I’m often asked how much one should blend ingredients when mixing up batters. In some cases — such as muffins, pancakes, and waffles — the rule is, the less stirring, the better. But for most cakes, vigorous beating is the norm. Why?
Many quick breads — so-named because they’re leavened with fast-acting baking powder and/or baking soda instead of yeast — are made in a bowl simply by stirring dry and liquid ingredients together. The aim is to create a tender result, and to do that, the gluten proteins in the flour must be activated as little as possible. Once liquid — usually water or milk — comes in contact with the flour, the proteins glutenin and gliadin begin knitting together to form elastic gluten.
Fat and acid in the batter can slow down gluten development, but gentle mixing is the best way to ensure tender muffins, waffles, or pancakes. Some gluten development is essential in quick-bread batters, because a protein network traps carbon-dioxide bubbles during baking, causing the breads to rise.
In a classic cake batter, however, sugar and fat (butter and/or shortening) are “creamed” or beaten together for several minutes to produce a fluffy mixture containing zillions of tiny air cells. Beating in eggs incorporates more air. It is these cells that expand during baking, causing the cakes to rise.
Any added chemical-leavening agents don’t create new bubbles; they simply aid the expansion of those already formed by the vigorous beating of the sugar, fat, and eggs.
The last step in mixing a cake batter — the addition of the flour — must be gentle, just as in quick breads, for it is here where gluten development happens. Many recipes specify adding dry and liquid ingredients alternately during this final mixing step to minimize excessive gluten development, and this is a tried-and-true technique.
The texture of most cakes and quick breads is best if made with low-gluten flours. Cake flour, typically bleached, is a soft wheat flour that fills this bill nicely. I use it in practically all my cakes, including pound cakes. I find that it works best in sponge cakes and angel food cakes, and also in some muffin recipes.
Bleached all-purpose flour, with a slightly higher gluten content, is excellent in quick breads, cookies, and in layer cakes, loaf cakes, and pound cakes, too. Unbleached all-purpose flour, depending on the brand, varies in gluten content. I use it in breads and in cookies, but I usually mix it with some cake flour for loaf cakes, layer cakes, and pound cakes.
What about pastry? Tune in to my next post.
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