how do baking ingredients work?

Joined Dec 14, 2009
I love baking. I bake every chance I get. I love baking cakes, cookies, cookie cakes, brownies, pies, muffins. It doesn't matter what it is, I just love doing it.

Every time I try to make home made brownies, they don't always turn out the way I want them to. They either taste like rubber (that experience was so embarrassing), or they come out more cakey than I desire.

I want to know what the purpose is for the most common baking ingredients. Specifically:
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Baking soda
  • Corn Starch (for powdered sugar)
  • Maple Syrup (for brown sugar)
  • Eggs
  • Butter (and oil, if it makes a difference)
From experience, this is what I believe each ingredient's purpose to be
  • Sugar - sweetener
  • Baking soda - makes the dough rise
  • Eggs - make the dough more cakey
  • Corn starch - thickener
other than the ones listed above, I have no idea whatsoever what the purpose is for. If Im wrong about any above, then please correct me.

Thanks, as answering these questions will help me become a better cook.
Joined Oct 10, 2005
This is a subject that could take pages to fill. Ingredients have many roles to play.

For instance sugar is a sweetner, but it also contributes colour, some flavour from caramelization, and also makes things like Swiss rolls more flexibel

Cornstarch is also used in cakes to "tone down" the gluten in flour, so your ckes won't be so tough, you also see it in shortbread. It's added in icing sugar in small quantities as an "anti-clumping agent".

Eggwhites can be beaten to incorporate air, (which expands and rises in a hot oven) as can whole eggs, yolks add richness and colour as well as fat and moisture.
Joined May 29, 2006
Whole Eggs do not make more cakey, on the contrary and maple syrup cannot be used for brown sugar(only color) since maple syrup today is man made of corn syrup and fructose which is a fa cry from brown sugar.
Joined Dec 2, 2009
Are you asking these questions in order to rework a recipe? IMHO some recipes are too bad to BE fixed. Keep experimenting...follow the instructions exactly and you will find great recipes. When you do you can make it your own with some tweaking (for brownies add ins are perfect...but no more than one or two at a time).
Joined Oct 19, 2009
BIIIIIG question, I'll summarise;

Flour; Is a mix of protein starch and fat. Forget the fat and think about your proteins and starches:
Proteins make the flour strong; the highter the protein, the stronger the flour; for cakes you don't want strong flour (creates a chewy crumb), you want light and airy, a delicate protein content of around 7-9% is just perfect, you can "weaken" your flour with some cornstarch to get the desired protein content.
Starches are your structure; they gelate close to boiling point and leak into an intricate network between branches of proteins; this is your what holds your fat, liquid and sugar in you cake mix.

Sugar not only sweetens but interferes with the proteins in the flour, keeping the crumb crumblier or softer. It also crystalises when heated and cooled; this can give you a crunchy or soft texture in cookies for example, depending on the kind of sugar used.

Baking soda is only half an ingredient; it is an alkaline chemical leavening agent that must be mixed with an acid to react. Baking powder is both baking soda and acid combined.

Corn starch is indeed a thickening agent, it is also pure starch which has a variety of other uses, such as stabilisation and dilution of proteins in flour. It has an advantage over flour for thickening sauces as it colours less and absorbs less flavour, but as a hydrocolloid the texture can be a little "sticky".

Maple syrup is a natural syrup therefore has an advantage in baking as it doesn't crystalise when cooled.

Eggs in baking are for proteins; they give a protein matrix that work with or instead of flour for strength; such as custards. They can also be aerated and introduce air into cake mixes along side or instead of chemical leavenings; such as chiffon or souffles.

Butter and oil (or any fat) disrupt the protein matrix of flour, making it softer and add moistness and flavour. Oil is liquid at room temp, therefore gives you the effect of moistness but butter adds alot of flavour. Butter therefore will give you less light, more flavourful cakes. Butter also contains differing amounts of water, which, when melted will affect your cake mix.

Hope that helps a little. Apologies if it was a little too scientific.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
Chris -- great answers. You couldn't cover everything, but you sure covered a lot.

The OP said something about maple syrup being part of brown sugar. It isn't -- whether it's "imitation maple," like Ed wrote about, or the "real maple" you discussed.

Brown sugar is regular, refined white sugar with a little molasses added. That's true about the brown sugar you buy at the store, or whether you make it yourself while mixing a recipe. Many people believe brown sugar is somehow less refined or more "raw" than white sugar, but it isn't.

Joined Apr 17, 2009
One thing to add to the baking university published above -

Ingredient characteristics can change based on mixing method.
For instance, over-mixing flour develops gluten that might make your brownies tough.

If you use a creaming method by creaming room temp butter and sugar together first, your brownies will come out more cakey. If you use a muffin method, combining liquid fat, like melted butter, you'll get a more dense brownie, all other variables staying the same.

Most baking is 4 basic ingredients - butter, flour, sugar, eggs, milk. HOW you combine these things makes Pound Cake, Popovers, Pate Choux and Puff Pastry. All very different results based on mixing methods.
Joined Dec 14, 2009
I am asking these questions to rework a current recipe, and so i know how im affecting other recipes. Im actually making brownies the same way I make cookies and cookie cakes, and that's why it's not yet perfect.

