch and egg proteins are used more for structure in this case. To learn more about gluten visit my developing gluten page.

The creaming method is a common cookie and cake mixing method that involves creaming together the sugar and the butter. This method is fantastic at creating and trapping air cells – long before flour is even introduced to the dough or batter. However, there is a limit to the amount of air a fat, dough, or batter can contain. The air cells physically stretch the component to the point where it collapses on itself and volume is lost. Mixing also creates heat, in the form of friction, so mixing for a long time can actually melt fat which results in lost volume.

In terms of a dough or batter, over mixing actually results in too much air being incorporated. Though it may not be apparent in the dough or batter because it looks nice and light and fluffy, the cake cannot form a structure strong enough to hold up such a light structure. Remember that if the air cells are stretched thin in the mixing process they are already weak. In the baking process the air cells get stretched even further making them even weaker. The result is a cake that collapses on itself (resulting in a dense or gummy cake) or a cake that has two distinct layers – the top may resemble a regular cake but the bottom is collapsed and gummy because it was crushed under the cake’s own weight. Regardless of the type of ingredients, fats, flours, and sugars you used to make your dough or batter the over all result is going to be the same – too much air means something is going to collapse. That being said, if you have enough structure builders (starch, egg proteins, gluten proteins) then that really voluminous product can hold it’s weight but realize that I said enough structure builders – meaning more in terms of a ratio. You can have a super light airy meringue because the egg proteins are strong enough to support the thin air cells without collapsing – but the meringue is not trying to support the weight of a ton of other ingredients as well.

Gluten that is over mixed can be an issue for bread doughs (and some muffin batters) – especially if the gluten doesn’t have time to relax. When gluten is developed it becomes strong and inflexible. It is difficult to shape by hand and gluten air cells are inflexible resulting in less volume. The result of baking an overly tense dough is a misshapen product (because it tried to spring back into the original shape) and a dense product. Keep in mind that this toughness is not really seen in batters because the gluten is so diluted. The toughness you see in over mixed cakes is a result of air cells collapsing becoming gummy-like in texture.

In summary, over mixed doughs and batters and over creamed fats will result in dense products from either over stretched cell walls or, as in the case for breads, inflexible gluten development.

Why do some of your recipes use shortening and not butter?

As you may have read in the techniques pages for the roll-in method, fats have several roles in baked goods. 1) They provide moistness because their soft liquid states (think oil) don’t get absorbed and used up by starches and proteins like water does. 2) They provide leavening in several different ways such as creating air cells through the mixing process, steam (if water is present like in butter), and trapped air expanding during the baking process. 3) They also tenderize products by inhibiting the structure building components (starches and proteins) by interfering with their formation or the absorption of water.

More or less there are four main fats commonly used in baked goods: Butter, margarine, shortening, and oil. Butter, the king of fats, is preferred because it is natural and has a superior flavor. It also fulfills all of the functions of fats because it contains water and because it is semi-solid at room temperature (fats with a semi-solid state at room temperature are sometimes called plastic fats). However, butter does not excel in any of these areas compared to its counterparts. Despite this, butter is still chosen because of its superior flavor and because it is natural.

Shortening is superior to butter in the area of leavening. There are many kinds of shortenings out there, and eventually I’ll explore them in the ingredients pages, but let’s just look at all-purpose shortening since it’s easily available. Shortening is 100% fat but in a plastic state that was designed to be similar to lard (lard is superior to butter in leavening as well). It creates air cells better and because it melts at a higher temperature the trapped air is released later in the baking process. The later the air is released the better since the structure building components are stronger and can hold their shape better. Shortening does not provide as much moistness as butter does because it lacks water and because it melts at a higher temperature than body temperature (which also leads to the waxy mouthfeel).

Shortening is also popular in bakeshops because it can be stored at room temperature saving precious space in the fridge. Shortening is also commonly used in making and working with fondant (along with powdered sugar). It is also an acceptable substitute for animal fats for vegetarians and vegans. The biggest reason by far for shortening’s success is that it’s just so inexpensive.

