Your Baking Questions Answered! First Edition

Happy January, y’all! I’ve got a cool announcement, which goes nicely with today’s blog topic. 

This spring, I’ll be launching in-person baking classes, where you can learn how to do the stuff I write about, as well as make some of the tasty things you see at market. I plan to do classes for both adults and teens, so if you or your savvy kid wants to learn or sharpen their skills, stay tuned!

I’m super excited to finally bring my passions together – teaching and baking – as well as include ways to keep it all crunchy and sustainable, like I do here in the blog. Be sure to follow me here, as well as Instagram and/or Facebook @thecrunchybaker, where I post more frequent updates.

That being said, I asked around for topics people wanted to learn as preparation, and got several questions that can be answered here, as well as during larger classes. Today, I’ll go through a few of those questions, and keep the series going as I get more. Onward to your burning questions!

I see lots of recipes that require eggwashes, but they aren’t the same. What is an eggwash, and what do different eggwashes do for baked goods?

Let’s start with the basics: an eggwash is simply a beaten egg, sometimes beaten with water, cream, or milk, and brushed over a baked good before baking. They’re also used in frying applications, such as eggplant parmesan, as a middle sticky coating.

Do you need an eggwash? Short answer, no. If you want your baked goods to have a sheen and/or extra color, and/or for finishing sprinkles, like sugar or seeds, to stick, then yes, you want that eggwash. Eggwashes are often the reason bakery treats look more enticing than what you make at home – they’re shiny and beautifully browned, with a little extra shatter-crunch.

Using different parts of the egg, and using different liquids mixed into the beaten egg, will result in different looks for your baked goods:

  • A beaten whole egg gives pastries a rich golden color and shine. Mixing a little water into the beaten egg will give it a less pronounced color, but will also prevent burning if you brush it on the baked good at the start of baking. Mixing milk, cream, and other fatty liquids will make the color more golden than water.
  • A beaten egg yolk will give the baked good a strong yellow color and big shine factor. This one can burn, too, if you don’t watch it, so you can brush this on in the middle of baking if you’re worried about it. Water will make the shine less, and cream will deepen the browning.
  • A beaten egg white will give the baked good a very pronounced shine without much extra browning or color. This is my personal favorite to use, especially since I often have extra egg whites. Adding water will give it less shine, and adding milk will give it some browning.

If you don’t want any shine, or don’t have an extra egg to spare, but still want some extra browning or a good wet surface for sugar or seeds to stick to, you can also just brush your baked goods with milk or cream.

How do I know how long to let something with yeast rise? Why are there different rise times in different recipes?

This is a fun one that really depends on a lot of factors. You’ve probably noticed that many bread or yeasted recipes say something like, “Allow to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled.” Why the two directions?

Yeast needs warmth and moisture to bloom and create carbon dioxide, or all of those lovely holes in your bread that create, well, bread. So, your rise times depend on:

  1. The heat of your ambient space (e.g., your kitchen)
  2. How much water is in your bread recipe
  3. The amount and quality of your yeast

If you’re baking in the middle of summer, your rise time is probably going to be less than it would be in the winter, since your kitchen will likely be hotter. So, your bread might rise in 45 minutes instead of 1 hour, or it may even rise in 2 hours instead of 1. Always leave extra time for rises, especially in the winter.

A super dry or super gloppy bread dough is going to rise differently from an elastic dough (one that resumes its shape after kneading), and sourdough is, in my experience, a different ballgame, since sourdough recipe doughs tend to be wetter than a simple dinner roll dough. Try not to let your bread be too dry, or it won’t rise properly at all.

Finally, yeast: if you’re using “natural” or “wild” yeast (literally the stuff floating around in your kitchen), your bread will take longer to rise (as in, hours or possibly days longer), since the yeast is less predictable and in smaller amounts than a commercial yeast.

As for commercial yeast, check your expiration dates – yes they do matter, and yes, yeast can die in its packaging if it’s too old, and you will not have bread today.

