Kitchen 101: Mixing Methods
A measuring cup filled to the brim with flour dangles precariously in one hand over a light, fluffy batter while the index finger of your other hand presses firmly against number eight, a vaguely-worded instruction in a worn and tattered favorite cookbook; your eyes dart between both hands as you wonder, “Am I doing this right? Do I really add this flour now? Wait. Did I miss a step?” You tip your hand and flour spills into the bowl. You slide the mixer on and watch in horror – and excitement – as a batter – what you hope is batter – comes together. Minutes later and you’re sliding your fork into a deliciously moist, rich cake. A smile pierces your lips in accomplishment. You have no idea why what you just did worked; all you know is you’ve found a new favorite cake recipe.
You may not have realized it as you were beating sugar and butter together, adding one egg at a time, or even after you had added milk and flour to the batter in small increments, one after the other, but you were performing a centuries-perfected method rooted deep in chemistry and physics – a method devised to trap air, mix water and fat, and build structure (very difficult tasks when you consider the ingredients you’re working with) – all in the name of creating something delicious for you to snack on. Baking is, without a doubt, a science. There is a reason we keep our finger planted firmly on a particular step of the recipe we’re making – we know if we mess up one small detail, the entire recipe will go up in flames.
While the ingredients we use – and how much of them we use – play a very important role, the method in which we mix those ingredients together play just as an important of a part. And yes, nearly every recipe out there will tell you how to mix and what method to use, but knowing each of the mixing methods is essential in baking, especially when you want to develop your own recipes or adapt a new or unfamiliar recipe to your liking. Knowing the ten different mixing methods also comes in handy when you find a recipe with a scrumptious set of ingredients but a set of instructions that seems a little off (Excuse me! You want me to use the creaming method to make pie dough?! I think not!).
That’s what this Kitchen 101 post is all about: the different mixing methods, when and why we use them, and some tips and tricks on how to make your dessert come out perfect every time. As with all of my Kitchen 101 posts, I’ve included a Mixing Methods Poster.
Before we jump into the methods, let’s look at the parts of any baked good. There are, for the sake of knowing mixing methods, only seven basic parts to any recipe (and an eighth when making bread: yeast): dry ingredients, liquid ingredients, fat, sugar, and eggs (which are broken down into whites, yolks or whole eggs). Dry ingredients include your flours, cornmeals, cocoa powders, baking soda and powder, salt and sometimes spices or extra ingredients. Liquid ingredients are all things liquid (like milk, coffee or water) but do not include things like oils, melted butters or liquid shortening; those last three are the fats. Sugar is, well sugar. And then the three parts of the eggs are exactly that as well.
Ingredients are broken into these seven parts because each group reacts a particular way to each other and performs it’s own set of duties within a recipe. The process in which they are added to a batter is very important and the foundation of any mixing method. What you do with an ingredient and when you add it to the mixture will determine if you end up with a dense, moist cake with a fine, crumbly crumb or a light and airy cake with a large, spongy crumb.
Extras like nuts, raisins or other large chunky things are almost always added very last as they play no part in the structure of the baked good.
Parts of a Recipe
Dry ingredients – create structure within a baked good.
Liquid ingredients – add moistness and flavor.
Fat - affect flavor and crumb.
Sugar – affect flavor, crumb and structure.
Egg Whites – add and trap air; act as a leavening agent; affect the crumb and structure.
Egg Yolks – emulsify fats and liquids; add flavor and color; affect the crumb and structure.
Whole Eggs – emulsify fats and liquids; affect the crumb and structure.
As always, you should follow a recipe as it is written. This post is meant to be used as a reference and tool for understanding the basics of the various mixing methods. There are in fact numerous, if not infinite, variations on each mixing method. The methods listed below are the basic, classic methods at their simplest. The mixing method is only about one-third the equation in manipulating the characteristics of a finished product as well; the ingredients used and the amount of a particular ingredient that is put into a recipe will have a large affect on texture as well – that’s another Kitchen 101 post though.
