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Food Prep 101: The ins and outs of quick breads
March 17, 2013 - Anita Hanaburgh
Before we get into stock and sauces, I thought we might take a break and look at baking. In the baking section of my cooking classes, I liked to start by teaching the students to make quick breads. Quick breads? They ask, “Are brownies quick breads?”
Well, no. Quick breads? “Oh, bread, the warm sweet smell of yeast baking in the oven.” Well, no again.
Quick breads are that category of products that don’t cleanly fit into other baking categories. Quick breads are sweet and not so sweet. They rise, but we don’t have to wait for them to rise. Quick breads include banana bread, zucchini bread, muffins, pancakes, waffles, crepes, biscuits and popovers.
I choose quick breads to introduce baking for several reasons. Quick bread production methods incorporate those principles that are basic to baking all products. Quick breads contain each of the ingredients that I wanted the students to understand at the very beginning, and quick breads are quick (essential when teaching hungry college students).
Many times, I have said it is important to follow a recipe but it is also very important to understand that recipe. Many of us go through life “recipe blind.” Most of us “fold lightly,” or “beat for two minutes” or “knead for six minutes” and never know why we do it differently in different recipes. Let’s start that understanding with quick breads.
Most quick breads are prepared using the muffin method of mixing. This method begins by sifting the dry ingredients together — the flour, sugar, baking soda or powder and salt — to distribute ingredients evenly throughout the mixture. The eggs are mixed alone, then thoroughly blended into the wet ingredients — milk, water or oil. A well is made in the center of the dry ingredients, then the liquid is incorporated using as few strokes as possible. Never overmix a quick bread! We combine as much as possible ahead of time and make the well to expedite the mixing so there is no overmixing. The muffin method means mixing at a minimum, and lumps are acceptable. Why can’t I use my whip or electric mixer on a quick bread? Mixing overdevelops the gluten and makes a tough product. In cakes, we whip ingredients because there is more sugar in cakes, and sugar interferes with gluten development. We knead yeast bread for a long time in order to develop the gluten so that the structure is strong enough to cut and hold our peanut butter.
Gluten? The base for all baked products is flour. White flour is made by removing the germ and the bran from the wheat grain then grinding (milling) the remaining part, called endosperm.
Today we see many varieties of flour — whole grain, whole wheat, cracked, etc. — but the most important thing to know is in order to bake, one must use wheat flour, as only wheat endosperm has gluten, an essential ingredient for baking results. When wet, gluten forms a protein structure with starch cells. The more the gluten paste is mixed, the stronger it becomes.
Sugar is used to add sweetness and a caramelized brown crust and affects the gluten development. Fat, such as oil, shortening or butter, adds flavor and moistness to the cooked product. Fat also interferes with gluten development. Shortening refers to “shortening” the gluten strands — it is why pie crust is so flaky.
Eggs play an essential role as the product cooks. Besides adding nutrition, fat, moistness and flavor, eggs help create the structure of the baked product. An egg coagulates (hardens) as it cooks, thus it holds up the structure.
But it is the leavening agent that makes quick bread quick. In quick bread, we use baking powder, baking soda, air and steam to raise the product.
“Leaven” comes from the Latin “to rise.” Different than yeast, baking powder begins to give off gas as soon as it is moistened. It also gives off gas, causing the “rise” when it is heated — hence it is double-acting. Baking soda needs liquid and acid to react. Steam and air cause some leavening in all baked products. When a product is beaten or whipped, it naturally incorporates air. In an angel food cake, air is the only leavener. In the case of a popover, steam is the only leavener.
So there you have it. “Too much information,” you may say, and then get out a Betty Crocker mix. Each to his/her own. Fresh prepped or packaged, quick breads can be frozen or kept in an airtight container but are best eaten on the day they are made.
All recipes for baked products are really formulas for a scientific creation. Ingredients mixed correctly will combine to become a new product. The results of our experiment, baked in an oven, not a Bunsen burner, give pleasure to our sense of smell, taste, touch and to our tummy. My favorite is blueberry muffins.
This week's quiz: We know when fish is cooked when the flesh A) is very soft and pliant, B) is flaky, C) is juicy and runny, or D) holds tight to the skin.
Answer to last week's quiz: When cooking poultry, it should be cooked until an instant-read thermometer reaches: D) 165F.
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