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Well, we’ve learned how to break things down so the obvious next step is to learn how to put them back together. Or together into a different (hopefully better!) order. With that in mind this section is referred to as “The Spoon” because of that tool’s obvious connection with mixing things up. We’re talking about combining two, three or more items into something that is new. And yes, even when you whip egg whites you are mixing the proteins with air. So what are the various methods of assembly that we will be reviewing in this newsletter?

  1. Mixing
  2. Kneading
  3. Whipping
  4. Folding

Pretty easy stuff, you might be thinking. Simply toss the target ingredients into the old stand mixer, hit ‘10’ and go see if the commercial is over on the TV, right? Well… no. In fact that’s a pretty easy way to run into issues. Lots of them. But not to worry, we’ll be covering all of the finer points of methodology involved in each of these. Understand that in our minds mixing and kneading are variations on a theme as are whipping and folding. Two pairs as it were. Read to dive in? Here we go…

Mixing

Ahhh, this sounds so easy but is so fraught with potential trouble. Believe it or not there are officially three different (and I do mean different) mixing methods when it comes to the kitchen. The key to knowing which one to use lies in knowing what they are for, as well as details of how to do them. Hey, we don’t call this newsletter “The Skills” for nothing, right? Oh, and unless otherwise noted most of the skills here refer to baked goods. I mean there’s really not much call to mix a steak with something, now is there?

The Muffin Method: This primarily used for quick breads or other baking goods where you are dumping liquids on flour and need to incorporate the two with a minimum amount of gluten formation. If lots of gluten is your goal then skip ahead to ‘Kneading’ below. Pay attention that in the muffin method the oils are all liquid so you need to ensure that all of the ingredients are room temp so that the oil doesn’t coagulate when it hits the cold. This method produces a muffin-like texture, which is different from a cake.

Steps in the muffin method are as follows:

  1. Using a wire whisk mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. You are ensuring even distribution of all of them.
  2. In a second bowl mix all wet ingredients. If whole eggs are called for put them in the bowl and whip them gently first. This will help build an emulsion.
  3. Add the wet ingredients onto the dry and gently fold the two together. Again, the goal is even mixing with minimum gluten formation. Yes, the resulting batter may be a bit lumpy but it does cook out, honestly. And use a large spoon for this stage as opposed to the whisk, again we’re not wanting to over-mix.

The Creaming Method: This method produces a similar batter to the above, but since we are using solid oils and mixing them with sugars we get the chance to incorporate a lot of air into the batter. That air will steam and cause rising in the finished baked goods. This produces a much different crumb, smoother and more uniform, cake-like, hence this is used a lot in cakes. We start with the liquids and there is a very specific process here.

  1. In a stand mixer, or with an electric beater or whisk cream the fats and sugar. Usually the fat is solid but room temp (70c) and the addition of sugar creates a grainy paste.
  2. Mix until plenty of air has been introduced and the cream is light and fluffy. That air is critical to the rise of the finished product.
  3. Using room temperature eggs crack them, one by one, into the mixture ensuring complete mixing at each stage before adding the next. This is critical because at this point you are making an emulsion: water from the eggs and oil. You need to give the process time to ensure that the eggs can absorb all of the oil without causing issues later. Additional air will only help the rise later.
  4. From here on out you will usually add a portion of dry ingredients followed by some wet if any are left over. At this point we switch away from the whisk to a beater or spoon and start to pay attention to not overworking the batter and creating tons of gluten.

The Biscuit Method: And this last method is reserved for biscuits, scones and pie crusts, which are all just variations on a theme. In them we are wrapping solid, cold fat particles with a layer of flour and relying on the fat to flash steam in the heat of the oven in order to create rise.

  1. Dry ingredients (usually flour, salt and possibly chemical leavener) are mixed thoroughly.
  2. Very cold, solid fat is cut in and mixed until a coarse cornmeal texture is achieved. At this stage the only water is bound up in the cold fat, if any. As long as the fat doesn’t heat up there are no worries about gluten formation so care is take to ensure the bowl, ingredients and utensils are all cold before starting.
  3. Water or other liquids (not usually eggs, though) are added to form a dough.

 

A Handy Chart

As you can see we have three variations but several different effects. 

