Food scientist Shirley Corriher is the recipe doctor to the pros. Her books, CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking and BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking, could be food science textbooks, albeit with fabulously delicious recipes included. Corriher shares what we need to know before starting to bake a cake.
Preheat the oven.
Place a heavy baking (pizza) stone on the low oven rack, then set the baking pan directly on the stone. The stone gives very even heat from the bottom so the batter can start cooking and rising before the heat from the top of the oven sets the batter and crusts the top.
Creaming and Leavening: Creaming cold butter is a vital step in leavening. It creates the fine air bubbles that the leavening agents enlarge when added to the batter to create the rise. It should take about 7 minutes to properly cream the butter when using a large stand mixer, a little longer with a hand-held mixer.
Baking Powder and Baking Soda: Baking soda is direct leavening -- it reacts instantly but needs an acid ingredient to start the reaction. Baking powder contains in its mix the exact amount of acid needed for the soda (1 teaspoon baking powder includes 1/4 teaspoon baking soda) and reacts in different stages so you have more control. Baking powder will be labeled "double acting" or "triple acting." In a recipe, the correct amount of baking powder is 1 teaspoon per cup of flour (at the maximum 1-1/4 teaspoons); for baking soda it's 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour. Get the leavening right and you'll have lighter, finer textured cakes.
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Shirley O. Corriher is a writer, author, biochemist, teacher and lecturer. She writes a column for The Los Angeles Times' "Great Chefs" series as well as articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her book Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking is received a James Beard award.