Most cakes, cookies, muffins, and scones are all made from the same ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, salt, eggs, chemical leaveners (whether baking soda and/or baking powder), milk, etc. Yet even though most baked goods contain the same basic ingredients, you can combine them in different amounts and in different ways to make a cake instead of muffins, or a quick bread instead of a cookie.
There are many ways you can combine basic baking ingredients to achieve the desired results, and those results aren't just dependent on the recipe in front of you, but also on your baking techniques and mixing methods.
The muffin method, also known as the two-bowl method, is the technique you would use to make muffins (duh!), but also quick breads, and even pancakes. This is the easiest mixing method you can use. For the muffin method, you use two bowls:
- All your dry ingredients go in one bowl, so the flour, chemical leaveners, salt, spices, and even the sugar, and are all whisked together
- All your wet ingredients go in a separate bowl, usually eggs, milk (or an acidic dairy product, like buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt), vanilla extract, and oil (or melted butter).
- Once the two separate bowls of ingredients are well mixed, you then combine the two bowls into one, and briefly mix just to incorporate the two. I like to add the dry ingredients to the bowl of wet ones because that seems to result in fewer lumps.
For the muffin method, you don't need any special equipment. All you need is a couple of bowls, a whisk, and a large spatula or wooden spoon. You definitely would need to invest in muffin pans too, if you plan on using this method to make muffins. If you want to know how to mix cake batter without a mixer: use the muffin method!
If you analyze the baking ingredients in recipes that follow the muffin mixing method, you might notice that these recipes contain
- a liquid fat, like canola oil or melted butter, which are easier to incorporate for this method
- a fair amount of liquid
- a higher amount of chemical leaveners than typical cake and cupcake recipes. In fact, these recipes rely entirely upon the gas/air formed from chemical reactions of chemical leaveners as the muffin bakes, and not mechanical methods (like whipped eggs or the volume created from beating together butter and sugar).
You use the muffin method to make this eggless banana bread, greek yogurt pancakes, and these chocolate zucchini muffins. In all recipes using the muffin method, it's very important not to overmix the batter, which would lead to more gluten developing, causing your baked goods to become tough and more bread-like, which isn't the goal here.
The creaming method is used to make cakes and also cookies. When you start a cake or cookie recipe by "creaming the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy" or "beating the butter with the sugar", you are using the creaming method of mixing and by doing so, you are mechanically incorporating air into the recipe as of this first step of mixing.
Because the creaming method involves incorporating a ton of air into the mixture of butter and sugar, it's easiest to do this step with a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer so that can lighten the mixture as much as possible. You can also do the creaming method by hand with a wooden spoon (or even a plastic pastry scraper), but the resulting baked goods may be a little denser in the end:
- Combine the softened butter with the sugars in the recipe and whip them together for several minutes to form a creamy, light, fluffy mixture. Ideally, for cakes, the mixture at this stage would resemble a fluffy frosting.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, being sure to mix well between each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed to make sure all the ingredients are properly mixed.
- Finish with the dry ingredients (flour, chemical leaveners, salt, spices...), mixing just enough to combine everything, without overworking the batter. The goal is to mix as little as possible at this point, just until the flour disappears.
When you add the dry ingredients, some recipes may suggest alternating with a liquid (like milk or buttermilk). In these recipes, you start adding the flour (⅓ of the volume) first, then the liquid (½ the volume), then more flour (⅓ the volume), then more liquid (½ the volume), and then you end with the last of the flour (the remaining ⅓).
Though it's not essential to end with the dry ingredients, I have noticed that if you end with the liquid, sometimes it's harder to get an evenly mixed batter and the resulting baked goods may have an odd texture in places. Odd textural imperfections also occur if you don't fully incorporate the creamed butter and sugar mixture with the eggs. You end up with small patches of buttery sugar in the cake batter that are visible on the baked cakes. It's not the end of the world, but it's not ideal.
The creaming method has to start with softened butter, not melted butter, in order to work its magic. Melted butter can't trap air the way softened butter can, nor can liquid fats (like canola oil). Ideally, all your ingredients would start at the same temperature, room temperature, so that they emulsify properly.
We use the creaming method to make cookies, like these chewy oatmeal cookies with chocolate and peanuts, and to make cakes, like this classic vanilla cake with milk chocolate frosting. The creaming method is also used to make pâte sucrée for tarts, which is the base for these Earl grey panna cotta tarts, or this raspberry chocolate tart.