The most common method used in baking today (in the home kitchen) is the creaming method. Not only is the creaming method very simple – only more complicated than the muffin or one-stage methods -, it is incredibly versatile as well. The creaming method can be used for cookies, cakes, certain muffins, quick breads and other delicious treats. While the textural characteristics of baked goods made with the creaming method vary, especially between the different types of cookies, they typically producer a denser product that is often moist – when not over baked.
1. Cream butter and sugar together, usually until light and fluffy.
2. Add the eggs one at a time, allowing them to mix into the batter completely.
3. Add the dry and liquid ingredients alternating between both. If there are no liquid ingredients add all of the dry ingredients and mix in.
The best tool for the creaming method is a wooden spoon. If you’re using a stand mixer you should use the paddle attachment. Baked goods made with the creaming method are usually rich or flavorful because of the amount of sugar and fat this method can support.
Did You Know?
The amount of time you cream the butter and sugar (just combining vs. light and fluffy) can determine how light and fluffy a particular baked good is (the more light and fluffy the butter and sugar look the more light and fluffy the final product will be).
Also, the amount of time you spend mixing the flour in will determine how chewy a product will be come (the longer you mix the flour the more gluten activated within the recipe and the chewier a baked-good will be).
Another common method, though less versatile in its application, is the muffin method. This is one of the easiest methods out there, although it can easily be done incorrectly. The muffin method is used to create crumbly products; this is achieved by minimal mixing.
1. Add all of the dry ingredients together in one bowl and the wet ingredients together in another.
2. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry until the batter just comes together.
The best tool for the muffin method is a wooden spoon. If you’re using a stand mixer you should use the paddle attachment although I suggest not using a stand mixer as you can easily over mix the batter. The point of the muffin method is avoid creating gluten within the batter, so the final product will be crumbly.
Take care not to over-mix the batter in this method. Mix until the butter just comes together. Lumps and unevenness in the batter is ok – do not try to mix these out. The entire mixing process should not take longer than 20 or 30 seconds.
The biscuit method is another common method that is a very specific process and used for a few products. If you’re looking for a flaky texture, then you want to use the biscuit method. This is used for making biscuits, pie crusts, scones and other flaky baked goods. Baked goods made with the biscuit method are usually rich, flaky and less sweet because of the large amount of fat and little to no sugar – although an exception to the sweetness rule is with scones.
1. Cut the fat into the dry mixture by pinching the fat between your fingers until the mixture is course and crumbly.
2. Add the liquid and mix/knead the batter gently until it just comes together.
The best tool for the biscuit method is your hand – that’s right, if you want an excellent product here you’ll have to get dirty. You should not use a stand mixer at all for this process as there is no attachment that can do the job properly, and even though you can use a food processor – by pulsing the fat and dry together a few times until crumbly before adding the liquid and finally pulse a few times more until a dough forms – I suggest avoiding it as it is too easy to over mix the dough.
Make sure all the ingredients are very cold – this will aid in keeping the fat solid and from mixing in with the flour. Also, avoid over mixing – seeing chunks of fat in the final product is a good thing.
For pies, you want the fat to be the size of marbles.
For biscuits or scones, you want the fat to be the size of small peas or corn meal.
Did You Know?
The flaky texture comes from the chunks of fat left in the dough. During baking, the chunks of fat are evaporate. What is left are layers of dough and pockets of air.
Angel Food Method
The angel food method is another highly-specific method. In fact, this method is used only to create angel food cakes. The angel food method creates very light and airy cakes that are spongy and tender.
1. Whip sugar and egg whites to soft peaks.
2. Fold the dry ingredients into the whipped egg whites and sugar mixture.
The tools you’ll need for the angel food method are a whisk and a spatula or if you’re using a stand mixer, the whisk attachment. You’ll still need a spatula as folding should always be done by hand and never with a stand mixer.
Did You Know?
Since there is no fat and only egg whites are used in this method, angel food cakes are fat- and cholesterol-free.
The foaming method (also known as the sponge method or egg-foam method) is a common mixing method used mostly for cakes, particularly their namesake, sponge cakes. This is one of the more difficult methods as it has the most steps. There are many variables in the foaming method and thus the final product can range from light and airy to dry and crumbly.
