Baking Science: Dough Hydration

This article contains affiliate links.

There’s a lot of bread that comes from this kitchen. This post is courtesy of a happy little 79% hydration accident with some pizza dough that has me very, very excited.

There are several ingredients that create big impact in different types of bread. One of the ingredients that has the biggest impact…is water.

Just starting with bread? Check out this post!

That’s right. The amount of water that you use in your bread dough impacts the texture and chew of your bread in a huge way.

Let’s jump right in.

Water = Hydration Level

In bread baking, hydration level is determined by comparing the amount of flour versus the amount of water (or other liquid) in that dough.

So, if you have a bread dough that uses 1000 grams of flour, and the recipe calls for 600 grams of water, then the dough is a 60% hydration dough.

In his book Water, Flour, Salt, Yeast, author Ken Forkish artfully uses baking percentages to create various types of artisan bread and incredible pizza dough.

Why Does Hydration Matter?

The hydration level in your bread dough impacts the interior crumb and the external crust of your bread. So, it’s important because it literally impacts everything about your bread’s structure.

Low Hydration Doughs

In lower hydration doughs, this means a slightly thicker crust and a tight internal bread structure with smaller holes.

Low hydration doughs can be easier to work with, since they don’t contain as much water and are thus not as sticky as high hydration doughs. I say can be because low hydration doughs can be extremely stiff, which can make it difficult to tell when the dough is ready to rise (and can lead to over-mixing, which, ironically, makes the dough even more stiff).

Popular examples of lower hydration doughs include bagels (55-65%), and sandwich bread (58-65%).

High Hydration Doughs

In higher hydration doughs, the higher ratio of water to flour means a thinner crust and those signature huge, non-uniform holes that we love to see in our favorite artisan breads.

High hydration doughs are a dream come true for many bread bakers, since they create that amazing chew that’s so popular in artisan breads. They can be a challenge for new bread bakers, since more water in the dough means a more sticky dough. Some high hydration doughs require more advanced kneading techniques as well, which can be intimidating for newer bread bakers.

Popular examples of higher hydration doughs include my new favorite pizza dough (79%…recipe soon!) and focaccia (70-80%).

If you’re starting to develop your own bread recipes, it’s important to consider hydration during your initial process. Want a chewy, light dough? Try 68-70% hydration to start. Want something more toothy and dense? Try 60-62%. Whatever you do, I encourage you to try. Proof your yeast, write out your recipe, and go for it.

If you need help I’m here! You can always, always always reach out to me at hello@beginwithbutter.com with baking questions. I’m happy to help!

Until next time, Friends!

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The BwB Home Baking Academy!

Hi Family! It’s May 1, 2022, it’s irrationally early in the morning in Maryland (and STILL too cold for spring 🥶), and I’m sitting here, giddy and full of gratitude.

The Begin with Butter Home Baking Academy’s first TWO courses will be released exactly nine days from now, and as I think about the journey to get to this point, I am so amazed and so proud. A little exhausted too, but mostly amazed and proud.

But first…

What is the Home Baking Academy?

The Home Baking Academy is a series of downloadable-on-demand courses, created by yours truly. Its goal is simple: to demystify baking with thoughtfully-designed, fun curricula designed especially for home bakers, aspiring bloggers and cottage bakers. The ultimate goal is for those bakers to feel completely empowered in the kitchen. The courses contain video instruction, PDF downloads, and access to me, as well as a tremendous community of supportive bakers who support one another.

Ready to learn more?

Visit the BwB Home Baking Academy

The initial two courses focus on cake specifically, but there’s a robust curriculum currently in development (next up: bread basics!), so that you can continue learning about baking science and techniques in a fun and approachable way!

These courses are geared towards beginning and intermediate bakers who want to deepen their understanding of the principles of baking. Understanding the principles will help you create more consistent, delicious baked goods: you’ll know the “what” and the “why” every time you set foot in the kitchen. And that knowledge is liberating!

What Courses Are Available?

Starting on May 10th, you’ll be able to download the first TWO courses! The first, Perfecting Cake Basics (USD $167.00), is for people who want to free themselves from others’ baking recipes; instead of following the rules, they want to literally write them. Whether you want to create your own cake recipes from scratch, or whether you want to be able to change existing cake recipes with confidence, this course is for you!

The second course, Perfecting Cake Techniques (USD $67.00), is for bakers who want to learn the techniques that will help them make consistently delicious cakes. This course is my love letter to anyone who isn’t exactly sure how to properly cream butter and sugar, and for those people who can’t understand why their cake batters are frequently curdled. This course is also perfect for people who are just starting to bake, and who want to avoid a very costly and steep learning curve!

(note: a costly and steep learning curve is a completely legitimate way to learn how to bake. It’s how I learned! But it’s not necessary.)

