When it comes to baking, I often know how to do something, but not why I do it or why it works.
I don’t take the “how” for granted; what I do almost as second nature may not be so to others who have less experience baking, or maybe never bake at all. If you’ve ever shown your mother (or grandmother) how to open multiple tabs in a browser window, you know what I mean. To you, the concept of multiple tabs may be obvious and you may toggle between them with ease, but to someone who doesn’t feel so comfortable navigating on a computer, that simple operation can be a revelation.
But today, I’m focused on the why of a particular step in baking cakes – bringing eggs to room temperature before adding them to batter.
Recently, I made one of my favorite simple cakes, a fragrant and delicate lemon loaf cake. Whether I add crystallized ginger and add a glaze, or leave it simply as an undecorated lemon loaf, the cake is moist and elegant. I was pulling together the ingredients and reading the recipe, which called for eggs “at room temperature.”
I am notorious for fooling around with recipes, changing ingredients, adding new twists and even modifying techniques. But I realized as I read this recipe that I always use room temperature eggs in baking cakes, even when the recipe doesn’t specify. I’m no chemist and I didn’t go to pastry school, so my blind obedience to this step
Why does it matter if the eggs you use in baking are at room temperature? I have a number of books on baking and food chemistry, but found the answer in only one – Shirley Corriher’s, Bakewise: the Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.
It turns out that leaveners such as baking powder or baking soda, are not the only ingredients that help a cake rise. (We’re not talking about angel food or sponge cakes here. They have no leaveners other than eggs and their volume comes from separating the eggs and beating the egg whites to form a delicate mountain of froth.) But even when a cake has leavening, eggs also help the cake to rise. If the eggs are cold when they are added, the cake will not rise as much.
What to do if you’re in a hurry and take your eggs straight out of the refrigerator? Easy. Just put the eggs in a bowl of fairly warm water for about 5-10 minutes. When I am making a cake, I usually take my eggs out first and put them in warm water as I am gathering my other ingredients and equipment. By the time I get to the step when they are added to the batter, they have warmed up.
What steps in baking or cooking do you always follow and if you stopped to think, you would wonder why you do them?