  Fat Temp: Rise Caused by: Immediate Results: Final Results:
Muffin Liquid Chemical leaveners Batter Coarse muffin-style cake
Cream  Room temp Air, possible chemical leaveners Batter Fine grained cake
Biscuit Cold Fats steaming Dough Light breads or a crust

The end goal baked product will usually dictate which of the above methods you will be using, so go by that and adjust accordingly. Since most of the above methods are used for baked goods let me state this about cooking and baking. Generally speaking in cooking you can more or less get close in ingredient amounts, all you are really affecting is flavor after all and that’s very subjective. But baking is, literally, a chemistry experiment, and ratios are critical. Take your time to get all of the ingredients to the right temp, weigh them properly and mix well. Its worth the trouble.

Kneading

Breads, anyone? Well if you are baking bread then you almost certainly will be kneading it at some point or another (with one exception which we’ll talk about in a few…) In most of the mixing methods above we are trying to minimize the production of glutens, but not here, we want them in breads. Why? Well, breads usually rely on yeast for the rise and since this happens so slowly (over a couple of hours) then in a thin cake-like batter the CO2 would simply pass out of the mix and we wouldn’t get a rise; the batter would just bubble. Instead in breads the physical mixing action between glutenin molecules in the wheat, barley or rye flour with water produces gluten strands. These strands create a mesh that traps the CO2 like bubbles in netting. This causes the loaf to rise as the yeast consumes the sugars and starches.

The kneading can certainly be done in a stand mixer, but there’s no real skill involved there. Up until recently the mixer was all Lee ever used but when his died he kneaded breads by hand and really came to love the feel, texture and intimate knowledge you can only get from kneading a loaf by hand. And let’s not forget how great your hands smell the rest of the day!

First off you’ll need (not knead) one medium or large sized dough ball. Any style will do and bringing all of the ingredients together will depend entirely on the recipe you are using. Clear off a couple of square feet of counter space and scrub and dry it. Sprinkle about a quarter cup of AP flour on the counter and place the dough ball in the center. Keep in mind that at this point you’ve already mixed the ingredients together and have a homogeneous ball of dough.

With the base of either your left or right hand simply shove/stretch/push the ball out and away from you. The goal here is the stretching as that’s the part that gives you the gluten strands you want. Grab the front edge of the dough, fold it back towards you and rotate the ball either direction about 45 degrees and repeat. Keep the degree and direction of rotation approximately constant (don’t worry, this isn’t rocket science).

Great, you’ve now kneaded (not needed) your first ball of bread dough. Wait? Where are you going? This job ain’t done yet, sister. Oh no, no, no. That kneading action has to be kept up for at least ten minutes. Now Eric and Lee are pretty big guys, and turn out large loaves by hand with ease. So how do you manage this if you are… well not so big? First off, feel free to toss a damp cloth over the dough and take a breather for a few seconds as needed. No, those breaks don’t count in your total 10 minute kneading time. Also, understand that not every single kneading action needs to be a herculean effort. Simply stretch/push the dough away from you. Keep it up.

How can you tell when you are done? Grab a small ball of dough, about 1/2 an ounce, roughly. Slowly stretch it out until it is thin enough to see through. Hold it up to the light and you should see the strands of gluten, they’ll look like a spider-web. That’s the ticket. Now let it do its rising (or proofing or fermenting, depending on the author) and bake as directed.

When Kneading (not Needing) is not Needed (not… oh nevermind)

A few years back a lot of bakers came to realize that if you simply let the dough sit long enough it will ‘knead’ itself. In other words the gluten strands form just fine on their own given enough time, usually 12-20 hours or so. Here’s a link to an article from the New York Times back in ‘06 that pretty much defined the ‘No Knead Bread’ recipe as we know it today. Of course, since this is The Social Skillet, we all know that the ‘technique’ of walking away and leaving it the heck alone for half a day applies to all sorts of things and all sorts of recipes. Any bread recipe can be done this way with great results.

Finale

Mixing, kneading, assembling, all of these are extremely important skills to have in the kitchen. Practice and learn the differences on when you use one and not the other. We’ll see you in the next newsletter where we will cover whipping and folding and no, that’s not kinky. Well, it can be, but not in this newsletter.

Also, please do not hesitate to ask us questions about anything we have in our newsletters. We aim to make things easy to understand and turn anyone into a confidant chef of their own kitchen. Towards that goal we are always happy to answer questions or clarify.

See you next week!


- Lee & Eric

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