What Level of Baker Can Take These Courses?

These courses are geared toward all levels! However, if you’re completely new to baking, and just trying to get a handle on the basics, then I’d recommend starting with Perfecting Cake Techniques. Learning the techniques will give you tremendous confidence! And the other course will be there when you’re ready!

If you’re ready to take your baking skills to the next level, and you want to start creating your very own cake recipes, then Perfecting Cake Basics is your course! Not only will you master the techniques that are covered in the Perfecting Cake Techniques course, you’ll learn fundamental baking equipment, the science of ingredients, and the magic of ratios as well! It’s truly freeing to be able to pick up flour, sugar, butter, and eggs and make something from your own inspiration.

Bakers of any level can take the self-paced Perfecting Cake Basics course, because it contains fun lab assignments that help you deepen your baking knowledge even more! And there’s oodles of support, both from me and the community of bakers who have come before you!

Why Should I Take a Course?

When you’re learning to bake, you can absolutely read and experiment. And read and experiment. And read and experiment some more. I learned exactly this way and it took me several years (and thousands of dollars in ingredients) to master basic cake techniques. First, there was the matter of finding great sources (like my absolute favorite baking textbooks), then digesting the information in those books, and practicing what I’d learned. I had no idea whether I was even on the right track until I’d spent hours reading and practicing. But, since culinary school was out of the question and I was determined to learn in a way that made sense to me, I kept at it.

For the first year, all of my attempts were hit or miss, and I was pretty dejected and frustrated a lot of the time. But I was remained determined, and I had wonderfully supportive taste testers, so I kept going.

I created these courses for the 2014 version of me; I wanted to shorten the learning curve (and those dejected feelings) for others. The truth is that trial and error has always been an effective teacher. The goal of these courses, though, is to cut down on the trial and error phase! With all of the information in one place, as well as a community to let you know you’re on the right track, you’re set up for success the moment you click “buy”. 😊

Where Can I Learn More?

The Begin with Butter Home Baking Academy is located on my Thinkific platform. You can go directly to the main Home Baking Academy Page right here! Or, you can click here to send an email with your questions! I love hearing from community members and am happy to answer any questions that you have about the courses. 😊

Happy Sunday Y’all! And Happy First Day of May!


(psst….want a free lesson? Go ahead and sign up for the mailing list!)

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The Easter Coconut Cake

This post is sponsored by Vermont Creamery. However, all of the opinions are my own.

Spoiler alert: my opinion of Vermont Creamery is that their products are the GOAT.


Family. Easter just got an upgrade. Birthdays just got an upgrade. Sunday dinners just got an upgrade. This coconut cake is unbelievable and I am incredibly proud of it.

When I start my cake development journey, I’ll often close my eyes and daydream about the finished project. Let it come to me in a dream, as it were. The crumb. The taste. The smell. The perfect bite.

This cake came to me in one of those dreams. And, thanks largely to the incredible butter and crème frâiche from Vermont Creamery, the vision of a cake that came to me in a dream is now available to you all in real life.

Why Vermont Creamery?

Y’all know I love a good story. And this is a good story.

You see, the name Begin with Butter isn’t accidental. It’s an homage to the fact that I truly believe that the quality of key ingredients-like butter-play an important role in the outcome of baked goods. For that reason, I always try to use the best ingredients I can afford.

Over the years, I’ve become particularly picky about the butter that I use in my recipes.

For me, it really does Begin. With. Butter.

You see, butter is a multi-tool that impacts color, texture, and flavor of your baked goods. While the right one can take your cookies, cakes and breads over the top, the wrong one can leave you with an underwhelming outcome.

When it comes to butter, there are two characteristics that make the difference: the butterfat percentage and whether the butter is sweet cream butter or cultured butter.

I did a post on butter basics a while ago on my blog, but to recap:

The higher the butterfat percentage that a butter has, the more it will impact flavor and texture. There is a noticeable difference in taste and texture between a product baked with Breakstone butter (at 80% butterfat) and Vermont Creamery butter (specifically, their 82% butterfat butter, but they do have an 86% butterfat butter as well). The product made with Vermont Creamery butter will have a more delicious, butter-forward flavor, and it will have a noticeably more luxurious crumb.

Another key characteristic in butter is the whether the butter is sweet cream butter or cultured butter. Because–and I don’t mean to be dramatic here–this LITERALLY MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Sweet cream butter is churned right after milking, which produces a more mild, milky tasting butter. But cultured butter?

Y’all. Cultured butter is the IT girl of butters. It’s made when a producer adds good bacteria to fresh milk or cream, and then allows the cream to ferment for a day or two. Only after that fermentation period does the cream get churned into butter.

