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updated: 1/25/2012 12:02 PM

Baking's building blocks

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  • Whip up a batch of Pantry Muffins and clear the shelves of ingredients leftover from holiday baking.

      Whip up a batch of Pantry Muffins and clear the shelves of ingredients leftover from holiday baking.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer


Editor's note: Annie Overboe is taking some time off. This column originally appeared in January 2002.

What do flour, sugar and leavening have in common?

Need a clue? With countless ingredients at our fingertips, almost every baking recipe calls for this trio.

Still stumped?

They're the building blocks of the baking world. That said, let's find out more about these important ingredients.

When flour is the prominent ingredient in a recipe, it provides the structure for your dessert. Imagine the steel framework inside a building. The type of flour used determines how the texture feels on the taste buds. Hard flours contain a high amount of protein and are good choices for breads. Soft flours, which are lower in protein content, produce that light texture we desire in cakes and fine pastries.

Home bakers are probably most familiar with all-purpose flour, a special blend of hard and soft wheat. For many recipes, all-purpose flour will consistently yield great desserts. However, if the recipe specifies bread or cake flour, I do not recommend substituting all-purpose flour. The result may be a rubbery cake or limp bread. Keep in mind that the texture of baked goods is as important as taste and flavor.

In pastry recipes, sugar provides much more than a sweet sensation. The high ratio of granulated sugar in cakes contributes to the tender crumb that comes from using soft cake flour. Sugar also enhances browning during baking. In contrast, a sprinkling of sugar brings the yeast to life in bread dough.

Brown sugars are created by adding various amounts of molasses to refined sugars. Dark brown sugar simply contains more molasses than the lighter variety and offers a deeper caramel flavor to the dessert. This rich background ingredient holds the secret behind creating a chewy cookie. Moisture in the molasses provides the chewy texture and helps keep the product fresh.

Even the best desserts need a little help rising to the occasion. Here's where leaveners takes center stage. In bread doughs, yeast multiplies and produces carbon dioxide. This gas lightens and lifts the dough. A blast of oven heat sets the bread's structure.

Baking soda and baking powder are chemical leaveners. By itself, baking soda has no rising powers, but when mixed with a liquid and an acid, a chemical reaction occurs, releasing the carbon dioxide gas. Common acidic liquids you may have used in baking include buttermilk and citrus juices.

Double acting baking powder contains baking soda and two different acidic salts. The term double acting refers to the two-step leavening process that occurs when baking powder is used in a recipe. The initial reaction occurs when you add moisture to the powder; the heat of the oven sets off the second round of gas released into the batter and completes the baking process.

Try this recipe: My annual post holiday cleanup was the inspiration for today's recipe. Pantry muffins use any combination of nuts and dried fruits remaining in your cupboard. Easy to prepare, these treats can be made on a moment's notice and are best enjoyed warm from the oven.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at Baking Secrets, Daily Herald Food section, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or send an email to

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