Baking Basics – Your Guide to Better Baking

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Baking is a science. Unlike cooking, which can be intuitive and can benefit from tasting along the way and “fixing” any mistakes made, baking is precise. Ingredients must be measured, and bakers must understand the reasoning behind the methodology they use. Reactions happen both as the ingredients are mixed together and as the item is baked. Knowing the science behind it is crucial for a successful end result.

Whether you’ve been baking for years or are just starting out, this article will seek to help you understand the very basics of baking – the fundamental science behind a successful bake. It serves as a reminder of the how and the why to keep you making the best pastries and desserts you can possibly make.

Baking Powder and Baking Soda

Baking powder and baking soda are both leavens, however they are chemically different.

Baking soda

When a recipe calls for baking soda it will also call for some type of acid like buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar, molasses, applesauce, natural cocoa powder or honey.

You need this additional ingredient in the recipe to react with the baking soda, which in turn creates carbon dioxide and allows your baked good to rise. This is called a leavening agent.

Baking soda is 3-4 times stronger than baking powder. Do not over use this ingredient. Too much baking soda means there will be leftover baking soda in the recipe. This will create a metallic taste in the baked good.

Rule of thumb: 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per 1 cup of flour in a recipe is usually sufficient.

Baking Powder

Baking powder contains baking soda. Baking powder is made of a mixture of baking soda, cream of tartar, and (on occasion) cornstarch.

Most baking powder sold is double acting.

The first leavening occurs when baking powder gets wet, for example when you combine the dry and wet ingredients in the recipe. The second leavening occurs when the baking powder is heated in the oven.

Rule of thumb: Use 1 teaspoon of baking powder per 1 cup of flour in a recipe.

Recipes that call for both baking powder and baking soda contain some sort of acid (yogurt, brown sugar, etc), however the carbon dioxide created from the acid and baking soda is not enough to leaven the volume of batter in the recipe.

That’s why baking powder is used as well – to add necessary lift. When you need more leavening than you have acid available in the recipe. This keeps it balanced.

Another reason to use both baking powder and baking soda is because they affect both browning and flavor.

Baking powder and baking soda both can settle down in their containers over time. It’s recommended to shake it up or give it a stir, then use a measuring spoon to lightly scoop it out of the container. Use a knife (or the container if it has a leveler) to level it off.

Testing for freshness:

To test baking powder, pour 3 Tablespoons of warm water into a small bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Give it a light stir.

The mixture should moderately fizz if the powder is fresh. If there is no reaction, toss the baking powder and buy a fresh package.

To test baking soda, pour 3 Tablespoons of white distilled vinegar into a small bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. Give it a light stir.

The mixture should rapidly bubble if the soda is fresh. If there is no reaction, throw out the baking soda and buy a fresh package.

How To Properly Measure When Baking

Flour is the most common mis-measured ingredient. Regardless to if it’s bread flour, cake flour, all-purpose flour, gluten free flour, etc use the “spoon & level” method.

A notable misconception is that you should scoop the flour out of the container/bag with your measuring cup. This is wrong!

You could end up with 50% more than you need. Use a spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup. Do not pack the flour in. Tap the side of the measuring cup to fill in any air pockets.

After you’ve spooned the flour into the measuring cup, use the back of a knife to level off the top of the measuring cup.

Baking powder and baking soda, both can settle down in their containers over time. It’s recommended to shake it up or give it a stir, then use a measuring spoon to lightly scoop it out of the container. Use a knife (or the container if it has a leveler) to level it off.


Standard yeast packets hold 2 and 1/4 teaspoons. If a recipe calls for more or less than 1 standard packet of yeast (or if measuring out of a jar or container), measure yeast how you measure baking powder or baking soda.

Granulated Sugar

Sugar is measured by scooping the measuring cup or spoon into a container or bag until it is overflowing, then level it off with the back of a knife.

Sugar weighs more than flour, so it is less likely to pack down into the measuring cup.

Brown sugar

Measure brown sugar like you measure granulated sugar.

Brown sugar should be packed into the measuring cup or measuring spoon. Unless a recipe states otherwise, you can use light brown sugar and dark brown sugar interchangeably.

Confectioners/Powdered Sugar/10x

Measure confectioners’ sugar using the same spoon & level method as flour.

Sift confectioners’ sugar if the recipe calls for it. If your confectioners’ sugar is extra lumpy or you live in a humid climate, it’s best practice to sift the powdered sugar at all times.

Cocoa Powder

Natural, black or Dutch cocoa powder is measured using the spoon & level method as flour and confectioners’ sugar. Like confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder can clump up.