I’ve grown to favor cultured butter over sweet cream butter, because I love the buttermilk-y smell and taste that the culturing process creates. It’s like an extra hug from the butter and who wouldn’t want that?

When I find something I like, I test it over and over again to make sure that it fits with my personal taste and the flavor profiles that I want to build. My husband might call it an obsession, and he’d be right.

Until May of 2021, I used Kerrygold exclusively. Kerrygold is a well-known brand among bakers, and even though I’d tested it against other butters many times over the years, it had always come out on top.

Until May of 2021, that is. I’d heard good things here and there about Vermont Creamery butters and cheeses, so when I decided to do a butter test on my blog for Mother’s Day, I tried it and OH MY GOODNESS FAMILY it left every other butter I tested in the dust. I’d made hundreds of lemon pound cakes before that day in 2021, and the lemon pound cake with Vermont Creamery butter was the best lemon pound cake I’d ever made.

And it wasn’t just me! I did an 8-person blind taste test (did I mention obsessed?) and the Vermont Creamery cake sample won handily. Since then, I’ve come to use their butter exclusively, so when the opportunity came to partner with them, it was my best culinary dream come true.

About This Cake

When I was daydreaming about this cake, I wanted a coconut cake that featured an airy but decadent sponge. I wanted big coconut flavor in the cake-to include actual coconut-and I wanted it to look gorgeous when it was cut.

I wanted this cake to be a delicious attention hog, so I knew that it needed huge punches of flavor. To that end, I added a sweet/tart raspberry filling that compliments the coconut sponge and airy meringue beautifully.

And I knew that my Vermont Creamery butter would balance those big flavors and lend the perfect level of decadent texture to the sponge.

My friends at Vermont Creamery also sent some of their unbelievably decadent crème frâiche to use, and Friends, that crème frâiche was the ingredient that I didn’t know this cake needed. It contributed to such a luxurious, soft crumb to this cake that it ended up tasting like a dream.

I was so right to choose Vermont Creamery products for this cake. It is a true manifestation of my vision and I am so proud to have developed it.

Beginners Start Here

If you’re new to baking, or if your stand mixer is covered in dust, here are a couple of articles from the BwB site that will help you get off to a great start with this recipe!

These resources are never mandatory reading, but they are super useful to help you understand the techniques that you’ll need to successfully execute this amazing cake. Happy Reading!

Start With the Filling

Before I start the cake, I make the raspberry filling. The filling needs to be completely cooled before it’s added to the cake, or else it will leak out of the cake and that will be a sad day.

Once the raspberry filling is done, place it in a heat proof container. After it’s cooled, place in a refrigerator for at least four hours, or until it reaches a jam-like consistency.

Make the Cake With Me

As always, I start this cake by prepping my mise en place. Allow cold ingredients (butter, crème frâiche, egg whites, eggs, and coconut milk) to come to room temperature for at least an hour before starting.

Properly prepping sets me up for a confident, calm bake. Because this cake takes the better part of a day, setting up properly is a must.

Begin by warming your oven to a true 325°F. Use an oven thermometer to ensure that your oven gets to the proper temperature!

Start your batter by creaming butter and sugar until it light and fluffy. A properly creamed butter and sugar should have a cloud-like texture and be very light in color.

Next, add the egg whites, one at a time, until the mixture is completely combined. It’s important to remember to add eggs and egg whites one at a time, so that you ensure a cohesive cake batter!

Add your extracts and mix thoroughly. This is your last chance to mix to your heart’s content because flour is on deck!

Next, add half of the flour and mix until just combined:

Add all of the crème frâiche/coconut milk mixture and again mix until just combined:

Finally, add the rest of the flour mixture and mix until just a few flour streaks remain.

Use your spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl, and give one good stir. This is a pretty thick batter, so don’t worry!

Split the batter into three prepared 8″ cake pans. Level the batter by using a spatula and then tapping the cake pan gently on the counter.

Bake at 325°F for 25-35 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when an instant-read thermometer reads 210°F or when a toothpick comes out clean. I highly recommend using an instant-read thermometer for the most accurate result.

Allow the cakes to cool completely and prepare the simple syrup. To make the simple syrup, add equal parts sugar and water to a sauce pan and boil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool completely and then add to a small measuring cup or squeeze bottle.

Once the simple syrup and cakes are cooled, cut off the domes and place simple syrup atop the cut cakes. The simple syrup is a professional’s secret for avoiding dry cakes!

Onto finishing touches!