Despite all those benefits and being from a natural source (usually soybean oil) shortening has undergone a process to be hydrogenated – which basically means a liquid oil is now solid at room temperature – so it’s not really natural anymore. Hydrogenated fats are what has lead to an increase of trans fats in our diets – though it’s said that trans fats come from partially hydrogenated fats and not necessarily fully hydrogenated fats. Because of this shortening has been avoided because of the fear of over-consuming trans fats – of course since trans fats are not necessary in our diet over-consuming would technically mean any trans fats it seems. Trans fats do occur naturally in milk in very small amounts but the issue is that everything contains partially hydrogenated shortening (kind of like how everything contains high fructose corn syrup) so while a very small amount of trans fats can be tolerated by our bodies we are constantly hit by trans fats from many different sources (just like high fructose corn syrup).

Now I’m not going to make the decision for you and I won’t say either way what you should and should not be consuming. I personally feel the whole trans fat and high fructose corn syrup issue is such a big issue because everything everywhere contains it, so consuming either in small amounts is nigh impossible (unless, of course, you only eat foods you prepare from scratch). If you hate the idea of using shortening because of trans fats then you can use room temperature butter as a substitute and your recipe should come out fine.

Paula Figoni’s book, How Baking Works, says that to really substitute butter for shortening you need to be a little more mathematical about it. Here is an example:

Our recipe calls for 1# (16 ounces) of shortening and 10 ounces of water.

Divide the weight of the shortening by .8. 16/.8 = 20 ounces

Then reduce the amount of liquid (milk or water) by the difference between the two.

20 ounces of butter – 16 ounces of shortening = 4 ounces. 10 ounces of water – 4 ounces = 6 ounces.

So our new recipe uses 20 ounces of butter and 6 ounces of water.

But I suppose I haven’t really answered your question about why I use shortening in my recipes. Well it’s going to sound awfully lazy, and maybe a bit irresponsible, but it’s because my recipes ask for it. Off the top of my head there aren’t many recipes I have that use shortening – my devil’s food chocolate cake and my pie dough are examples – but they are in relatively small amounts. I also use shortening when I work with fondant because it keeps fondant soft and moist while I’m working with it. I’ll tell you what – the next time I make my devil’s food chocolate cake recipe for the site I’ll use room temperature butter instead and I’ll see if I can tell the difference. If I can’t, and I probably won’t be able to tell the difference, then I will officially change the recipe on the site. (Today is June 20, 2011 in case you’re wondering when I wrote this).

Since I already brought them up I’ll just wrap up explaining margarine and oil as quickly as I can since they don’t have a lot to do with this question. Margarine is usually a blend of shortening and butter – designed to be a happy medium of the two. It tastes better than shortening and leavens better than butter. However, margarine is not often used in the bakeshop. Why? Think of margarine like salted butter vs. unsalted butter. If you could pick what ratio of salt and butter really makes your recipe pop why would you use an ingredient that decides that for you? Similarly, margarine takes that aspect of control away from you so instead of using margarine many chefs will use their own personal blend of butter and shortening.

Margarine is also imitation butter so just because it’s margarine it doesn’t necessarily mean it contains either butter or shortening. Smart balance, for example, makes a margarine that’s said to be full of healthy compounds while imitating the taste and consistency of butter. One method of making margarine is taking highly refined animal or vegetable fats and blending them with ripened and cultured milk. So in short, margarine can be a variety of blends of ingredients so make sure you read the label to know exactly what you’re buying.

Oil is a common fat and is viewed positively because it is from natural resources undergoing little processing (unlike shortening for example). However, oil is all liquid at room temperature which means it cannot form air cells or have trapped air so it does not contribute to leavening – at all. But oil is excellent at providing moistness to baked goods because of its liquid state. Oil is also very good at making products tender because it does an excellent job of interfering with structure builders. So if you want a really chewy cookie or a very moist muffin add more oil. Pesche is an example of a chewy cookie with a lot of oil in it.

Can you substitute cocoa butter for butter or shortening?

While I don’t have a ton of experience with chocolate I’m going to answer as fully as I can. Eventually I’m going to have ingredients pages on my site that will give me a chance to more fully research topics, like chocolate, that I’m not fully immersed in yet.

I’m going to reiterate the functions of fat here from the previous question: 1) They provide moistness because their soft liquid states (think oil) don’t get absorbed and used up by starches and proteins like water does. 2) They provide leavening in several different ways such as creating air cells through the mixing process, steam (if water is present like in butter), and trapped air expanding during the baking process. 3) They also tenderize products by inhibiting the structure building components (starches and proteins) by interfering with their formation or the absorption of water.

