I caught the baking bug in the fall of 2021, when it seemed like every other day I’d find inspiration to make something new (thanks, Instagram Reels). Specific recipes and ingredients come and go with the seasons and cravings, but there are a few great techniques that I’ve found myself returning to again and again. I wanted to share three simple methods that have dramatically improved entire categories of my baked goods (pies/galettes, enriched breads, and cookies, respectively).
When I started making pie crusts, I could never roll them out without the dough cracking and breaking. If I did miraculously get it thin, it would break on its way from the counter to the pie pan. The reason: most recipes urge you to use as little water as possible and to avoid over-kneading when bringing the dough together. More water or kneading will strengthen the dough’s matrix of gluten proteins, therefore risking a tough and leathery pie crust.
You could probably keep trying these recipes and eventually learn enough tricks to work things out, but I’ve found an easier solution: use more butter than usual. This idea came from Stella Parks at Serious Eats. She calls for equal parts butter and flour, rather than the standard ratio of about 0.8-to-1 butter-to-flour (by mass). It’s a seemingly small change, but it makes a large difference: butter promotes tender flakiness, and inhibits gluten formation. So, with more butter, you can get away with using enough water for the dough to come together in a breeze, and you can work the dough as much as you need for it to form into a structurally-sound mass. This step will indeed produce gluten, adding strength to the dough that makes rolling it out & shaping less stressful. But, because the dough is marbled with so much butter, your crust still bakes up tender; the gluten is cordoned into small patches, and so the end result is flaky and not tough.
Stella’s recipe is painless compared to so many others, and I’ve achieved good results with most pastries in the pie family: open-face pies, lattice pies, galettes, hand pies, and tartes.
Breads, rolls, and buns made from enriched doughs are some of my favorite things to eat, when done well. Baking them at home can be impractical though, because they typically lose quality within hours. Using a tangzhong – a milk-based roux dough starter – helps dramatically. This technique yields softer, more pillowy breads, and it keeps them fresh and moist for longer. Tangzhong-like methods have been used for a long while in Asia, famously in Japanese milk bread, and they’ve been diasporized in the last couple decades thanks to authors like Yvonne Chen and Christine Ho.
A tangzhong is a paste of a small amount of flour mixed with hot milk. Flour usually can’t take up much water, but at higher temperatures (65°C / 149°F), the intermolecular bonds between starch molecules break down. These starch molecules are then exposed, and they can be fully dissolved by water molecules, yielding a thick, wet paste (gelatinization). Tangzhong-based doughs therefore retain more moisture than usual throughout the entire baking process. Once the dough hits the oven, it puffs better due to increased steam production from the extra water, and the finished product stays fresh longer: pregelatinized starch doesn’t stale as easily.
To use a tangzhong, it’s as simple as adding the warm roux to the rest of the ingredients and kneading as normal. Some recipes are already written accounting for this step, such as this excellent cinnamon roll one. It’s a great place to start, and you don’t even have to use a cinnamon filling: once you roll out the dough, it’s a blank canvas. I’ve done guava-cream cheese and rhubarb-cardamom fillings. Other form factors which frequently use tangzhong are dinner rolls and loaves of white bread.
My point, though, is that every enriched dough is better with a tangzhong, not just these specific ones. I had some existing favorite recipes that I wanted to tangzhong-ify (Swedish cardamom buns, pineapple buns, etc.), so I followed King Arthur Baking’s guide – you’ll need to work with gram measurements (as you already should’ve been), but it’s straightforward. I’ve summarized the steps here, in case you don’t feel like clicking away:
Example: I had a cardamom bun recipe (see bottom of post) which called for 200g flour, 120g milk, and several other ingredients. To adapt the recipe, I increased the milk to 1.25 * 120g = 150g. I wanted to use 8% * 200g = 16g flour for the tangzhong, which I mixed with 16g * 5 = 80g of milk. I mixed the remaining ingredients, including the (200 - 16) = 184g of flour and (150 - 80) = 70g of milk, and then added in the tangzhong paste to form the dough.