The Finish

This layer cake looks difficult, but it is one of the easiest to build. First, make the meringue:

A couple of tips about meringue:

  • Use a metal mixing bowl to make your meringue, and make sure it is squeaky clean. If there are any traces of dirt or fat on your mixing bowl then your meringue won’t form.
  • Use real egg whites. The pasteurized whites in a carton won’t work as well. Yes, it can be a pain to separate all of those eggs, but I just think about how lucky I am that I don’t have to do it all day in a pastry kitchen. I take my time, turn on some music, and by the second song the task is done.
  • Also about egg whites: when separating egg whites, I use three bowls. One for the yolks, one for the egg white that I’m working on, and my mixing bowl. That way, if I have one egg that doesn’t separate properly and I end up getting the yolk in with the egg white, I haven’t ruined the whole batch of egg whites.
  • To check whether the sugar is completely dissolved, I rub some of the egg white mixture between my thumb and forefinger. If I feel any sugar granules whatsoever, I keep stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Here’s a video tutorial for how I finish this cake and get amazing results!

Here’s how I do it!

Y’all. I had an incredibly fun time developing this cake from start to finish. The unbelievable quality of the Vermont Creamery products that I used made this cake really come to life, and I’m so proud to partner with them. I hope you love this cake as much as I do! Don’t forget to tag @beginwithbutter and @vermontcreamery on Instagram when you make it, so that we can see your amazing results!

Enjoy the recipe!

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THE Easter Coconut Cake


  • Author: Shani
  • Prep Time: 1 hour
  • Cook Time: 25-35 minutes
  • Total Time: ~5 hours (with cooling time)
  • Yield: 18 servings 1x

Description

This decadent, airy coconut cake is perfect for any table.  Filled with a decadent raspberry sauce, this coconut cake is a worthy dessert for holidays, birthdays, and special Sunday dinners.


Ingredients

Units Scale

For the Cake:

  • 320 g (2.5 c) cake flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 95 g (1 cup) shredded, sweetened coconut
  • 230 g (1 c) butter
  • 350 g granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 tsp coconut extract
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 227 g crème fraîche
  • 63 g coconut milk

For the Raspberry Filling:

  • 340 g fresh raspberries
  • 350 g sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp Creme de Cassis or Chambord (optional)
  • 1.5 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1.5 tbsp water

For the Simple Syrup:

  • 100 g granulated sugar
  • 125 g water

For the Meringue:

  • 10 egg whites
  • 600 g granulated sugar

Instructions

Before the Batter:

  1. Prepare the raspberry filling at least four hours in advance.  It needs time to firm up in the refrigerator so that it won’t run out of the sides of your cake.
  2. Wash raspberries and remove any that are rotten.
  3. Add raspberries, sugar and salt to a small saucepan.  Stir to coat raspberries.
  4. Heat raspberry mixture over medium low heat, taking care not to boil the raspberries. 
  5. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, add the Creme de Cassis (if using).  Simmer on medium low heat until the raspberries themselves have liquefied. (~10 minutes)
  6. In a small bowl, combine the cold water and cornstarch.  Add the cornstarch mixture to the raspberry mixture and bring to a low boil for 30-45 seconds.
  7. Once the raspberry sauce coats the back of a spoon, it is done.  Strain sauce into a medium bowl with a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds.
  8. Allow to cool completely on the countertop and then refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.

To Make the Batter with a Stand Mixer:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F.  It’s highly recommended to use an oven thermometer for this recipe, since proper oven temperature will impact the outcome of your cake.
  2. Take out three 8″ round cake pans.  Cut parchment circles for each cake pan and set aside.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. 
  4. Sift the flour mixture into another medium bowl.  Using your fingers, crumble the shredded coconut into the flour mixture.  Whisk to combine and set aside.
  5. Combine the creme frâiche and coconut milk in a liquid measuring cup and set aside.
  6. Place the room temperature butter in the bowl of your stand mixer.  Mix on low speed until smooth.  (30 seconds)
  7. Slowly add the granulated sugar and mix on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy.  (5-10 minutes)
  8. Add egg whites, one at a time, mixing for at least 45 seconds after each addition.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.  The mixture will look very airy at this point. (2 minutes)
  9. Add the whole eggs one at a time, mixing for at least 45 seconds after each addition.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.  (4 minutes)
  10. Add vanilla extract and coconut extract and mix until thoroughly combined.  (1 minute)
  11. Add half of the flour/shredded coconut mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (30-45 seconds)
  12. With the mixer on low speed, add all of the creme frâiche/coconut milk mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (~1 minute). 
  13. Add the second half of the flour/shredded coconut mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (~1 minute)
  14. Using a rubber spatula, fully scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Then, stir the batter until it is smooth and consistent.  Make sure to fully scrape the bottom of the bowl during this step!  This is a thicker cake batter so don’t worry!
  15. Prepare the three 8” cake pans for baking (I use butter and flour, but baking sprays work as well).  Place parchment round at the bottom of each cake pan to help prevent sticking.
  16. Fill cake pans evenly.  I use a digital kitchen scale, and my cake pans each hold roughly 500 g of cake batter. 
  17. Level out the cake batter with a spatula.  Tap the cake pans on the countertop to help prevent large bubbles in your cakes.