My current recipe is 2 1/4 flour, 3/4 white sugar, 3/4 brown sugar, baking soda (cant remember how much off hand), two eggs and a half cup of baking cocoa. They turn out delicious, but they could be better (imo).
I was thinking about using 1 egg, and a cup and a half of flour in my next batch of brownies to see how they turned out, but decided to ask people who know more about baking how each ingredients effect the dough and the final product so im not limited to just baking brownies.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
If you could post the entire recipe you use -- including the "method" section, along with any changes you might have already made to adapt the recipe -- AND also say how you'd like your brownies to be different, maybe we could help a little better.

Joined Oct 19, 2009
As mentioned above, your baking soda has very little use (unless you wish to make your dish more alkaline) unless it is activated with an acid- eggs are quite alkaline (depending on age), flour IS somewhat acidic, but hardly enough to push your leavening into motion- add an acid to your mix (I would add about 10ml of lemon juice) or change your baking soda in baking powder, and you'll notice a heck of a difference!
Joined Aug 13, 2006
YOu have some expert chefs answering your question but i can add some plain home cook's experience.

I tried making brownies with different methods - for a while i beat eggs and sugar and added melted butter. They were more cakey, still good and dense, but cakier.
I went back to the traditional method, sugar and melted butter and chocolate, no fancy technique.

It appears that the sugar does something else, and I know others will be able to explain the science of it, but it accounts for the moistness of the brownies. Maybe because it retains moisture or binds in some way with the fat. Anyway, a cake with more sugar will be moister, in my experience, and brownies have tons of sugar.

Eggs are really two ingredients. Whites help raise the mixture, esp when beaten, and i think they also add structure, so they make the cake hold up (though gluten does this too). But i find cakes with too much whites are dry. As are cakes with too many whole eggs, for that matter, because there are more whites in proportion to other ingredients.

But yolks add to a feeling of richness - they're partly oily, and also have some of the protein. I often substitute two yolks for one of the whole eggs.

Many people add extra eggs thinking they will make a moister batter, (mistake done often in meat loaf or croquettes) because when the mixture is raw it looks moist, but just think of hard boiled eggs - hardly what you;d call moist. and when these dishes cook, they get really hard and dry if there are too many eggs.

But in brownies you have eggs used in a particular way, and they don;t seem to make them dry, unless you beat them (my experience, but i don;t have the science to back it up with an explanation) - i imagine that because there is more air, there is more dryness.

Butter also adds moisture or moist rich feeling to a cake. Oil instead is noticeable and makes cakes feel greasy to me. Though someone posted a white cake recently with just a spoon or two of oil but the rest butter, and it didn;t have this problem and was wonderful.

Beating flour makes gluten, and so you don;t want to beat cake mixtures once you've added the flour, unless you use the method of mixing soft butter and eggs into flour and sugar, then you beat it to produce the structure gluten gives to make it keep its rise, and they can be quite moist and not rubbery. I imagine it;s when you beat flour and liquid that you get the rubbery texture.
Joined Dec 2, 2009
That is a lot of flour to cut out. I agree with BDL...if we could see the entire recipe it would be a huge help. I am currently totally in love with Rebecca Rather's 'Caramel Filled Brownies' from her book "The Pastry Queen". I leave out the caramel most times for a quick basic yummy treat. This is the one I referred to in my first post. It takes add ins quite well. I don't buy a lot of cookbooks any more, but checked this one out from a library and went and bought it the next week. Her recipes are thoughtful, simple and delicious. Most important, they work.
Joined May 27, 2009
Both baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents, which means they are added to baked goods before cooking to produce carbon dioxide and cause them to 'rise'. Baking powder contains baking soda, but the two substances are used under different conditions.
Joined Dec 14, 2009
I want my brownies to be chewy, like the $1.00 box ones you'd buy in the store.
I just like everything I cook to be more personal than adding eggs water and oil to make a perfect brownie.

Every recipe I've tried makes my brownies too cakey, or the feeling of biting into the brownie kinda represents biting into a piece of soft rubber (if that makes sense, maybe soft styrofome would be a better comparison). They never have much flavor, either. The closest I've gotten to a perfect brownie recipe is as follows:
Mix 3/4 white sugar, 3/4 brown sugar, and 1 cup of butter, then add two eggs.
Seperately, mix 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 (1/2, or 1/4, cant remember off hand) teaspoon of baking soda.
I always used 1/2 cup of baking cocoa, and sometimes i mix it with the flour and i think only once i mixed it with the other mixture, but I didnt notice a difference in taste either way.
Then i mix the two together, bake at 350 for about 27-30 minutes (i always set a timer for less than the baking time i actually expect, usually 25 minutes, and toothpick test them every 1-2 minutes after the timer goes off until the tooth pick comes out clean an inch away from the edge of the pan.).

They always come out slightly more cakey than I would like.

