Understanding The Baking Basics: Flour And Sugar

This article discusses the importance of flour and sugar in baking. It also tells how to measure flour and sugar correctly.

The history of wheat flour and sugar started with plant domestication. Baking of sorts probably started even before then, when people started gathering grains. As technology improved, sugar and flour became more abundant and easier to use. Crystallized sugar made from sugarcane juice was first developed in India around 500 B.C. The Romans probably were the first to mill flour by using power generated by water at around 100 B.C. The marriage of sugar and flour happened sometime later, when flour and sugar had "migrated" to a common ground.

Why are wheat flour, commonly referred to as "flour," and sugar important to baking? When water is added to flour, gluten is formed. Gluten is a complex protein that allows the flour and water mix to retain gas bubbles and gives the mix its "shape-ability." Sugar not only gives baked goods their sweet taste, sugar helps baked goods keep their moisture and can improve shelf life. Sugar also affects the way that yeast grows""just enough sugar, and yeast growth is stimulated; too much sugar, and yeast growth slows and the yeast goes dormant.

What kinds of wheat flours are used in baking? The most common flour used in kitchens today is bleached all-purpose flour, a mixture of hard and soft wheat flours. This type of flour can be used in almost any kind of baking successfully. Less commonly used is cake flour, made from soft wheat. Cake flour is lower in protein than all-purpose flour and gives cakes a lighter, crumblier texture. If a recipe calls for cake flour and you do not have any, you can take one cup of all-purpose flour, remove two tablespoons of this flour, and then add in one and one-half tablespoons of cornstarch to use as a substitute for one cup of cake flour. Bread flour is made from the inner part of hard wheat, giving the flour a higher protein level than the all-purpose variety. This makes bread have that light texture that most people prefer. If bread flour is not an option, use unbleached all- purpose flour, or bleached all-purpose flour as a last choice. There is also self-rising flour, which includes one and one-half teaspoons of baking powder and one-half of a teaspoon of salt added in for every cup of flour. Whole wheat or graham flour is made from the whole wheat grain. Breads made with this kind of flour do not rise as much as those that use white flour and whole wheat breads also have a denser texture than white breads. Wheat flour does not keep well and should not be bought in large quantities.

What kinds of sugars are used today? The most common is our old favorite, granulated sugar, made from either sugarcane or sugar beets. Brown sugar is also found in most "baking households." This moist sugar, made from sugarcane, retains some of the molasses that is completely removed to make white sugar. Brown sugar comes in two varieties, light and dark, with dark having a stronger taste. Another variety is powdered sugar, commonly used in icings for cakes. Powdered sugar is crushed granulated sugar with a little corn starch added to keep the powder from clumping.

Measuring is very, very important in baking. Never use a big measuring cup to measure flour or sugar. Use appropriately "sized" measuring utensils. If your recipe calls for one cup of flour, take out the one cup measure. Use a spoon to lightly pour flour into your measure until the cup has filled up over the top. Then, use the flat side of a knife to "cut" off the top so that the flour is level with the one cup measure. Never shake the flour to fit the container as the flour will settle and you will actually end up using more flour than your recipe calls for. Use the same techniques for granulated and powdered sugar. Brown sugar is different in that it must be packed firmly into a utensil to measure the correct amount.

Now that you know the basics of flour and sugar, go find an interesting recipe to try. Remember, measuring correctly will make a big difference in how successful your baked goodies are. Read the directions carefully, and start to bake!

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