To Make the Batter with a Hand Mixer:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F.  It’s highly recommended to use an oven thermometer for this recipe, since proper oven temperature will impact the outcome of your cake.
  2. Take out three 8″ round cake pans.  Cut parchment circles for each cake pan and set aside.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. 
  4. Sift the flour mixture into another medium bowl.  Using your fingers, crumble the shredded coconut into the flour mixture.  Whisk to combine and set aside.
  5. Combine the creme frâiche and coconut milk in a liquid measuring cup and set aside.
  6. Place the room temperature butter in a large mixing bowl.  Mix on low speed until smooth.  (30-45 seconds)
  7. Slowly add the granulated sugar in two additions and mix on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy.  (7-12 minutes)
  8. Add egg whites, one at a time, mixing for at least 45 seconds after each addition.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.  The mixture will look very airy at this point. (~2 minutes)
  9. Add the whole eggs one at a time, mixing for at least 45-60 seconds after each addition.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.   (4 minutes)
  10. Add vanilla extract and coconut extract and mix until thoroughly combined.  (1 minute)
  11. Add half of the flour/shredded coconut mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (30-45 seconds)
  12. With the mixer on low speed, add all of the creme frâiche/coconut milk mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (~1 minute). 
  13. Add the second half of the flour/shredded coconut mixture and mix on low speed until combined.  (~1 minute)
  14. Using a rubber spatula, fully scrape the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl.  Then, stir the batter until it is smooth and consistent.  Make sure to fully scrape the bottom of the bowl during this step!  This is a thicker cake batter so don’t worry!
  15. Prepare the three 8” cake pans for baking (I use butter and flour, but baking sprays work as well).  Place parchment round at the bottom of each cake pan to help prevent sticking.
  16. Fill cake pans evenly.  I use a digital kitchen scale, and my cake pans each hold roughly 500 g of cake batter. 
  17. Level out the cake batter with a spatula.  Tap the cake pans on the countertop to help prevent large bubbles in your cakes.

To Bake the Cake:

  1. Bake the cake at a true 325°F for 25–35 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reads 210°F.  It is important to not overbake this cake.
  2. Allow the cake to rest for five minutes, and then turn out on a cooling rack to cool completely.

To Make the Simple Syrup:

  1. Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  
  2. Stir occasionally until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  3. Remove the simple syrup from the heat and allow to cool completely.
  4. Place the simple syrup in a small bowl or squeeze bottle.

To Make the Meringue:

  1. Bring 3” of water to a low boil in a large (3 qt.) sauce pan.  Reduce to a simmer.
  2. Carefully separate 10 eggs, placing the egg whites in a clean, nonreactive metal bowl (either a stand mixer or large stainless steel bowl).  Add sugar and whisk to combine.
  3. Place metal bowl over the top of the sauce pan while the water is simmering.  Whisk the egg white mixture over the sauce pan until all of the sugar is completely dissolved.  (~3 minutes)
  4. Remove the metal bowl from the stove.  Using the whisk attachment on either your hand mixer or your stand mixer, whisk the mixture on lowest speed until it is nearly opaque.  (~1-2 minutes)
  5. Increase the mixer to medium speed until the mixture begins to look light and fluffy.  (~4 minutes for stand mixer; ~5-6 minutes for hand mixer)
  6. Increase the mixer to highest speed until the meringue is done.  To check the meringue, remove the whisk attachment from the mixture and invert it.  If the meringue slowly folds down over the whisk attachment, it’s complete. (~2 minutes for stand mixer; ~3 minutes for hand mixer)

To Build the Cake:

  1. Place a 10” cake round on a turntable or a cake stand.
  2. Place a dollop of meringue on the round to secure the bottom cake.
  3. The cakes will be slightly domed from baking.  Gently cut off the domes to make them level.
  4. Once you’ve sliced off the top of the cakes, use either a spoon or a squirt bottle to add simple syrup to the cut layers.
  5. Pipe a thick dam of meringue around the edge of the layers.  Spoon 4-5 tablespoons of raspberry filling in the center and spread to the edges of the dam.
  6. Place the second layer on top of the first layer.  Repeat the meringue dam and the raspberry filling.
  7. Invert the final layer (so that the cut side is facing down) and place on top of the other two layers.  Press down gently and double check to make sure the cake is level.
  8. Using an offset spatula, quickly spread the meringue over the cooled cake. Using clean fingers, pull or swirl the meringue. If desired, use a butane torch to toast the meringue. 