From what I’ve read cocoa butter doesn’t seem to be capable of leavening on its own. Recall that fats provide leavening by creating air cells in a batter that are later expanded during the baking process, and then fats contribute to leavening again by melting and releasing trapped air and steam. Since cocoa butter is solid at room temperature it isn’t really a plastic fat, which means that it cannot form air cells. Also, since it’s solid at room temperature you can’t really add solid chunks of cocoa butter into a batter and mix it on high hoping the chunks will break up. Recipes that use cocoa butter melt it first – so it actually takes on characteristics of oil rather than butter. Since you melted the cocoa butter any trapped air is lost and even if you used it in solid state it melts at such a low temperature that any trapped air would be lost very early in the baking process (which wouldn’t help anyway since air cells were never created in the first place).

With that being said, I suppose it is possible to find cocoa butter’s plastic range (temperature range where cocoa butter acts like room temperature butter) and maybe if you really cream a solid chunk of cocoa butter for a long time you may actually get it to a plastic state (from all the heat generated by friction) though I still doubt that it will have the same air cell creating capabilities as butter and shortening. Plus as it cools (from either resting at room temperature or from cool ingredients like cold milk) and sets up it will be solid again which means poor dispersal through the batter and inflexible air cells that will end up getting crushed instead of incorporated into the batter.

Since cocoa butter is usually melted before being added to a batter, it will resemble oil more than butter meaning that it should mimic oil’s major benefits: moistness and tenderizing. However, because cocoa butter is so solid at room temperature it does not actually provide moistness – but it will impart a very velvety melt-in-your-mouth mouthfeel so I’d say that’s pretty similar. Cocoa butter is also said to be half as good at tenderizing because it’s so solid at room temperature. Remember that tenderizing actually means liquid fats coat structure builders so they can’t bond properly to each other or absorb water. This can happen during the mixing process or the baking process – the earlier the coating happens, the more tenderizing. In the case of melted cocoa butter, this is probably the case so it’s most likely to be a good tenderizer when used like that (especially since it’s such a good emulsifier) but in the case of trying to cream a solid chunk of cocoa butter I doubt it is actually fluid enough to coat any structure builders. A solid chunk of cocoa butter will melt in the oven to better coat structure builders but this is considered pretty late since plastic fats, like shortening and butter, will already have begun coating during the mixing process. Plus since the cocoa butter was so solid at room temperature and poorly distributed through the batter it’s unlikely the tenderizing would be very thorough.

Cocoa butter is also said to be an excellent emulsifier. Emulsifiers have many functions, including making proteins more flexible and stronger and helping prevent staling, but the main function is that they help disperse ingredients better throughout a batter (which means your batter is less likely to break and look curdled). Since emulsifiers are good at dispersing ingredients they help in tenderizing by helping fats spread out better and more thoroughly throughout the batter and emulsifiers themselves also coat structure builders. But, like I said before, I would expect this benefit to only be seen if the cocoa butter was melted prior to adding it in the batter.

So let’s summarize the functions of fat and how cocoa butter compares. 1) Moistness – since cocoa butter contains little to no water and is solid at room temperature it doesn’t really provide moistness, even when added in a melted state (because it will set up again when the baked good cools). However, the melt-in-your-mouth texture it imparts does mimic the moistness of fats. 2) Leavening – cocoa butter cannot form the necessary air cells needed to help in leavening. Since air cells aren’t created any trapped air in the cocoa butter will not actually contribute to leavening, and because cocoa butter is usually added in a melted state any trapped air is lost. 3) Tenderizing – as long as cocoa butter is used in a melted state it does have the potential to be decent at tenderizing (both as a fat and as an emulsifier) as long as it gets a chance to fully coat structure builders in the batter before setting up again.

So I guess in short: No, cocoa butter is not an acceptable substitute for butter or shortening in most baked goods (like cakes). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t add cocoa butter and play with the amount of butter/shortening in your recipe to try and create a desirable texture. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, has recipe for a cake that uses melted cocoa butter as an ingredient which she says adds a melt-in-your-mouth texture as well as helps emulsifies her ingredients. However, she also has over a stick of room temperature butter in the recipe.

How can I make very chewy cookies?

While there are many factors and ingredients that can create chewy cookies, much like the chewy chips ahoy cookies, there are a couple of easy ways you can take advantage of to easily change your cookie recipe to make it more chewy.

