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Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter

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Chapter 5. Air: Baking’s Key Variable

IF TIME AND TEMPERATURE ARE THE KEY VARIABLES IN COOKING, AIR IS THE KEY VARIABLE IN BAKING. While few of us would list air as an ingredient, it’s critical to many foods. Most baked goods rely on air for their texture, flavor, and appearance. Baking powder and baking soda generate carbon dioxide, giving rise to cakes and quick breads. Air bubbles trapped in whisked egg whites lift soufflés, lighten meringues, and elevate angel food cakes. And yeast provides texture and adds complex flavors to bread and beer alike.

Unlike cooking, in which the chemical reactions are almost always in balance from the start—a chef rarely needs to tinker with ratios to get a protein to set—baking requires a well-balanced ratio of ingredients from the get-go to trigger the chemical reactions that create and trap air. Achieving this balance is often about precise measurements at the beginning, and unlike most meat and potato dishes, it’s virtually impossible to adjust the composition of baked goods as they cook. And as a further challenge, the error tolerances involved in baking are generally much tighter than those in cooking.

If you’re the meticulous type—methodical, enjoy precision, prefer a tidy environment—or the type of person who likes to express affection through giving food, you’ll probably enjoy baking more than cooking. On the other hand, if you have a wing-it-as-you-go, adapting-on-the-fly style, cooking is more likely to be your thing. But even if baking ...

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