Notes

  • This cake can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.  Allow to warm on the counter for 30-45 minutes before cutting.
  • Category: Dessert

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 1 slice
  • Calories: 565
  • Sugar: 76.4 g
  • Sodium: 208.5 mg
  • Fat: 19.3 g
  • Carbohydrates: 93.3 g
  • Protein: 6.3 g
  • Cholesterol: 86.8 mg

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Four Common Types of Liquid for Cakes

Hello Friends! Today is the perfect day to nerd out about ingredients! I had so much FUN writing this blog post and I hope you love it.

When I’m developing a cake recipe, I have oodles of liquid options to choose from. I’ve used just about every one of them during my Mad Scientist baking sprees.

There are, however, four liquids that I use more than others: those four are whole milk, buttermilk, sour cream and Greek yogurt.

This information is incredibly useful for those of you who want to substitute one type of liquid for another in a cake recipe, or for those of you who want to develop your own recipes.

Pictured here: sour cream (left), buttermilk (right).

I wanted to share these four with you today, to explain what you can expect from each type of liquid. I also wanted to share why I choose each of them during a recipe development process.

First: What Does Liquid Do In A Cake Recipe?

The type of liquid that you use in a recipe is a really important choice. The liquid that you choose will impact the moisture, protein, fat and acidity levels of your cake. Ultimately, these things will affect the taste of your cake!

Moisture

The moisture level of a liquid refers to the percentage of water in that liquid. This is important because the moisture (water) content of your baking liquid impacts the mouthfeel (texture) of your cakes. A higher moisture content typically means a richer, more satisfying mouthfeel and a lower moisture content typically means a more crumbly, drier texture.

Friends. This does not mean to take it upon yourselves to add more liquid than a recipe calls for. Too much moisture in any baked good means mush.

What this does mean is that different liquids have different moisture percentages, so using a liquid that has a higher moisture percentage per cup will generally mean a more moist end result.

I still hate the word moist (🙉) but it’s unfortunately the best option here.

Protein Level

The protein level in your liquid can impact the texture of your finished product. Similarly to flour, high-protein liquid contributes to the structure of your cake; more protein = more structure = tougher and more chewy cakes.

Achieving the perfect texture in a cake is a delicate balancing act. Too much protein, not properly balanced against tenderizing agents (like active cultures) will mean tough cake. Not enough protein and you once again arrive at mush, because there is not enough strength to support the other ingredients.

Fat Content

Different liquids also have varying fat contents. And, just like eggs, a higher fat content liquid will add a more luscious texture and rich taste to your baked goods.

This is the reason why recipe writers (myself included) will go to great lengths to remind you to use full-fat liquids in your baked goods.

Acidity Level

Every ingredient in your cakes is either acidic, basic (alkaline), or neutral. Liquids can be any of the above, and this is important because the acidity of your liquid will determine which leavening is appropriate for your cake. Several of my most commonly-used baking liquids are “cultured”, which means that they contain live bacteria and are therefore acidic.

Pictured: Greek yogurt.

I tackled the important differences between baking powder and baking soda in this compelling, must-read article, but for the sake of this article, liquids that are acidic require baking soda, and liquids that are neutral require baking powder.

Taste

Different liquids will also impact the taste of your baked goods. For cultured liquids (buttermilk, sour cream and Greek yogurt), you can expect varying degrees of tangy flavor in the finished product. With whole milk, you can expect a neutral taste.

How Do I Choose Which Liquid to Use?

A common question that I’m asked all the time is how I choose which liquid I’m going to use in a specific recipe?

My answer is going to be deeply unsatisfying, but I will share: I imagine the mouthfeel and taste that I want to end up with in a specific cake and I work backwards. That’s right! Good old reverse engineering and testing, with a chaser of baking science for the win!

Whole Milk

Whole milk is a great liquid to use in cakes when you want a more delicate flavor. Coming in at 3.25% milk fat, whole milk is great for adding wonderful texture to your cakes without adding a tangy punch of flavor. Whole milk allows other, more subtle flavors to shine, while cultured liquids might compete with those flavors.

One cup of whole milk contains about 8 grams of protein and has a moisture content of about 87% water. This means that whole milk will contribute to a delicate, pleasantly moist and well-structured crumb on your cake. Think light (but well-defined), melt-in-your-mouth crumbs and that’s what you can expect!

If you’re using whole milk in a recipe, you’ll want to use baking powder. Whole milk is a barely-acidic ingredient (it has a typical pH around 6.7, so it is extremely close to being neutral), and it is not acidic enough to activate baking soda. The proper leavening, then, is baking powder!

How I Use Whole Milk: Whole milk is an amazing liquid for vanilla cake recipes, or for chocolate cake recipes that use Dutch process cocoa powder (like my Ultimate Chocolate Cake recipe!).

