In baking, how you mix your ingredients determines how your cookies, cakes or quick breads turn out.
Overmixing a batter or dough overworks the glutens in the flour, causing the final product to be too hard. So the goal of mixing is to combine the ingredients as thoroughly as possible without overmixing.
Usually that's done by mixing the wet ingredients separately from the dry ones, then combining the two. This is because only once the flour is wet does the gluten begin to develop. You can stir dry flour all day, and the only thing you'll overwork is your arm.
Fat—e.g. butter, shortening or oil—also acts as an impediment to the development of gluten. More fat produces a crumbly texture, as it literally shortens the strands of gluten molecules in the dough. This is where we get the term "shortening."
Sometimes, like with shortbread cookies, you want a crumbly texture. The same with biscuits, where lumps of fat in the dough are what gives them their flaky texture. But with cakes and quick breads, the goal is a rich, fine, texture, moist and smooth. That's where creaming comes in.
The Creaming Method in Quick Breads
Most recipes for quick breads, including loaves and muffins, use the muffin method, in which the dry ingredients are combined in one bowl and the wet ones, including eggs, oil or melted butter or shortening, in another.
It's a tried and true method, and you really can't go wrong using something called "the muffin method" to make your muffins.
But with the creaming method, the fat is mixed more thoroughly with the sugar and other seasonings, so our quick breads will come out even richer and smoother than ever. (It will take a bit longer, meaning your quick breads will be a little less quick.) Here's how:
- Combine the liquid fat with the sugar, salt and other flavorings (e.g. cinnamon, vanilla extract, etc) in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the paddle attachment, cream on medium speed until fluffy.
- Add the eggs one at a time, waiting until fully incorporated before adding the next one.
- In a separate bowl, stir together any remaining liquid ingredients, which usually is just milk. If your recipe calls for nonfat milk powder, you'd add the milk powder in the first step and the accompanying water in this step.
- Sift together the dry ingredients, then alternate adding the dry ingredients and the liquid ones, one-third at a time, to the creamed fat mixture.
Once you accept that "wet" ingredients and "liquid" ingredients are not the same thing, you'll be fine. The former refers to the fats creamed with the eggs, while the latter means the milk and/or any other liquid ingredients (buttermilk, water, etc).
The Creaming Method in Cakes
With cakes, the creaming method is pretty much the same as it is for quick breads, which makes sense when you consider that there is little difference between the two batters. Again, you're thinking in terms of three separate groups of ingredients: the wet, the liquid, and the dry:
- Beat the butter or shortening until creamy and light in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment. Add the sugar, salt and other flavorings and cream for 8 to 10 minutes. Now is also when you'd add melted chocolate if your recipe calls for that.
- Add the eggs one at a time, just like we did in the muffins section above. Beat another 5 minutes.
- Now add the sifted dry ingredients, alternating one-third at a time with the remaining liquid ingredients. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix until blended.
The Creaming Method in Cookies
With cookies, there's generally not as much liquid, so we won't be using the procedure of adding the dry ingredients alternately. Everything else, though, is going to look familiar.
- Cream the fat in a stand mixer with the paddle, along with the sugar, salt, spices and flavorings. Cream at low speed. How long you cream depends on whether you want lighter cookies or dense and chewy ones. The longer you cream, the more air you'll incorporate, making the cookies lighter. Less creaming makes them chewier (and they'll also spread less).
- Add the eggs and remaining liquid and blend until combined.
- Sift in the flour and other dry ingredients, including the baking powder and/or baking soda. Mix until combined. You can pan the cookies and bake them right away, or roll the dough into plastic and refrigerate or freeze.
A Few General Tips:
Weigh your flour, don't scoop it.
You can substitute shortening for butter (or vice-versa), but remember that butter is around 20 percent water, while shortening is 100 percent fat. So if you do substitute, you'll have to adjust.
When in doubt, follow the recipe!