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Copyright © 2000 Sarah Phillips CraftyBaking.com All rights reserved.
Healthy Baking takes many forms, using various techniques, from baking with low-fat ingredients, addressing specific health problems, or just watching your weight and health. These are my tips for success:
Tip #1: Measure the Ingredients Properly. Measure flour by the spoon-and sweep method. This method is becoming a common low-fat technique and many food magazines, such as Cooking Light, use it. Flour settles, and can compact itself in its bag in the long journey from the mill to the grocer to your home. In order to give your baked goods a nice, light crumb, the flour must be aerated. The best place to start is when the flour is measured. If you measure the flour with the scoop-and sweep method (by dipping the cup into the bag and sweeping the excess flour off the top with a knife), you will be baking with compacted flour, and you could end up with a dense, dry baked good. To measure by the spoon-and sweep method, place the dry measuring cup on a plate or piece of waxed paper (to catch the excess flour). Using a large spoon, stir the flour in the bag or container, and lightly spoon it into the cup until it overflows. Do not pack the flour in the cup. Using a knife (or even you finger), sweep off the excess flour so it is level with the top of the cup.
Tip #2: Use Certain Equipment. To reduce sticking, always use nonstick pans and muffin tins sprayed with canola or vegetable oil spray. Low-fat batters especially stick to the surfaces of regular baking pans without a nonstick lining. In that case, generously spray with oil. Do not use disposable aluminum foil pans, which absorb the oven heat unevenly and have hot spots. To be sure that your cake unmolds easily from the pan, optionally line the bottom of a nonstick pan with a piece of waxed or parchment paper. Generally, I don't recommend paper muffin liners, as some batters stick to them no matter what you do. If you use them, spray the insides of the liners with oil. If your cookie sheets don't have a non-stick coating, generously spray or line the pans with waxed paper or baking parchment (no need to spray the parchment paper). I prefer ovenproof glass pie plates. They distribute the heat better than metal ones, and you can look underneath to see how the crust is browning. I also prefer ovenproof glass pans for fruit-based desserts, but you can use nonstick metal ones as well. Although glass manufacturers recommend reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees F when using their products, I never do it, and my pies and fruit desserts always turn out fine. Generously spray any ovenproof glass pans with oil.
Tip #3: Do Not Overmix. Even though healthy recipes can be mixed by hand, I use a KitchenAid portable electric mixer to whip the liquid AND sugar ingredients into a froth, called Sarah's Healthy Oven Mixing Method. Almost everyone has one. (The volume of liquid ingredients is too shallow for the beaters of a heavy-duty standing mixer to work properly.) Never use an electric mixer to mix in the flour and dry ingredients. It will overdevelop the gluten, and toughen the baked good. Always stir in the flour with a spoon, just enough to moisten.
Tip#4: Prepare Oven and Position Pans. Preheat the oven. In any kind of baking, a properly preheated oven is a key to success. It usually takes about twenty minutes for an oven to reach the desired temperature, so be sure to allow enough time. Always double-check the oven temperature with a free-standing oven thermometer. Never believe the temperature on your thermostat dial—these thermostats are notoriously unreliable. The position of the rack is another important point. Before turning on the oven, adjust the rack to position designated for the recipe. Heat rises, and if a cake, for example, is baked in the top third of the oven, it will brown, and possibly burn, more quickly than one baked in the center rack.
Some pastry recipes require a pie to be baked on a baking sheet (it doesn't have to be nonstick) in the lower third of the oven. In a gas oven, this places the pie plate nearest the source of heat. In an electric oven, place the sheet in the center rack. You don't want the baked good to be too close to the heat source, or it will burn. The hot baking sheet gives the pie dough a flat, solid surface to bake on, which promotes and evenly browned, crisp crust and catches any drips.
When making regular cookies, some people bake two sheets at a time, switching the position of the sheets halfway through baking. This doesn't work with reduced-fat cookies, as the hot air should be encouraged to circulate to brown the cookies evenly, and the second sheet blocks the circulation. Bake cookies one sheet at a time, in the center of the oven. If you have only one baking sheet, line it with parchment paper so you can move quickly to the second batch without having to wash the sheet. However, the sheet should be cooled before using it again. Don't cool cookie sheets by rinsing them under cold water, or they could warp.
Tip#5: Do Not Overbake. It's a major cause of low-fat baking failures, whether you are baking cakes, cookies, or quick breads. Low-fat baked goods may have moist, shiny tops and look underdone, but those looks can be deceiving. Low-fat cake baking has a different set of doneness tests from traditional baking. In full-fat baking, the most common method of testing for doneness is to insert a toothpick or a thin wire cake tester into the center of the cake. If the toothpick comes out clean without any unbaked batter clinging to it, the cake is done.
The toothpick test doesn't work with reduced-fat baking, which requires other visual and tactile tests to be sure the baked good is baked through. This also holds for muffins and quick breads. To avoid overbaking, check for doneness at the beginning of the specified time range. Unless specified in the recipe, the top will spring back when gently pressed in the center. The edges are lightly browned and are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Some quick breads will develop a large crack running down the top—it's normal. Bake cookies until they are very lightly browned around the edges. The centers may seem underdone, but they will firm upon cooling.
If the cookies cool and harden onto the sheet, return the sheet to the oven for a few seconds or so until the cookies soften (they won't stick to nonstick sheets). Pie crusts should be baked until golden brown.
If a pie crust is over-browning before the filing is done (the center should jiggle only slightly when the pie is shaken), protect the crust by covering it with strips of aluminum foil.
Tip#6: Cooling. Some baked goods are meant to be eaten right out of the pan, and can be cooled in the pan on a wire cake rack. For cake and loaf recipes that require unmolding, place the pan on a wire cake rack and let it stand for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the pan to release the cake from the sides, and then invert it onto the rack. If the loaf pan has been lined with waxed paper, carefully peel it off the loaf. Turn the loaf right side up and cool completely on the rack. A few cakes and quick breads may sink slightly in the center when cooled. When they are sliced, the indention won't be so noticeable, so don't worry about it. Cool cookies on a wire cake rack.
Tip #7: Storage. Most reduced-fat baked goods will keep for up to two days at room temperature, wrapped in aluminum foil. Foil works better than plastic wrap or plastic bags, which hold in the moisture. (Because of the moisture-attracting properties of fruit purees, low-fat baked goods can "sweat.") However, cookies keep best in zip-tight plastic bags. You can refrigerate the baked goods if you wish, but most of them are best if served at room temperature. Well wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a zip-tight bag, they can also be frozen for up to two months. Always cool baked good completely before storing. Store cheesecakes and cream-based pies in the refrigerator.
The Healthy Oven Baking Book, by Sarah Phillips, Doubleday, 1999