Reverse creaming method (used in high ratio cake recipes)
The reverse creaming method isn't as popular among home bakers, but it is definitely worth exploring! The basic steps are as follows:
- Combine all your dry ingredients with the softened butter to form a coarse crumble (including the sugar!).
- Combine all the liquid ingredients in a bowl with a pouring spout (like the eggs, milk or buttermilk, vanilla, etc)
- Slowly add the liquids to the crumble mixture.
This mixing method is very similar to the muffin method and also reminds me of making cake mix from a pouch containing all the ingredients except for the oil, milk, and eggs. For the reverse creaming method, often the weight of sugar is much greater than the weight of flour, which contributes to them being more moist and fluffier, and also reduces gluten development during mixing.
Whipped eggs method
The eggs and sugar are whipped together to the "ribbon stage" for this simple gluten-free chocolate cake that is a riff on a flourless chocolate cake, also called fallen chocolate cake. A sponge cake like this hot milk cake is another example of a cake made with whipped eggs. These cakes often have less fat in them (sometimes even no fat, like the angel food cake). Some involve whipping whole eggs with sugar (for a génoise, a basic sponge cake, etc), and others involve whipping egg whites only with the sugar (like for angel food cakes). For cakes that are made from whipped eggs, the steps are as follows:
- whip whole eggs or egg whites only with the granulated sugar:
- For whole eggs, you are aiming to whip them until the mixture has tripled in volume, and becomes very light in colour, and when the beater is lifted, the whipped mixture will leave a semi-stable ribbon on the surface that takes a few seconds to settle into the rest before disappearing.
- For egg whites, you are aiming to whip the white to form something like a very thick, glossy, stable meringue with a stiff peak that is NOT dry. If your whites are dry or start to look curdled, you may have overwhipped them before the sugar was added.
- fold in dry ingredients VERY gently in order to incorporate them, without losing the air and volume you built up.
Flaky dough method
You use this flaky dough method for pie dough, scones, biscuits, and rough puff pastry:
- All the dry ingredients go into a big bowl (flour, salt, maybe a little sugar)
- The cold butter is cut into small cubes and chilled again until it is very cold.
- Add the cubes of cold butter to the big bowl of dry ingredients and using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour to create a very coarse crumble mixture.
- Add the liquid (usually water, sometimes it can be milk and/or an egg), and work it in to form a shaggy dough
- Gather the shaggy dough and shape it into a flat disk
- Chill for at least 30 minutes before using
The key to this method is the temperature and everything should be cold. Ideally, you would be working in a cool kitchen, with cold ingredients, and butter that is very cold from the fridge. It's important to keep the butter pieces distinct and to avoid overworking the butter in the dough because if you overwork it, the butter will melt into the flour, and essentially disappear, leading to a more gritty product, with no flaking, that won't rise much at all (especially if you are making scones, biscuits, and rough puff).
Laminated dough method
- Make a dough of flour, water, salt, and maybe some butter, but not too much. The dough may contain yeast if you are making croissants
- Make a butter block that consists of a lot of butter that is shaped into a block and chilled until firm.
- Roll out the dough into a big square, and wrap the butter block in that dough and pinched shut.
- Roll and fold, chill, and repeat the rolling and folding at least 4 times for croissants and at least 6 times for puff pastry
The idea behind the rolling and folding is to create hundreds of very thin layers of dough separated by very thin sheets of butter. This way, when the pastry is in the oven, the butter will melt, the water will evaporate, and the steam will push open those layers leading to a very light, buttery, flaky pastry.
Flaky pastry is a labour of love, and most of us would rather buy it from our favourite bakeries. Bakeries will use large sheeter machines for the rolling and folding, which makes the process much faster, easier, and less stressful. The resulting flaky pastry is usually finer than what you can achieve at home with a rolling pin.
If you're making homemade bread, you'll notice that you first have to mix the ingredients of the dough, then you have to knead it for an extended period of time, upwards of 10 minutes for something like a homemade brioche made in a stand mixer. The kneading is essential to rearranging the flour proteins into an elastic, supple, stretchy network called gluten, which will allow the dough to trap air in stretchy bubbles as the dough rises.
If you lack patience, you can skip the kneading and make bread like this no-knead cinnamon raisin bread. It takes a little longer for the dough to rise, but the results are pretty fantastic!