The first is to under bake your cookies. The more your cookies bake the drier they become and the stronger the structure builders (proteins and starches) become. As they get tougher and drier the cookie becomes crunchy and brittle rather than soft and chewy. However, you can only under bake your cookies so much before they taste raw plus as cookies stale they become less chewy – so this is only a minor solution especially if you’re already under baking your cookies.

Another solution is to use oil. I’ve mentioned oil in several places on this page and for good reason. Oil is 100% fat which means that, unlike butter, it can completely contribute to two functions of fat: Tenderizing and providing moistness. Being a liquid at room temperature, oil works well at getting all the structure builders coated with fat preventing them from bonding to each other and absorbing water to build structure resulting in a weaker cookie (which we interpret as chewy, spongy, or crumbly). Oil, unlike water, doesn’t evaporate in the oven and it doesn’t get used by proteins and starches to build structure so it can actually provide a lot of moistness – much more than water can. The moistness contributed from the oil helps enhance the chewy sensation. Be aware that using too much oil can create a completely unusable cookie or give your cookie a greasy taste. In addition, oil may create a denser more compact cookie. Too much oil may also cause your cookies to spread a great deal as well, though too much butter can have that effect too.

Do you have a tip for making chewy cookies? I’d love to hear it! Send me an e-mail using the form on the right or comment on this page!

UPDATE:  You all have been providing some great ideas for how to make chewier cookies!

A friend of mine told me that she found that using bread flour (and sometimes a little pastry flour) instead of all-purpose flour makes a professional tasting chewy cookie.  That makes sense since breads are very chewy from all the extra protein found in bread flour.  Thanks D.H.!

Using ground oatmeal (take dry instant oatmeal and run it in a coffee grinder) can help make a chewier cookies (think oatmeal raisin cookie).  Not to mention provide some extra health benefits.

Adding extra sugar or using syrup in your cookies can help make your cookies chewier – although this may also mean your cookies will taste sweeter too.

Recipes, like your red velvet cake, are a little too sour for my tastes. Any suggestions on how I can alter the recipe?

The red velvet cake is a little sour because of all the buttermilk – for a less sour cake try substituting the buttermilk for whole milk or heavy cream. You should be able to replace some or all of it. Buttermilk will make the most tender and moist cake, heavy cream will make a very tender and moist cake, and whole milk will be the least tender and moist – you could add in a little melted butter with the whole milk too. Traditional substitutes for buttermilk, like yogurt and soured milk (a cup of milk with tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice left to sit for 5 minutes) each contribute a sour note so if the recipe is too sour for you now using either of them won’t make them less sour.

How can I make my cakes juicy and melt-in-your-mouth?

Believe it or not this question is a mouthful! First off all let’s clarify that juicy cakes and melt-in-your-mouth cakes are not the same thing. A cake that is juicy is very moist. A cake that is melt-in-your-mouth has a tender texture that has a light melting sensation after you’ve taken a bite. A cake can be juicy without being melt-in-your-mouth and vice versa.

There are many different ways to make a cake juicy. The easiest and most common way is to use simple syrup. The simple syrup trick is used by bakers and bakeshops everywhere – from your grocery store chains to your gourmet wedding cake designers. Simple syrup is a 1:1 ratio of water and sugar brought to a boil with just a pinch of cream of tartar (or some acid) and then allowed to cool off. This watery syrup can then be added to an already baked cake right before icing. In fact it should be done during the icing process – you don’t want to move a cake around that has been soaked with simple syrup as it may be more vulnerable to breaking.

The advantages of the simple syrup process are that you don’t have to try and alter a recipe, somewhat cost effective, makes your cakes sweeter, can add flavor if you steep or stir in some flavor agent (tea or extracts for example), easy to do (simple syrup is easy to make), easy to use (just pour and let it soak in), easy to store (keep in the fridge in a squeeze bottle), it can help revive over baked or slightly burnt cakes, it helps prevent staling and drying out, can be kept at room temperature (though refrigerating will help keep it fresher), can be added after baking, and it provides a very predictable and very obvious moistness.

Disadvantages include: If you add too much simple syrup then your cake goes from moist to soggy, it may make your cake overly sweet, can get messy, adds an extra step to your icing process, and if not the right amount is added it can create an odd wet layer in your cake (rare but it happens).

Normally, it’s actually pretty difficult to put too much simple syrup in your cake but it can happen. Generally for a regular two layer 9” cake you would want to add between 1# – 2# of simple syrup depending on the cake’s recipe.

