Glossary of Baking Terms

Muffins
Photo by Bethany Moncel

Many people say that they cook, but they don't bake. Baking is a science and can seem foreign or confusing and it definitely has a language all of its own. Use this collection of short definitions as a quick reference to help you decode recipes.

Baking Terms

  • All-purpose flour: A wheat flour with a medium gluten content of around 12 percent or so. Can be used for a whole range of baking, from crusty bread to cookies to fine cakes and pastries.
  • Autolyse: In bread baking, combining the flour and water before adding other ingredients and before kneading. 
  • Bake: Cook with dry, radiant heat in an oven.
  • Bar: A type of cookie made by pressing dough into a pan, baking, then cutting into squares.
  • Batter: A mixture of flour, eggs, dairy, or other ingredients that is liquid enough to pour.
  • Beat: Stir together very rapidly in order to incorporate air. This can be achieved with a fork, whisk, electric mixer, or food processor.
  • Biscuit method: Technique for blending cold fat into flour so that it achieves a flaky texture, like biscuits and scones.
  • Blend: Stir ingredients together until well mixed.
  • Bread flour: Wheat flour with a relatively high gluten content, usually around 13 to 14 percent, and used for making crusty bread and rolls, pizza doughs and similar products.
  • Buttercream: The most common type of frosting, made by combining a type of fat (usually butter) with sugar. 
  • Cake flour: A wheat flour with a lower gluten content, around 7.5 to 9 percent. Its fine, soft texture makes it preferable for tender cakes and pastries.
  • Caramelization: The chemical process that causes sugars and starches to turn brown when heated.
  • Chemical leavener: An ingredient such as baking powder or baking soda that uses a chemical reaction to produce gas that causes baked goods to rise. 
  • Combine: Stir ingredients together just until mixed.
  • Confectioners' sugar: White sugar that has been ground to a very fine powder. It dissolves easily, and is used extensively in candy making, for making frostings and icings, and for decorating or dusting the tops of cakes and other desserts.
  • Cream: Beat together sugar and butter until a light, creamy texture and color have been achieved. This method adds air to the batter, which helps the leavening process. Sometimes eggs are also added during the creaming step.​
  • Crumb: The pattern of air holes in the structure of a baked bread or cake.
  • Cut In: Incorporating butter (or another solid fat) into flour just until the fat is in small, granular pieces resembling coarse sand. This is achieved by using two knives in a cross-cutting motion, forks, or a special pastry cutter.
  • Drizzle: Pour a thin stream of a liquid on top of something.
  • Dust: Coat the surface of something with a light sprinkling of a dry substance (flour, sugar, cocoa powder, etc.).
  • Fermentation: The process in which yeast consume starches and sugars in bread dough and produce CO2 gas and alcohol.
  • Fold: Gently combine two substances in an effort to not deflate a delicate, lofty texture. Using a spatula, fold the bottom of the bowl up and over the top, turn the bowl 90 degrees, fold again, and repeat the process until combined.
  • Flaky pie dough: A pie dough made with bigger globs of shortening, usually around the size of peas or hazelnuts, used for top crusts and prebaked pie shells.
  • Fondant: A candy paste that can be used to make candies and for covering cakes. 
  • Ganache: A type of frosting made from melted chocolate and heavy cream.
  • Gelatinization: The chemical process that causes starches to expand and absorb water when heated. 
  • Germ: The embryo of a seed of a cereal grain, containing protein, nutrients and fats.
  • Glaze: Coat with a thick, sugar-based sauce.
  • Gluten: Proteins in wheat flour that give baked goods their structure and texture.
  • Grease: Coat the inside of a baking dish or pan with a fatty substance (oil, butter, lard) to prevent sticking.
  • Hydration: The ratio of water to flour in bread. Higher or lower hydration results in different dough consistencies. 
  • Knead: Combine dough by hand on a hard surface. This involves folding the dough over, pressing down, turning 90 degrees and then repeating the process. Kneading mixes the dough as well as developing gluten strands that give strength to breads and other baked goods.
  • Levain: A mixture of flour and water that is allowed to ferment before adding it to the main dough. Also known as sourdough starter.
  • Leavening: An ingredient such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda that produces gas causing baked goods to rise.
  • Lukewarm: Slightly warm, or around 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Mealy pie dough: A pie dough made using smaller globs of shortening, resembling cornmeal. Mealy crusts are used for the bottoms of fruit or custard pies since they don't get as soggy as flaky ones.
  • Milk chocolate: A type of chocolate made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids. 
  • Muffin method: A mixing technique where dry ingredients are combined with liquid ones, including liquid fats.
  • Natural starter: Sourdough starter or levain.
  • Oven spring: The quick initial rise of baked goods triggered by the heat of the oven.
  • Pastry flour: A soft wheat flour with around 9 to 10 percent gluten, used for biscuits, muffins, cookies, pie doughs, and softer yeast doughs.
  • Pre-ferment: A fermented dough or batter, such as a sourdough starter, added to a dough to provide leavening. 
  • Proof: Allowing bread dough to rise or yeast to activate.
  • Retarding: Chilling dough to slow its fermentation, for the purpose of increasing flavor and color.
  • Royal icing: A hard, brittle icing used for decorating cakes and cookies.
  • Scald: To heat a liquid such as milk to near boiling.
  • Score: Cut lines or slits into something.
  • Shortening: Any type of fat added to a baking recipe. Fat interferes with the formation of long gluten strands, literally shortening the strands and producing a crumbly texture. 
  • Soft Peaks: Egg whites or cream that has been whipped to the point at which a peak will bend or slump over to one side. To create a peak, pull the whisk or beater straight up and out of the foam.
  • Stiff Peaks: Egg whites or cream that has been whipped to the point at which a peak will stand completely erect. To create a peak, pull the whisk or beater straight up and out of the foam.
  • Sourdough: A bread leavened by a natural starter.
  • Sourdough starter: A natural starter, aka levain or pre-ferment.
  • Tunneling: A large air gap between the crust and the crumb of a loaf of bread, usually caused by letting the dough rise for too long before baking. 
  • Whisk: A kitchen tool made of wire loops that tends to add air as it mixes substances together.
  • Whole wheat flour: Wheat flour made from whole wheat grain, providing more fiber and other nutrients than all-purpose flour. 
  • Yeast: A microorganism that consumes sugars and starches and produces CO2 gas which causes bread to rise.