My recipe says I should let the dough rest for 10-15 minutes before proceeding. Is this necessary?

I used to think that rest times were a waste of time. I admit that I’m sometimes in a hurry and skip the rest times, but I do this a lot less often than I used to.

Do you need to let the dough rest to get a baked good? No. Do you need to let the dough rest to get the best quality product you can? Absolutely.

Resting your dough, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, does a few important things:

  1. It allows the flour to fully absorb any liquid you’ve added, which prevents the dough from being too dry or, in rarer cases, too wet. This is super important for delicate pastries, where adding too much flour in the beginning can ruin the end product by making it tough and dry.
  2. It allows the gluten structure to rest, resulting in a more pliable dough that’s easier to shape, and tears a lot less easily.
  3. Longer rests (especially for sourdough) result in more pleasing crumbs and stronger flavor. This is because the yeast is creating that CO2, and the dough itself is fermenting for flavor.

Leave time for rests, and use those few extra minutes to read or learn a language or something. You do you.

Everything I bake seems to come out wrong, and I follow recipes exactly. What the heck is going on?

Obviously, I won’t be able to address every problem that everyone has here, but there are a few common reasons why baking just doesn’t seem to work for people I’ve talked to.

Problem 1: The recipe you’re using is trash. 

Yeah, I said it. There are thousands of recipes everywhere, online and in cookbooks, and not all of them are good. Some are written poorly, some are not tested in a home kitchen (many are written for commercial kitchens and ovens, which are entirely different beasts), and some are not tested at all, or very minimally. 

A lot of bloggers will simply copy and paste recipes from other bloggers, resulting in a kind of recipe telephone. Like the game, your end result will either be a poor untested recipe, or one that is so bastardized by going through several blogs that it’s no longer anything like the original.

How do you avoid this? Vet your cookbooks and recipe sources. Get recipes from trusted sources that actually test their recipes an absurd number of times (e.g. America’s Test Kitchen). And start simple, especially if you’re just getting into baking. If it’s got a million ingredients and directions with equipment you’ve never heard of, run. Cake and bread can be made with a bowl, spoon or spatula, a pan, and an oven.

Problem 2: Your leaveners are out of date.

Most expiration dates are bunk, in my opinion. But if your baked goods aren’t rising properly, take a look at the expiration dates on baking powder, baking soda, and yeast – although these seem super shelf-stable, they actually do lose potency (or die) over time.

To test baking powder or baking soda, simply put a teaspoon in a bowl or measuring cup, and add a little water. If it fizzes heartily, it’s good! If it doesn’t fizz, or only bubbles a little bit, it’s time to replace it.

Problem 3: Your oven temperature is incorrect.

If you’re finding your baked goods are burning quickly, or are taking a lot longer than a recipe states, get an oven thermometer. Home ovens can vary wildly in temperature, and knowing whether or not your dial is actually preheating to 350 can make a huge difference in your results. If your oven runs hot or cool, adjust your temperatures and times accordingly.

Problem 4: You’re not actually following the directions.

I swear up and down that I’ve followed a recipe, but sometimes I break the rules. It’s okay. But if you want a recipe to work, do the following:

  • Read the whole recipe twice before starting. Make sure you have all of the ingredients in the amounts listed, ready to go.
  • Use exactly the ingredients listed (e.g., when it says heavy cream, don’t use light cream or milk), in exactly the amounts listed. Don’t make substitutions until you’ve tried the recipe several times and are confident how much to use where.
  • Don’t skip stuff like rest and rise times. 
  • Use the right oven temperature: don’t turn up the temperature to make it “bake faster,” or turn it down because you think that’s “too hot.” 
  • Use the type of pans the recipe calls for (e.g., don’t use a 9-inch cake pan when the recipe calls for an 8-inch pan). 
  • Avoid overworking dough, or adding too much flour. Recipes often have visual or tactile (touch) cues to see or feel when a dough is ready. Follow these cues.

Got a burning baking or cooking question for me? Email me or leave it in the comments! Until next time, happy baking and homesteading!

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