If you were to ask, most people would have an idea about what fats, eggs and sugar are. Mixed with some flour, you will get an off-white, squishy mixture called dough, which is one of the most common items in baking.
In the US, a cookie mixture is referred to as dough much like bread dough; whereas in Europe, wheat flour-based mixtures are classified as batter, paste or dough.
Getting the perfect dough can be a tricky thing. Too many eggs added into it can actually toughen the mixture; resulting in a finished product that is not so kind on the teeth. in yeast-raised dough, eggs can lend a softening effect, making it easier when chewing. This may seem inconsequential but in reality the roles played by the above-mentioned ingredients can be different. Here is how the three key ingredients perform in baking.
Fats – Examples of fats can be butter, margarine and lard.
The short eating quality of wheat flour products is the result of shortening the gluten strands by fats. It keeps the product or food soft after baking. For example, in roti canai, the very ‘short’ eating quality is the result of very high amounts of fat in the dough.
When fats are used in the creaming method as in butter cakes, sugar actually creates air bubbles as they are being struck into the fat. These air bubbles will be expanded during baking to lift the batter and give that lighter, airy feel of the product. It is why they look fluffy and white!
Sometimes, you bite into a cookie and taste its delicious, buttery goodness. It is this flavour and texture that makes butter one of the most desired fats in baking through the centuries. The discovery of butter was the result of intentional separation of fat from cream. Its delicious flavor lends an unmistakable quality to many baked products.
Eggs – There is an anecdote that if a hen was to retire and stop laying eggs, many a pastry cook would end up jobless. It is such an essential ingredient that one just cannot do without!
When whipped, eggs form a foam and this very quality has been capitalised by pastry cooks as a raising agent before the advent of baking powders.
We often do not give the egg wash a thought but it is the humble egg that imparts that attractive hue to baked products. When brushed with it, any pastry would have the delicious golden tinge the custard or sponges have.
While other types of eggs can be used to some extent, the chicken egg is the most desired because of its highly acceptable flavour.
Sugar – and the world would be a lesser place without it. An old French chef once said ‘a little sugar and a little salt does nobody any harm’.
Creating an open texture
During the creaming process of cake batter, sugar partners with fat to create the air pockets that allow air to be incorporated as part of the batter. Air, in turn, is expanded during baking to give the lift that gives the final product its spongy texture.
Sugar when burnt to some degree, turns into caramel and this is what gives baked or roasted products that unmistakable, delicious flavour. What would a crème brulee would be without caramel?
Because of its caramelising property, sugar lends to baked products a hue that is very attractive to the eyes.
A sweetening agent
Many of the sweets and even savoury foods we enjoy today would not be possible without sugar. Sugar can sometimes be replace by honey, however, white sugar is an entirely pure product that has only one role: to sweeten.
Sugar also has a hygroscopic quality as it draws moisture from the air and melts itself down. Because of this, cakes or pastries that have higher sugar content will keep moist longer.
All in all, it is evident in baking that every ingredient, no matter how big or small, plays an important role even though each ingredient individually has its unique characteristics. It is how different ingredients come together in that wonderful, delicious way to create the food we have come to enjoy since the beginning of time.