Better Baking Technique: Is it Done Yet?

Are my breads, cookies, or cakes baked and ready to come out of the oven yet?

The ability to tell when products are baked seems to cause more consternation than almost any other phase of baking. And of course, it is important. Over baked cookies are dry and hard; under baked bread is soggy. But you can get it right. In this article, we will give you the techniques and pointers for baking your goods to perfection.

Yeast breads

The tendency is to under bake yeast breads. The internal temperature of yeast breads should be 210 degrees and must be at least 185 degrees. The only way to reliably tell what is going on inside that loaf is with a probe type thermometer. Remove the bread from the pan and insert the thermometer through the bottom crust into the center of the loaf.

(If you are going to bake bread and you don't have a thermometer, we strongly recommend that you purchase one. You will need it to test the temperature of the water, the dough, and the finished bread. You can buy one on our site.)

When the bread is done, the crust color will range from a golden brown to a deep brown for artisan breads baked in a hot oven. Breads with a higher sugar content or in a hot oven will tend to brown more rapidly as the sugar caramelizes. If the bread is browning too rapidly, make a tent of aluminum foil and cover the top of the loaf.

In light colored pans, the bottom crust is the last to brown. With a done loaf, the bottom will color even in a light-colored pan.

My mother was a bread baker. She tested doneness by tapping the loaf with her finger--a done loaf will sound hollow when tapped. I don't remember her ever making a mistake. Though she taught me to do the same, I'm not as good as she was. Out of habit, I still tap the loaf but I nearly always follow with a thermometer probe and sometimes the thermometer proves me wrong.

Cookies

If the tendency is to under bake breads, the tendency is to over bake cookies. Take them out just before you think they are done; you won't be wrong often.

My father is a consummate cookie baker. If you ask him what his secret is, he'll tell you: "I don't over bake cookies." The difference between a just right cookie and an over baked one is dramatic.

Make cookies uniform in size. Not only are they more attractive but different sizes of cookies take different times to bake.

Most recipe writers tell you to leave the cookies on the sheet for a minute or two. Cookies continue to bake on a hot baking sheet. Sometimes that's necessary for an easy release but for most recipes, we remove them as quickly as we can.

If the cookies look a little soggy in the middle, then leave them on the sheet for a few minutes and they will firm up.

Most cookies should be gold in color, not brown. Both the amount of sugar and soda in the recipe will affect how fast a cookie browns.

Chocolate cookies represent another challenge: you can't tell if they are browning. If you are baking with a new recipe, bake a few cookies and check them for doneness before baking the entire batch. Chocolate cookies will tend to lose their "wet" look when done.

Many bar cookies will have a dry, shiny crust when done.

Cakes

For most baked goods--but especially cakes--it is best to set the timer for a few minutes less than directed in the recipe-different ovens or even different positions in the oven bake differently. A dark pan bakes more quickly than a light pan. When you find your cake not quite done and continue baking, set the timer for three or four minutes and check again.

A toothpick inserted in the center of the cake will come out clean when done. "Clean" means a few crumbs. If there is wet looking batter clinging to the toothpick, it's not done.

If you don't want to poke a whole in the center of the cake, check for doneness with your finger. There should be some resiliency to the touch and the cake should spring back. When done, the cake will usually have a golden brown color to the top though different recipes will brown more or less quickly. When done, the cake will tend to pull away form the edges.

Quick Breads

Quick breads are basically cakes in a loaf pan. The same tests that you use on cakes can be used with quick breads. Stick the toothpick or skewer right in the open crack in the center of the bread. The area under that crack seems to be the last area in the loaf to set up.

Incidentally, quick breads release from the pan easier if left to cool for few minutes before removing. Because of the larger mass, a loaf does not continue cooking as quickly as cookies do.

Custard Pies

Custard pies-including pumpkin pies-are a special problem. It takes quite a while for the protein in the eggs to set and make the pie firm. Often, the crust is becoming too brown before the eggs set. If so, cover the crust with strips of aluminum foil to retard further browning.

When a custard pie is done, a knife inserted in the center of the pie will come out clean. If you don't want a cut mark in the center of your pie, use the jiggle test. Pick the pie up with two hot pads or mitts and gently shake the pie back and forth. If done, all but the center should be firm-there will be a little jiggle in the center. The center will continue to cook and firm up after you remove the pie from the oven.

We hope these guidelines help. With practice and observation, you'll soon become very proficient at judging when your bread or cookies are baked to perfection. Your baked goods will then be irresistible.

Dennis Weaver is the general manager at The Prepared Pantry (http://www.preparedpantry.com) with recipes, ideas, and the best selection of mixes and ingredients. Visit the free Bakers' Library for more articles like this, free baking guides, and tested recipes.

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