Dry Ingredient Equivalents:

  • 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons
  • 1/8 cup = 2 tablespoons
  • 1/4 cup = 4 tablespoons
  • 1/3 cup = 5-1/3 tablespoons
  • 1/2 cup = 8 tablespoons
  • 1/3 cup = 10 and 2/3 tablespoons
  • 3/4 cup = 12 tablespoons
  • 1 cup = 16 tablespoons

Liquid Ingredient Equivalents:

  • 1 cup = 8 fluid ounces = 1/2 pint
  • 2 cups = 16 fluid ounces = 1 pint
  • 4 cups = 32 fluid ounces = 2 pints = 1 quart
  • 8 cups = 64 fluid ounces = 4 pints
  • 4 quarts = 128 fluid ounces = 1 gallon

Egg Safety

Bring eggs to room temperature quickly by placing them in a bowl of warm water before starting the recipe. After about 5-7 to minutes they are ready, and it reduces the probability of changing the “grade” of the eggs.

When you purchase eggs from the grocery store they should be stored in a refrigerator and used within 3-5 weeks of purchasing. Leaving eggs out will change their “grade” and make it easier for them to spoil.

Eggs, fresh from a farm that haven’t been refrigerated, are fine to be left at room temperature.

Cooking and Baking with eggs

When cooking with eggs it is important to cook them thoroughly to prevent bacteria growth. When baking items like French toast, quiche or casseroles the internal temperature of the dish should reach at least 160 degrees for consumption. Having a kitchen thermometer handy is recommended.

Storage, transportation, and serving

Egg dishes should be served immediately. Chill meringue topped pies and desserts immediately until ready to serve. All egg dishes (deviled eggs, potato salad, hard boiled eggs, etc) should be kept on ice when serving buffet style or at picnics. Non chilled dishes containing eggs are breeding grounds for bacteria to rapidly multiply.

Easter Eggs

Be sure to keep them chilled. If using for hiding and the eggs are left out in the heat for several hours discard them, or only use for decorating purposes.

How to Make Cake Flour

Converting from all purpose flour to cake flour: Take one cup of all purpose flour, spooned and leveled. Remove two tablespoons, and then add two tablespoons of cornstarch to the all purpose flour. Sift together before using.

Leavening Agents

A Leavening Agent is a substance that releases gases within doughs and batters. This is what causes the dough to rise, it expands baked products including cakes cookies and breads.

Types of leaving agents

  • Air
  • Steam
  • Yeast
  • Baking Powder
  • Baking soda

Gluten Free Baking

What is gluten?

Gluten is a family of storage proteins — formally known as prolamins — that are naturally found in certain cereal grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. In baking, gluten is responsible for the soft, chewy texture that is characteristic of many gluten-containing baked goods. When people suffer a gluten intolerance, it will trigger inflammation in the body.

Gluten Containing Foods:

  • Grains: whole grains, wheat, barley, rye, wheat germ, etc
  • Processed Grains: such as crackers, pasta, bread, breadcrumbs, cookies, pastries, etc.
  • Beverages: beer, any kind of malt beverage, some broths, wine
  • Other items: Spice blends, boullion, gravy thickened with flour

Digestive symptoms of a possible gluten allergy: diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, inflammation of digestive tissue Consult your doctor

Understanding Flours:


This is the easiest way to substitute in gluten-free baking. Using brands like Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 baking flour, King Arthur Measure for measure, or Cup4Cup Gluten Free flour, will keep your flour amounts the same without a lot of hassle.

This will not be true for ALL recipes, but for most this will work.

Things that may contain gluten:

  • Vanilla extract
  • Baking powder
  • Confectioners sugar
  • Starch based thickeners

*Always read the labels carefully when baking for people with food allergies
*Using a separate set of baking utensils to avoid cross-contamination is highly recommended

The absence of gluten = a lack of structure. Gluten free baked goods will not have the same structure as a regular baked good: – They become stale faster and are more crumbly.

Types of gluten-free flours:

Almond flour

Is one of the most common gluten-free flours. It is from ground blanched almonds meaning the skin has been removed. It is easily available and can be created from scratch.

It can be substituted in a one to one ratio in place of regular or a wheat flour. If baking with almond flour use an additional egg when changing a recipe. Your batter will be thicker and your end product will also be more dense.

Buckwheat flour

It is rich in fiber and nutrients and helps the body fight off inflammation with built in antioxidants.

Sorghum flour

This also contains nutrients that help reduce inflammation.

Arrowroot flour

Less commonly known but it is gluten and grain free. Can be used as a thickener or mixed with other flours to create bread products.

Coconut Flour

Coconut flour is made from dried coconut meat and offers a mild coconut flavor. This is a great option for those with gluten allergies.

Baking is a science and it’s important to know the how and why in order to get good results. Armed with this guide, you can start creating delicious baked goods with confidence. With these tips, tricks, and techniques under your belt, there’s nothing stopping you from becoming a baking expert!

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