Another method is to use very moist and juicy fillings. Pastry cream and fruit fillings (including jams, compotes, and candied fillings) are very moist. This method is great because you add complexity and flavor to your cake. It isn’t always practical though because it makes your cake more expensive, many fillings must be refrigerated, and it forces you to make another product (if you don’t use a pre-made filling).

If you’re feeling brave you may want to try and alter the recipe and add more fat, particularly oil. Oil is great because it is 100% fat and liquid at room temperature. What this means is that the entirety of oil can go towards moistening and tenderizing your cake (while butter, being around 80% fat and around 15% water is not as effective). Also, since oil is not used by other ingredients to build structure, like water is, and because it doesn’t evaporate like water it is completely free to moisten your cake.

Advantages of using oil include: Oil is usually inexpensive, it’s easy to use (just add right into your batter), makes your cake very moist, you don’t have to make it (like how you have to make simple syrup before using it), since oil doesn’t need to be refrigerated you don’t have to refrigerate you cake (unless other components require it), and it helps prevent you cake from staling and drying out.

Disadvantages of using oil include: Too much oil can make your cake taste greasy, oil can also deflate your cake’s volume make a denser and chewier cake, you may have to experiment a few times to get the recipe exactly where you want it (unpredictable results), and it cannot be added after the cake is baked (I guess you could, but I imagine that would not be very pleasant),

Cakes that have a delicate melt-in-your-mouth texture usually have a lot of butter or cocoa butter (either as chocolate or added on its own) in them. These two components have a natural melt-in-your-mouth texture as it is so they contribute that characteristic to any baked good they are baked into. Cocoa butter is a little better at this because it is so solid at room temperature. In your baked cake, it may feel dry to touch but one bite and you’ll see the difference. One cake that is deceptively dry but actually melt-in-your-mouth is the sachertorte. To properly use chocolate (and especially cocoa butter) it must be melted down before adding to the batter.

So in the end to have a juicy melt-in-your-mouth cake you’ll need a chocolate or cocoa butter cake that has plenty of simple syrup or oil in it. It seems a little extreme when it’s written that way but play around and experiment with your recipes and see if you can find a combination that works for you. The best part is once you’re done you’ll have a recipe that is uniquely yours.

Why do you fill cakes by volume?

This question was asked because I always say fill your cake pans about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way up while just about everything else I tell you to weigh it out. There’s actually a very important reason though it may not seem obvious.

Did you know you are actually adding one additional ingredient to your cake batter than what’s on your list? Every single cake you make adds this very important ingredient. Figured it out yet? It’s air.

As you cream and whip your batters and their components, like meringue, you’re adding an essential but weightless ingredient. Without air, our cakes would not be able to rise because by adding air we have created pockets and cells that expand in the oven. The expansion comes from water turning into steam and air expanding as it gets hot. Without those cells, air would rupture the product and just come out of one location.

Even though air is weightless it still adds bulk to our batters and because every single time you make a cake you add a variable amount of air, it’s nearly impossible to predict an exact weight to compensate for this. As a business owner you may still be tempted to scale out your batter by weight to ensure consistency and fair pricing, but in the long run because you aren’t compensating for the changes in the amount of air in the recipe you may actually be creating inconsistency. Remember: no matter how much air you whip into something it won’t add any weight to it. We aren’t filling a tire, so there isn’t any pressure to build up to contribute to weight.

The same concept applies to nearly every pastry in the kitchen especially products with eggs in it. Icing is an excellent example and it continues to frustrate me. I can give you a ballpark idea of how much icing by weight you’ll need to ice a cake plus decorations but sometimes you’ll have a lot leftover or not enough to fully decorate your cake. This happens a lot during class – fortunately there are enough students that this balances out. The students who have too much just give to the students who have to little. Typically my icing recommendations should leave you with plenty leftover which you can always freeze.

The students who do not have enough icing have typically not whipped up enough air or their icing got warm and a lot of the air escaped. It’s usually the latter since people who are unfamiliar with icing tend to overwork it with spatulas or their hands. When you overwork your icing with a spatula you physically beat out the air. When you are doing a lot of piping, your hands can melt the icing in the bag. You may be able to whip up the icing again to get some more life out of it, but make sure it’s a room temperature again by giving it a moment in the fridge.

