A Love of Baking and Science

baking loveThe other day I was talking to a friend about my favorite past-time – baking. She had heard that baking was very relaxing, almost meditative. She apparently hasn’t watched me bake. I have heard that activities like kneading bread can be very zen-like, but baking vegan at high altitude is very rational and involves lots of math. My friend said she wouldn’t enjoy it, but I reassured her that I do all the hard work and all a reader has to do is follow recipes. She liked that.

This conversation reinforced why I have my blog. I am fascinated with the science of baking and, trust me, baking with multiple substitutions is scientific. But, others are not as intrigued as I am and just want to bake something that looks and tastes good. I get that, but half of the fun for me is the challenge. I. Will. Make. This. Recipe. Work.

There is also the sense of accomplishment when I peek through the oven window and see a baked creation that I fussed over come to life. Sometimes that fussing takes multiple tries, so it is even more rewarding when I finally succeed. And it’s always good to know I haven’t wasted a pile of expensive baking ingredients. (Have you seen the cost of coconut sugar?)

And then there is the look on my husband’s face when he asks for more, especially when it is a recipe that I am not sure will tantalize his taste buds. Like last week’s zucchini bread, for instance. My husband’s idea of dessert is half a tray of brownies. Zucchini bread seemed far too healthy, even though I added chocolate chips for a chocolate fix. Much to my surprise, he was disappointed when I ate the last piece and there was none left for him. So, happily, I go back into the kitchen to make more … all in the name of science and love.

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Picking the Right Baking Pan

More pans

Image courtesy of Abbey Hendrickson on flickr.com

When I first moved to high altitude I noticed that baked goods seemed to sink at the center – not just vegan, but all types. I also realized that the larger the baked item (i.e. a cake versus a cupcake) the larger the crater. That made me think that if you removed the center then you could, potentially, remove the crater. The conclusion was that I would have to start baking in different pans to make better looking and more evenly baked goodies.

I started working with bundt pans for a centerless cake. Using a chart for Baking Pan substitutions I took a cake recipe for an 8 x 8” pan and baked it in my bundt pan. I started with a shorter baking time and checked every 5 minutes until it was done. Success! I had a perfectly baked cake with a great look.

Next was applying the same logic to quick breads. If I used mini loaf pans instead of a regular sized loaf pan then I should get a good result. I divided up the batter and greatly reduced the baking time to account for smaller loaves. Checking every so often I found the perfect length of time to bake the breads, and I ended up with tops that didn’t resemble lunar landscapes. For a chart to help calculate changing loaf sizes and corresponding bake times, see Crafty Baking again.

Now I apply this concept to all my high altitude baking except drop cookies; they don’t rise much so they don’t fall and cause craters. After a bit of shopping, I have specially divided pans for bar cookies and smaller pans to bake cakes in. The only problem I have now is that my pans tend to cater to bite-sized eating and my husband misses layer cakes. I guess that’s a project for the future.

Now you know my secret to making beautiful baked goods at high altitude.

The Importance of Flour

vintage enamel flour container and scoop

Image courtesy of H is for Home at flickr.com

Flour is a main ingredient in most baking recipes and the type of flour chosen can make a huge difference in the final product. It’s also useful to consider flour nuances when making substitutions in vegan and high-altitude baking, so understanding flour will help you be your best baker.

Joy of Baking’s website explains, “Flour contains protein and when it comes in contact with water and heat it produces gluten, which gives elasticity and strength to baked goods. Different types of flour contain different amounts of protein. Therefore using a different type of flour than what is called for in a recipe … will alter the outcome of the baked good.”

All-purpose flour tops the wheat flour charts with 10-12% protein, although this is sometimes not enough to maintain structure in goods baked at high altitude. As explained in a previous post, baking at higher altitudes can result in crumbly textures. Protein is what helps keeps the batter structure together so upping protein in a recipe can be the solution. But then, by veganizing a baked good, you lose the protein provided by the eggs so you now need even more protein. This can be achieved by substituting some of the flour with a higher protein variety (i.e. almond or garbanzo bean flour) or by using tofu as an egg substitute. These fixes helped my baking because I found that packaged egg replacer (made from potato starch) fell flat in my baked beauties.

Another important baking aspect is how to measure flour. I’ve read recipes that say to pack the flour into the cup and some that say to lightly pour it in. Joy of Baking mentions what I learned decades ago to be the proper way: “When measuring flour spoon your flour into a measuring cup and then level off the cup with a knife. Do not pack it down. Flour gets compacted in the bag during shipping, so scooping your flour right out of the bag using your measuring cup will result in too much flour.” And too much flour makes for heavy cookies and tough bread. When you follow my recipes, this is the method of measuring that I use so for best results you should do the same.

These are just a few ideas on how flour impacts baking. I hope they get you started on making your best looking baked goods.

Egg Substitutions: The What and Why

EggsHow do you swap out eggs to veganize a non-vegan recipe? There are dozens of egg substitutions for a vegan baker, but it wasn’t until I moved to high altitude that I discovered that they each have different results. Baking science at altitude is tricky, so the properties of each substitute should be examined to find the right one for your baking project.

Eggs are used in baking for several functions – binding, leavening, and adding moisture. Adding eggs for proper binding ensures that your treat doesn’t fall apart after it’s baked. A leavening agent makes things rise during baking, and when the proteins in egg whites are heated they explode and make the baked good light and fluffy. The yolk of the egg adds richness and moisture when used in baking.

In a previous post, I discussed how baking at altitude causes problems such as coarse texture or a fallen cake due to excess rising. The decreased air pressure causes a quicker rise and then a subsequent fall from a weakened protein structure. With an already weaker structure, it’s almost inevitable that the removal of the protein-filled egg will wreak even more havoc. Thus, I decided that my egg substitutes should not be starch based, like commercial egg replacers. I needed extra protein in my baked goods.

Armed with that knowledge, I looked to replace eggs in standard recipes with protein-rich substitutes. I searched The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions for these suggestions:

  • If the original recipe is for baked goods like cookies and cakes, then eggs can be used for binding. To replace 1 egg, use:
    1/4 cup blended silken tofu OR
    2 1/2 TBS flaxseed meal whisked with 3 TBS warm water
  • If the original recipe is for baked goods like fluffy cakes or quick breads, then multiple eggs are used for leavening. To replace 1 egg, use:
    1 TBS mild-flavored vinegar combined with nondairy milk to curdle and make 1 cup OR
    1/4 cup non-dairy yogurt
  • If the original recipe is for baked goods like muffins and cookies, then eggs can be used for moisture. To replace 1 egg, use:
    1 tsp nut butter combined with non-dairy milk to make 1/4 cup
  • I also found out that bananas hold air bubbles well, which makes a baked item airy and moist. 1/4 cup mashed bananas can sub for 1 egg when used to leaven or add moisture.

When choosing a substitute don’t forget to take into consideration that some substitutions will alter the flavor of your baked treat. I have dabbled with the idea that higher-protein flours (such as soy or garbanzo) might offer high altitude help but they, too, will affect the flavor profile. Experiment ideas for another day.

Now that you know the whys of high altitude egg substitution, you can figure out the what for your next recipe.