Buttermilk

Buttermilk is milk with added cultures. These cultures create a wonderfully creamy, acidic, thick milk that is absolute perfection for baked goods. Buttermilk weighs in at somewhere between .5 and 1.5% milk fat, which is slightly less than the aforementioned whole milk. Using buttermilk instead of whole milk means that your baked goods will be ever-so-slightly less rich. This is not usually noticeable, however, and it can be easily overcome with other recipe tweaks.

Buttermilk’s trademark characteristic is a slightly tangy flavor that it imparts on cakes. The active cultures in the buttermilk add a tangy flavor that you cannot find in whole milk.

The added cultures make buttermilk an acid, which means that you should use buttermilk in recipes that call for baking soda. Baking soda is a base, which means that it needs the added acid from buttermilk in order to make a cake rise.

Also of note: buttermilk has a protein content of 8 grams (equivalent to whole milk) and a water content of 90%. This means that, from a texture standpoint, you can still expect a well-defined gluten structure with a moist crumb.

How I Use Buttermilk: I use buttermilk as a default in pound cakes. It helps me achieve the perfect pound cake crumb; the walk-around-with-a-piece-of-cake-in-a-napkin-and-not-drop-a-crumb crumb. 😊

Sour Cream

Sour cream is similar to buttermilk, in that it is cultured, but sour cream is cultured cream and has a significantly higher fat content. While buttermilk is somewhere between .5% and 1.5% milk fat, sour cream clocks in at around 20% milk fat!

Pictured: sour cream.

The cultures in sour cream mean that it will again have a tangy taste to it. The tanginess isn’t enough to overpower the other flavors in your cake; to me, sour cream enhances the flavors of other ingredients and makes them really pop.

With sour cream, it’s all about the mouth feel. With a low protein content (4.8 grams per cup) and a lower water content (73%), sour cream creates a rich, dense and more loosely defined crumb. This, combined with all of that additional fat, creates a super rich texture that just melts in your mouth.

My Snickerdoodle Pound Cake is a perfect example of a cake that has a potent flavor profile (the cinnamon and sugar is extremely prominent). Those flavors are boosted by the acidic sour cream, and the high fat content gives it the most luscious texture. It’s truly an experience.

How I Use Sour Cream: I use 100% sour cream in pound cakes when I need to achieve that very rich, very dense texture and I have strong flavors to showcase. If I want a light-but-still-rich crumb, but still want to take advantage of the high fat content of sour cream, I will mix sour cream with whole milk, usually in a 75/25 ratio.

Sour cream is also a great idea for cakes that have heavy add-ins, like fruit or chocolate chips. Those things tend to sink to the bottom of cakes unless they’re coated in flour, but they’ll stay more buoyed in a more dense batter with sour cream.

Greek Yogurt

And then there was Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is cultured milk, triple strained to remove as much water as possible and achieve that famous texture.

The full-fat Greek yogurt that I use is 5% milk fat, which gives it the second-highest milk fat content of the bunch (because nothing can compete with sour cream). It also comes it at 9 grams of protein per cup, and it is 88% water. The culturing process makes this another acidic liquid for baking. On paper, it is the most balanced baking liquid.

The high milk fat content means that you can once again expect a very luscious crumb. The high protein content means that you can expect a very well-defined crumb. The 88% water content means that the finished product will be moist, and the cultures mean that this is again a proper candidate for baking soda that will impart a slight tangy taste on your finished product.

How I use Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt is absolutely perfect for muffins and breakfast loaf cakes. It has a unique scientific profile that’s great for high-rise, moist and medium-crumb cakes. It’s also another great liquid to use if you’re adding fruit, nuts, or chocolate chips to a cake batter, since it again creates a more dense batter that won’t allow those things to slip to the bottom.

Other Liquids I Use

While these are the most common liquids that I use, sometimes I play with other ingredients. When I’m feeling really fancy, I’ll add either crème fraîche or ricotta cheese to my cakes. They are an experience, to be sure, and they are worth every expensive penny.

My amazing Lemon Meringue Pound Cake is an example of a ricotta-based cake that I LOVE to make. With ricotta in the batter, lemon curd swirled throughout, and a topping of scratch meringue on top, it’s…an experience.

Note: for lemon curd, I use this one from my friend Cheryl at Bakes by Brown Sugar. It’s AMAZING!

I truly hope that you’ve found this article helpful! Are there any other liquids that you love for baking? Let me know in the comments, below!

See you soon!

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The Role of Eggs in Your Baked Goods!

Today, in our Ingredient Series, we’re taking on eggs! We’ve already talked about flour, sugar, butter, yeast, baking powder, and baking soda, so it’s time that the humble egg has its day.

Not to be dramatic (😉), but eggs are transformative. When combined with flour, they add to the structure and texture of cakes, cookies, and breads. Egg wash is the secret ingredient for beautifully caramelized pie crusts and challah; it can even be used as a kind of edible glue for slivered almonds or sesame seeds.