1. Whip whole eggs or egg yolks and sugar to the ribbon stage.
2. Fold the dry ingredients into the whipped egg/egg yolk and sugar mixture.
3. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the egg/egg yolk, sugar and dry mixture.
4. Fold the fat into the batter last, if there is any to be added.
The tools you’ll need for the foaming method are a whisk and a spatula or if you’re using a stand mixer, the whisk attachment. You’ll still need a spatula as folding should always be done by hand and never with a stand mixer. If fat is to be added in the last step, it must be a liquid fat (melted butter or oil).
Did You Know?
There are numerous types of foaming methods including some where step one is done over heat (the warm-foaming method) and others where it is not (cold-foaming).
Since there are so many variations on the foaming method, it is best to follow the recipe.
The chiffon method is a cake-specific method that lends it’s name (or get’s its name from) the cake it creates: the chiffon cake. The chiffon method creates moist, fluffy cakes that are also airy. This method is one of my favorite methods for baking cakes as you get a nice balance between a light sponge cake and a rich, pound cake.
1. Whisk together the fat, egg yolks and liquid until combined.
2. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the liquid, fat and yolk mixture and mix in well.
3. Whip the sugar and egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the preceding mixture in three parts.
The tools you’ll need for the chiffon method are a whisk and a spatula or if you’re using a stand mixer, the whisk attachment. You’ll still need a spatula as folding should always be done by hand and never with a stand mixer.
The one-stage method is similar to the muffin method in that it is very simple and has few steps. The only difference is there is no need to separate dry and liquid ingredients beforehand with the one-stage method. Because of the variety on ingredients that can be used in this method, the final product itself varies as well. Typically, it is used for cookies in which a soft, crumbly texture is the result.
1. Add all of the ingredients and mix until just combined.
The best tool for the one-stage method is a wooden spoon. If you’re using a stand mixer you should use the paddle attachment although I suggest not using a stand mixer as you can easily over mix the batter. The point of the one-stage method is avoid creating gluten within the batter so the final product will be soft and crumbly.
Despite the similarity in names between one-stage and two-stage these two methods have little in common (aside from the strictly technical meaning of both names). The two-stage method is used almost exclusively for high-ratio cakes or cakes with a very high proportion of liquid, fat and sugar. High-ratio cakes and the two-stage method create moist, rich and airy cakes.
1. Mix the fat and dry ingredients together until a paste is formed.
2. Slowly add a portion of the liquid in to the paste and mix until it is absorbed.
3. Add the remaining liquid plus the sugar and eggs slowly until it is absorbed and whip the mixture for a couple minutes longer.
The best tool for the two-stage method is a whisk. If you’re using a stand mixer you should use the whisk attachment. Unfortunately, this method also requires a specific kind of fat, emulsified shortening, and thus is rare in the home-kitchen as emulsified shortening is not readily available in grocery stores.
Straight Dough Method
The straight dough method or direct dough method is the simplest of the methods for mixing bread dough.
1. Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl and mix until combined. Knead.
The best tool for the straight-dough method is your hands or the dough hook on your stand mixer.
The sponge method (not to be confused with the foaming method or sponge method for cakes) is the second method for mixing bread dough. This method has an extra step of creating a sponge – or a wet dough left to ferment before mixing with the rest of the ingredients to create the bread dough.
1. Mix a portion of the liquid, dry and yeast until combined. Let ferment.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until combined. Knead.
The best tool for the straight-dough method is your hands or the dough hook on your stand mixer.
Did You Know?
The sponge method for mixing bread dough is often preferred because the extra step of fermenting gives the bread more flavor and unique characteristics.
Do you have a preferred method when you bake? Did you learn something new in this post? Do you have any tips for a particular mixing method that always produces perfect results? I’d love to hear all about your approach to mixing methods in the comments below.
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference and has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: Glenn Rinsky and Laura Halpin Rinksy of “The Pastry Chef’s Companion: A Comprehensive Resource Guide for the Baking and Pastry Professional” and from Bi Friberg of “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” Fourth Edition. Photo (“Mixing”) and Styling credit: Loree van Kraayenburg
Check out the other Kitchen 101 posts.
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