Finally, don’t think that this advice means you should overwhip your batters and icings. Adding too much air to your cake will actually create so many air cells that the final product’s structure is not strong enough to support its own weight. Your cake will either collapse or partially collapse. A partially collapsed cake will have a weird rubbery bottom. Icings with too much air can be difficult to smooth because the air cells are large and numerous. If you really whip your icing for a long time, you can cause it to melt from friction. Generally speaking though, you’d rather have your icing have too much air than not enough. It’s a lot easier to fix an icing than a cake.

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11 comments on “Frequently Asked Questions
  1. Rich says:

    Very interesting… My only beef is that there shouldn’t be any water in butter because it is essentially natural animal fat (unless it isn’t clarified). Everything else answered my questions about substitution… thank you. -richterscale09

    • It’s true! Believe it or not a typical stick of butter has between 15-30% water content depending on how it’s made (commercial butter has less water, homemade has more) though specialty butters made have even less water. It would be rare to find butter without any water at all. Clarified butter has a completely difficult consistency than regular butter – when used warm it is more like oil than butter and without water it doesn’t create steam necessary for leavening in the oven (though eggs, which contain much more water, are better at creating steam anyway) and like oil, warm clarified butter is not plastic so it won’t create air cells during the creaming process. Room temperature clarified butter is solid but it’s solid state isn’t the same as a regular stick of butter, so it’s unlikely that clarified could create air cells as well as regular butter and it’s more likely to melt because of the friction of the mixer. Thanks for asking such good questions, I learned a lot myself researching these answers – especially about the cocoa butter.

  2. Katie says:

    Hey there,
    I only watched one of your episodes, but I think your great:)
    Big compliment!!!
    I read a few things, but not all of it, so maybe my question is unnessesary, but I’m having a problem….
    I tried to make some cookies ( practising or christimas:D), I even used less butter( to make them crispy), but they just dont wont hold there shape! After there out of the oven, they look like there melted. What can I do, that they have the nice shape even after baking??
    Im really curious, what Im doing wrong..
    oh yeah, Im from Germany, so Im sorry if my English isnt that good.
    Greetings from Germany

  3. Katie says:

    Well the problem is, that these cookies are made with a piping bag out of shortcrust
    Here’s the recipe:
    120g soft butter
    50 g powdered sugar
    125g flour &
    some cacao
    mix butter with the sugar , then sieve the flour with the cacao into the butter, put everything in the piping bag, pipe the cookies on a baking tray ( which shape ever) and bake them in the preheated oven ( 180°).
    And thats how they melt…

    • @Katie-
      There isn’t enough flour in that recipe. Try this recipe:

      125 g flour
      80 g butter
      50 g powdered sugar
      +cocoa powder

      Make sure you properly cream together the flour and cocoa with the butter mixture and the mixture is good and stiff. I’m not sure what shape you are piping them into but that mixture should hold its shape pretty well. Cocoa powder is really good at making cookies hold their shape too so try adding a little more cocoa powder this time than you did last time. Record how much you added so you can remember that for future batches.

      The oven temperature sounds correct. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

  4. Katie says:

    well i tried the recipe and… theres no way to pipe it… :(
    so after using some water it still was very difficult, but… they melted away like the last try…
    I guess shortcrust isnt good to pipe, but how to make “Spritzgebäck” with a pipingbag??
    I tried to make “rosetten” , they should look like a rose….but they dont even with more cacao powder..
    Do you have an idea how to make cookies in form of a rose?

    • Ack! The cookie dough was too thick at first? After you gave me the name of the cookie I decided to do a little research.

      We used a spritz cookie recipe in school but it does spread a little bit:
      Softened, unsalted butter – 8 3/4 ounces
      Powdered Sugar – 5 1/4 ounces
      2 Whole Eggs
      All-Purpose or Pastry Flour – 13 1/4 ounces
      Flavoring (Almond or Vanilla) – To Taste (1 tsp)
      1. Cream together the butter and sugar
      2. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure the first egg is incorporated before adding an additional egg
      3. Carefully fold in the flour and flavoring.
      4. Pipe onto a well-greased parchment paper. Bake at 330 degrees F, doubled panned, for 12-15 minutes.