This process is much simpler as a graphic (thanks Sammi for making it):
When I first started making cookies, I would hop aimlessly from recipe to recipe, trying to find the one that hit all my preferences. My ideal chocolate chip cookies (CCCs) generally have crisp edges, a craggy texture, and a chewy center, but I could never seem to get them all to coincide.
Stumbling into J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s guide to cookie engineering was quite the miracle. His 2014 tour-de-force tests every variable one can think of in a cookie recipe: the ratio of butter to flour, baking soda vs. baking powder, the oven temperature, etc. It’s everything I would do myself if I had the patience or dedication. The results are shocking: as Kenji puts it, “when it comes to cookies, apparently EVERYTHING MATTERS.” He concludes with his rendition of the best CCCs, but as he notes, the greater prize is the power to tailor a recipe yourself. You can basically take any recipe from a reputable source, do a test batch, and turn some knobs based on Kenji’s experiments to get exactly what you want. Definitely read Kenji’s full post, but here are my favorite quick tips I’ve learned:
Want your cookies to be flatter and tenderer?
Solution A: Increase the butter by 10-15%.
Solution B: If you’re using brown sugar, you can also omit and replace it with white sugar to yield thinner, crisper results.
Want your cookies to be denser and chewier?
Solution A: Increase the flour by 5-10%.
Solution B: Use melted butter (or liquid browned butter) instead of creaming the butter and sugar.
Want your cookies to have a more craggy, non-uniform surface?
Solution A: Don’t over-knead your dough! Mix in the flour just until the dough comes together.
Solution B: Use baking soda instead of baking powder. Baking soda needs something acidic to react with, so make sure there is some brown sugar in your recipe (or a pinch of cream of tartar).
Solution C: Don’t fully dissolve all the sugar. Add half your sugar with the wet ingredients, and add in the other half with the dry ingredients.
How does oven temperature affect results?
A higher temperature sets the cookie’s structure faster and prevents further spreading, whereas a lower temperature will promote flat, wide cookies. Try changing the temperature by 20C / 40F up or down if you want your cookies to be taller or flatter, respectively.
Using these techniques, I’ve narrowed in on my favorite CCC recipe by slightly modifying Kenji’s: 10% more flour and baked at 360F instead of 325F. The results have crisp buttery edges, satisfyingly chewy centers, and great textural contrast along the surface.
I’ve also found these principles easily applicable to other kinds of cookies. For example, last December, I was craving chewy, dense molasses cookies, inspired by the ones from Sofra Bakery in Cambridge. Surprisingly, I wasn’t happy with the recipes from NYT Cooking or Bon Appetit; though the spiced flavor was nice, the cookies were smooth, tender, and cakey. So, I made three changes: (1) melt the butter instead of creaming it, for denseness instead of airiness; (2) fully dissolve half the sugar in at first, but roughly dissolve the other half in at the end, for a craggier texture; (3) use baking soda instead of baking powder, for less uniformity and cakeyness. I also changed the flour/butter ratio a slight amount, and baked at 50F higher. This might all sound complicated, but this updated recipe was no harder to execute than the original, and it’s very satisfying to be able to learn from your initial results to produce a result that you are happy with. That isn’t always easy in baking, so I’m thankful that Kenji’s guide makes it possible, at least for cookies.
I hope you find these little tips useful. In case you’re interested, below, I wrote up two of the recipes that I adapted, for cardamom buns and molasses cookies. Happy baking, and always happy to discuss anything further!
*The bowl fold technique is extremely useful for home bakers without stand mixers; with a bit of planning (i.e. not adding your high-fat ingredients until later), you can develop strong gluten networks without painfully kneading and/or adding way too much flour. I should write another post about bowl folding and related techniques, but in the meantime, here’s a very helpful King Arthur article.