Water:  arguably the most useful ingredient in the kitchen
Water: arguably the most useful ingredient in the kitchen
Okay, so yesterday, Emma Christensen from over at The Kitchn wrote a piece about my rant on the Tyranny of the Recipe. She told folks to come over here and see what I was blathering about, and come over they did. In droves. To the tune of “my best day ever!” So, thanks Emma for saying such Nice Things and for helping to spread the Doctrine of the Anti-Recipe. Apparently, there are a lot of us out there, including Marc and Will, so it’s nice to see that we’re not just preaching crazy talk in a vacuum. So now, maybe some more folks will be reading what I have to say. And you know what that means, right? Pressure! Oh, the pressure to write something Brilliant and Funny and Useful and Engaging–it’s just Too Much! Deep breaths, deep breaths. Just picture them all in their underwear, Jen. Ahem… Ahem:  Water. Yes, water. Water makes up the vast majority of the bulk of the liquids we use in baking:  milk, buttermilk, coffee, cream. Water makes up all of, um, water. Plus, there’s water in butter, sour cream and heavy cream. Gee, we use that stuff in baking, too. I cannot overemphasize the importance of H2O. I’ve rarely heard it mentioned in cookbooks, but I’m sure that Alton talked about it on a couple of his shows. Thank you Alton, for caring enough to give water its moment in the sun. But what exactly does water do for us? Well, water is the Universal Solvent. I’ve always loved that term–it kind of makes water sound like a superhero. Anyway, tons of stuff dissolves in water, so adding an ingredient to water is a great way to get it evenly dispersed in a batter. (There really isn’t any written rule that says you can’t dissolve your salt in the water or milk called for in a recipe rather then adding it in with the dry ingredients). There’s also the Intriguing mixing method that I just read about a few months ago in Bakewise. The Food Geek the knows about it, too, because he mentions it in a comment on Demystifying Mona. Check it out:
  1. Dissolve sugar in hot liquid equal to half the weight of the sugar. (That was awkward:  8 oz sugar to 4 oz. hot liquid, for example)
  2. Blend together flour, leaveners, fat and salt
  3. Add to the sugar mixture and mix for five minutes.
  4. Blend in remaining liquid, flavorings and eggs on low speed for a minute.
How cool is this?! At first glance, you might be thinking, “Hey, isn’t this kind of the same thing as the Two-Stage Method?” If you are thinking that, good for you. You have been Paying Attention. The methods are kind of similar, but, look again–the sugar goes in with the water. In the two-stage method, the sugar goes in with the dry ingredients. Also, the eggs get beaten in with the fats and a small amount of liquid in the Two-Stage Method. Here, they get blended in at the end. So, what’s so great about this method, exactly? Well, we get nice aeration by blending the fat in with the flour, plus, since the flour is nicely coated with fat, we get a tender cake. Plus, since the sugar is in a liquid state, we get a bit more volume than if it were still crystalline. That’s a lot of pluses. If you want to make a cake with agave nectar or some other liquid sweetener, this is the method that makes the most sense. What else does water do in baking? Have you ever looked at the ingredients in dried pasta. The list is short:  semolina. That’s it? Of course, in real life, they mixed the semolina with water to form a dough. Then, during the drying process, all the water evaporates. So, no water in the ingredient list. It was just there as a means to an end. Watery ingredients often act that way in baking, too. Water provides an environment in which all sorts of physical and chemical changes can occur–everything from simple dissolving to the release of carbon dioxide (baking soda/powder/yeast) to gluten formation. Water provides the medium in which proteins can commingle and combine and get freaky with each other. (Hey, glutenin! Let me introduce you to gliadin. I’ll just leave you two alone…) Then, what do we do? We toss the dough or batter in the oven and Force the Water Out. Granted, in some instances, we want to keep a reasonable amount of water in the end product–custards come to mind. By and large though, one of the steps in baking is evaporation of liquids. In the case of water at sea level, this happens at 212F (100C). I don’t know about you, but I generally crank the oven up well past 212F. In bread baking, we look for an internal temperature between 195F-205F. At those temperatures, most of the water has Fled the Scene, leaving behind fun gluten formations. We know that water has been there, because we can see the lovely crumb structure, but the water isn’t there anymore. Just like in caves and canyons and stuff–we can see the action of the water, but the water is long gone. So, let’s all just take a moment and thank water for being selfless enough, humble enough to do its job and then Go Away without asking anything more of us but that we pay the bill once a month. Water really is a superhero. PS  I’m now re-imagining all of you in regular clothes. You can go now without fear of embarrassment.

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  1. It’s certainly a good way to think of it. I just didn’t realize until you wrote it that I didn’t know for sure. It’s always good to find out where my assumptions are being made.

  2. I was always under the impression that water was consumed by the reaction that joins glutenin and gliadin, though my brief search has not given me an answer one way or another. However, my reasoning has always been that, because higher-protein flours are able to absorb more water than lower-protein flours, the water would appear to be tied up somehow.

    I will do some digging around and see if I can find out anything to say for sure one way or another. I imagine either Harold or Shirley will mention at some point or another.

    1. While I’m sure that some water is tied up within the gluten structure, tons of it does evaporate, as well. If it didn’t, bread would be as squoodgy once it came out of the oven as it was when it went in! 😆 Since I’m not a food scientist, I can’t really account for all of the water in every recipe, but I think that one of its big responsibilities is to allow mixing and then bow out gracefully!

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