      Another recipe I found with is called Spritzgeback might be more of what you are looking for:

      1 cup butter
      2/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
      1 egg, large
      1 egg yolk, large
      1 teaspoon almond or lemon extract
      2 1/4 cups flour, unbleached, unsifted
      1/4 teaspoon salt
      1/2 teaspoon baking powder

      Procedure

      Beat butter and sugar until light.
      Beat in egg, egg yolk and extract.
      Sift flour, salt, and baking powder; gradually add flour mixture to eggs.
      Chill dough 1/2 hour.
      Press 1/4 of the dough into a cookie press.
      Keep remaining dough chilled.
      Shape cookies onto a greased baking sheet.
      Bake in 400 degrees F. oven for 7 to 10 minutes or until done.
      Cool on wire racks and store in airtight tins.

      Makes 4 to 6 dozen cookies.

      I don’t have any experience with Spritzgeback but I have a strong feeling I’ve eaten them before. I can’t wait to try the recipe myself! I hope this helps! I sincerely know how frustrating it is when a recipe doesn’t seem to work for some reason. Good luck!

  5. Louise says:

    Dear Aubergine Chef,
    I love your blog! I wish, though, that you might add a section about appropriate storage methods. Specifically, I want to make my daughter a birthday cake based on your tiered cake recipe (so, devil’s food with either butter cream or grease cream under fondant). I’m leery of keeping it in the fridge because I don’t want the fondant to sweat when I take it out (also, space). If the fondant sweats, I’m concerned that the decorations may fall off or go soft. I don’t want to leave it on the counter, because I don’t want the butter or grease-cream frosting to go soft (or rancid). I’ll need to store anywhere from a few hours to a day and the room-temperature will be warm (summer, no air). Thanks for any tips!

    • Heyyy that’s not a bad idea! I always have questions about food safety and storage. It would be great to share what I’ve learned over the years.

      Here are some options:

      Option 1 – Make everything ahead of time. You can bake the cake the day before you need it and wrap it tight in plastic wrap and store at room temp. If you bake it earlier than that you can wrap it tight and freeze it, then thaw it out the day you need it. Icing can also be made a couple days ahead of time and left out at room temp, and even frozen for a good 1-3 months. A lot of the time spent with cake decorating seems to come from the actual preparation, waiting for stuff to cool off, and even busy work with cake trimming which can all be done ahead of time. You can even ice the cake ahead of time and leave it out at room temperature – icing is usually fine at room temperature for at least 5 days. (Room temperature being about 72 degrees F) The more stuff you get done ahead of time the sooner you can ice and decorate your cake.

      Option 2 – If you’re going to be pressed for time the day of you can actually refrigerate your cake but it’s a little tricky, but I’ve done it and it’s been fine. Place your fondant covered cake in a cake box and wrap the box up extra tight with plastic wrap. The day you need it, let the entire package warm up to room temperature (this can be done on the drive over to your destination for example). As long as the entire package is at room temperature before you unseal the box, condensation should be at a minimum. The trick is knowing when the cake is at room temperature without being able to open the box. But I’ve done this a couple times and it’s worked fine.

      Option 3 – The good news is that most buttercreams can be left out at room temperature and I would dare say all cakes can be too. You can fully decorate the cake the day before, or build it over a few days, and leave it at room temperature and it’ll be fine. Remember that our ancestors were making cakes long before refrigeration occurred (I have to remind myself of that sometimes too)! If however you add a component that needs to be refrigerated (whipped cream, custard fillings, fruit fillings, mousse) then this is not an option.

      If your room temperature is above 72 degrees F (it sounds like you might be pushing 80 degrees F with it being summer and no AC) you do run the risk of the buttercream going bad faster. Even still you should still be fine for at least 2 days without refrigeration (and out of direct sunlight). It’s unlikely your house would get so hot that the icing would literally melt off your cake, but you don’t want to tier, or even cover with fondant, super soft icing either because that can get very messy. What if you iced the cake the evening before when the house is cool, then tiered the cake early in the morning (hopefully the temperature dropped enough overnight to stiffen the icing) using a good number of supports (straws and columns)? If your cake is already tiered and the straws are correctly placed your cake should be fine no matter how soft the icing gets. Of course, removing a soft cake is just as messy as tiering one.

      Does this help with your situation?

  6. Louise says:

    Thanks for the tips. I think I’m going to try the hermetically sealed refrigerator package technique :-) I also appreciate the tips about making frosting and cake earlier and decorating at the latest moment. That will save me some time! I’ll store the decorated tiers separately and then stack them at the event. Thanks again!

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