Eggs can also be reduced to their parts: fatty egg yolks are a natural emulsifier that give a rich, luscious and creamy texture to lemon curds, while egg whites can morph into a natural leavening agent when whipped to stiff peaks.

Let’s get started, shall we?

In this Post:

The Composition of Eggs

Eggs are composed of two seemingly inconsistent parts: the egg yolk and the egg white.

The egg white is made of a tangled network of protein. Protein is the literal building block for baked goods, in that it creates the physical structure for leavening (e.g., baking powder, baking soda, or yeast) to do its work. The combination of structure and leavening is what gives baked goods their rise. The more eggs that are added, the stronger the physical protein bonds will be.

While the yolk also contains some protein, it’s more famous for its fattiness. Egg yolks give a smooth, velvety texture to whatever they’re added to, whether it’s a cake batter or my favorite luscious lemon curd from Bakes by Brown Sugar. The egg yolk is also known for adding beautiful color, both on the interior and exterior of your baked goods.

The Default Egg for Baking (With a Cheat Code!)

When I was first learning to bake, I truly believed that my baking endeavor had to come to a full stop if I didn’t have large chicken eggs. Like, I would give up and save the baking for another day if I only had medium or extra-large eggs in the house.

You see, large chicken eggs are the gold standard for baking recipes. They are so commonly used for baking that many recipe authors don’t specify the size and type of eggs to be used in a recipe. They simply say: two eggs.

Translation: two large chicken eggs, or ~114 grams of eggs.

Friend, if you don’t have large chicken eggs in your home, please don’t fret. If you have chicken eggs and a food scale, you’ll be perfectly fine.

To measure eggs using a food scale, simply crack a little more than you need, scramble gently, and remove the excess once it’s just starting to combine. You don’t want perfectly scrambled eggs here. You want slightly combined; the objective is to try and maintain the white/yolk ratio in your batter or dough.

Of course I would crack a double-yolked egg for this demo. The objective is to slightly combine the eggs for this technique, and not to completely combine them.

For example, if your recipe calls for two large eggs (~114 grams) and you only have medium eggs, crack three medium eggs (about 150 grams) and scramble gently. Remove the excess grams of egg and you’re good to go!

The Impact of Eggs on Structure

In my post about flour, I talked about how flour creates the structure for cakes, cookies, muffins, and all manner of baked goods. The protein percentage of your flour impacts the strength of that structure (higher protein content=stronger structure=more chew).

Both egg whites and yolks contain protein. When eggs and flour are combined in a recipe, the egg adds an additional protein layer to the flour and creates a stronger gluten network that traps more gases from your leavening and gives your baked goods even more lift!

Egg whites can play dual roles in the texture your baked goods! Have you ever tried whipping egg whites to stiff peaks? The reason that that happens is because the whipping action actually separates the proteins from one another, reducing the strength of the protein network in the egg white and transforming it into pockets of air that can be used for leavening. That’s why, when egg whites are overbeaten, they crumple and become useless. It’s because the proteins have separated from one one another and expanded until they’ve popped.

Eggs can also thicken desserts like custards. It’s amazing really. When heated, the proteins in the egg whites coagulate (bind) into a gel-like structure to help create a cohesive custard instead of a milky mess when heated. That velvety mouth feel comes from the fatty yolks.

I personally love the glazed texture that an amazing egg wash gives to baked goods. Like this!

That sheen? That’s from scrambling a whole egg and a teaspoon of water and brushing it across the entire challah before baking. The egg promotes both the beautiful browning and a glazed texture to the finished product.

The Impact of Eggs on Color

Both parts of the egg contribute to color in your baked goods. The egg white helps cakes (in particular angel food cake and white cake) retain their characteristic white color. Egg whites are also used in Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream recipes and they help those buttercreams retain their beautiful, glossy white color.

The yolk, on the other hand, does double duty. The fatty yolk helps contribute to the Maillard reaction (that’s just a fancy word for browning) on the top of your baked goods, and also adds to the beautiful, slightly yellow color that we’ve come to see in sliced yellow cake and pound cake, and also in all manner of cookies. Additionally, the yolks add color and fatty decadence to French buttercream recipes.

I clearly need to work on a buttercream tutorial. ::adds to list::

Conclusion

When it comes to baking, every ingredient plays an important role. Understanding the properties of each ingredient and the role that they play in your baked goods will help you become a better baker.

The humble egg doesn’t demand as much attention as its counterparts flour, sugar and butter, but it’s just as important! I hope you enjoyed reading about one of my favorite ingredients, and that this ingredient series is helping to deepen your knowledge about baking so that you too can understand what you’re baking and why it works.

Until next time!


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