One question: How would it effect my brownies if I used vegetable oil instead of butter? All the recipes I've read say to use butter, but the box brownies say to use oil, and thats why I ask.
Joined Oct 19, 2009
I do believe your questions have already been answered in this thread, but perhaps they were a little difficult to understand, so:

Rubbery: Too dense, not enough air in mix. Reason: Baking soda is USELESS in this recipe, it is not being activated by anything. You need to either add an acid or change to baking powder.
I believe this to be your main problem.

Vegetable oil is lighter and gives the impression of moistness, however is less flavourful than butter, and can taste a little waxy.

Cakey: Too many fat-enriched proteins: if you don't like it, replace your 2 eggs with 2-3 egg whites, and check your protein content (AKA gluten) of your flour (it will say on the side of your packet) lower the better (aim for 7-9%) if its too high mix in some corn flour (requires basic maths) and dilute it.

Also your oven may be too low, it should be nice and hot to trap the air in a network of starch. 350degrees (buy an oven thermometer, and you'll see how much your oven has been lying to you!).

Flavour: In this sense is a combination of sweetness and aromatics, add some vanilla or rum, or something aromatic, and increase your sugar.
Joined Dec 14, 2009
Do digital ovens lie? It beeps when it is supposedly at the right temperature. I would believe they have a built in thermometer
Joined Feb 13, 2008
The oven is not digital, the control pad is. Different things. The sight of glowing digits often fools the user into believing the oven is far more accurate than it acutally is. It's a sort of aura of authenticity.

Most "digital" ovens use a timer rather than a thermometer to tell the user when the oven is preheated. The timer, seldom accurately represents the true pre-heat state of the oven. Most timers are set to beep at 10 minutes, but to truly preheat an oven, so that the entire oven including the side and ceiling panels are completely equilibriated to or above the set temperature usually takes something like 20 minutes.

Most "digital" ovens use an "analogue" thermostat to cycle the burner or element on and off. The actual temperature fall below and rise above the temperature set. The range is called the "deadband." The tighter and more accurate the deadband, the better. Yours is probably neither, which is not so good.

Long preheats -- that is, of at least 20 minutes for baking at 350F -- may not be very "green," but unfortunately they are still good practice.

Joined Dec 12, 2009
hi oscurochu,

i love baking too and also like to know what ingredients do so that i can experiment more with recipes. i checked out a book from the library that might interest you: "How baking works: exploring the fundamentals of baking science" by Paula Figoni. she breaks down the different functions of various ingredients, as chris.lawrence did, but even gives you experiments for you to help you to practically understand why leaving out certain ingredients or the addition of others can tweak your baked goods results and in truly anal scientific fashion.

for example, to test out the differences between using various liquids (milk, water, soy milk...) in a pâte à choux, they've removed every last trace of milk fat by using shortening i/o of butter. so the results won't always be tasty but what you get out of it will be a better understanding of how individual ingredients affect your baked goods. but if that's just a little bit too much information for you, i can understand. i'm kinda' uber geeky that way.

i think it's an excellent resource for the inquisitive baker who really wants to know why their recipes behave they way they do and help you to transform your lump of dough into something so meltingly and mouth-shatteringly yummy!

fyi, there are plenty of brownie recipes that don't utilize any chemical leaveners, and since you don't like cakey brownies, anyways, you could probably safely leave it out. you didn't mention an off-flavor or soapy taste so i'm guessing that there was just enough acid (a small amount in the syrup or the cocoa, unless you used dutch-processed which is completely alkaline) in the batter for the baking soda to react to.

vanilla really enhances the chocolate flavor, so i'm surprised that that was not included in your recipe. and your swapping of the maple syrup for the brown sugar, doesn't that change the moisture content of your recipe?

i'm fascinated with the whole idea of adding cornstarch (corn flour). i've seen it used in shortbread cookies and, as foodpump and chris.lawrence have mentioned, added to replace some flour for it's zero protein qualities. does this just create a lighter and more tender texture like using cake flour vs. bread flour?

i love this thread! thank you for starting it.
Joined Jan 25, 2010
Digital ovens DEFINITELY lie!! I have the same oven and after months of things taking way too long and turning out not how I expected, I finally bought a basic little oven thermometer and discovered my oven is 25 degrees off! I also discovered that the oven beeps that it's ready waayyy too early. Like 100 degrees low. So preheat longer and buy an oven thermometer so you can adjust your temp accordingly.
Joined Sep 11, 2005
Does 2 1/4 c of flour seems too much? I am planning to make a "layers of love chocolate brownie" from nestle tollhouse recipe that calls for 3/4 c flour and cocoa, 1/2 c white and brown sugar, 1 stick of butter, 3 eggs. no baking soda. The picture of it does not look cakey but we'll see. on the topic of brownies and ingredients, why do some recipe use cocoa and some used melting chocolate in double broiler? is there a difference is taste and texture? Isn't real chocolate better than cocoa? making brownies from scratch with chocolate and butter can be expensive when it doesn't turn out right.
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