Food Chemist Answers Common Baking Flops Atlanta food chemist and author of Cookwise and Bakewise Shirley Corriher answers listeners' baking quandaries, from sticky egg challah to dry muffins and runny pie filling.

Food Chemist Answers Common Baking Flops

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As we promised last week, we brought Atlanta food chemist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher back to help with some listeners' kitchen quandaries, and this time, Shirley, you're going to be helping us troubleshoot baking problems, right?

Ms. SHIRLEY CORRIHER (Food Chemist): All right.

BLOCK: Here we go.

Ms. CORRIHER: Let's get them.

BLOCK: Okay. Cat Carpenter of Chicago wrote in. She has been wrestling with creaming, mixing together butter and sugar. And she writes this: I think I'm supposed to use room temperature butter and then, using a mixer, beat them together until they are light yellow. I must be beating too long because there's always a kind of peculiar - not bad but odd - smell when I'm done. And, she asks, is the sugar supposed to dissolve? Or should I still be able to feel granules in the mixture?

Ms. CORRIHER: The problem is this room temperature butter. What you're trying to do is beat tiny, tiny air bubbles into the butter and the butter and sugar because these bubbles are the basis of the leavening. See, baking powder and baking soda don't make new bubbles. They only enlarge bubbles that are already in the batter. So it's vital when you're creaming to make thousands and thousands of baby bubbles. But if the fat melts, there go your bubbles. So you really need the butter much cooler than room temperature. Room temperature is in the 70s in the U.S., but butter melts at 68, 69 degrees. So I like to take the butter out just 10 minutes ahead, cut it in tablespoon pieces, beat it and beat it, and I feel the bubble constantly. And when I'm adding the sugar, if that bubble is not cool, take the bowl off the mixer, put it in the freezer for five minutes, and then put it back and continue beating. I'd say five minutes is long enough creaming for home cooks. For big batches, they recommend 10.

BLOCK: And what speed would you be using to cream butter?

Ms. CORRIHER: Oh, medium speed, by all means. If you get high speed, you cause the butter to melt faster, so never go more than medium speed.

BLOCK: Okay. We're going to move on to a crummy question here, actually. It's the opposite problem. Let's listen.

Ms. LEAH MULLINS: This is Leah Mullins, and I live in Gladys, Virginia. And my most persistent problem in the kitchen has to do with crumb toppings for coffee cakes. I follow all the directions. And when I bake it, it turns into this yucky, filmy, sticky glue on top of the cake. Could you please help me figure out what I'm doing wrong?

BLOCK: Yucky...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: ...filmy, sticky glue.

Ms. CORRIHER: That sticky glue is melted butter. I would say the recipe has too much butter and maybe not enough flour. What I would do is cut back a little on the butter, increase the flour, and I would add some crunchy - like some chopped roasted nuts or even some quick-cooking oatmeal, a tablespoon or two, to give you some nice crunchy. It's going to be all fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Okay. We're going to move on from crumbs to dough. Here's a question from a listener.

Mr. ALTER RAUBVOGEL: Hi, this is Alter Raubvogel, and I'm calling from Cincinnati, Ohio. My wife and I bake bread. It's actually egg challah, and we use the same recipe. But when I make it, the dough comes out much stickier. A lot of times when I'm shaping the loaves, I have to flour my hands so the dough won't stick to my fingers. As far as I know, we're not doing anything differently. Why is my dough much stickier than my wife's?

BLOCK: So we got a challah quandary there.

Ms. CORRIHER: Okay. Let's talk gluten and rye quickly. Whenever you add water to flour and stir, the two proteins in the flour - glutenin and gliadin - grab water and each other and make springy elastic sheets of gluten. Now, what - so remember, gluten contains water. And what you're doing when you knead, you're trying to put together these two proteins in water into gluten. And you'll notice the dough gets drier and springier and more elastic, et cetera. But I have a feeling that he is much stronger than she is. And what's happening is that when you knead to a certain point, instead of helping one protein find another and crosslink and crosslink and crosslink, you reach a point that you're tearing gluten strands apart and you're liberating the water that was locked in the gluten. So I think he's just being a little too vigorous, and some of his gluten is actually coming apart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: So a little less elbow grease.

Ms. CORRIHER: Right. Just ease off, ease off.

BLOCK: Well, Shirley, thank you so much for helping us out with these kitchen quandaries, and I think holiday baking may be a little easier for a whole bunch of listeners right now.

Ms. CORRIHER: Well, great.

BLOCK: Shirley Corriher is a food chemist and author of the books "CookWise" and "BakeWise." You can find more answers to some other kitchen quandaries at our website,

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