INGREDIENT REQUIREMENTS FOR OUR BAKING RECIPES
Precision is probably the important ingredient in baking. In addition to the fresh-milled custom grains that inform all the recipes on this website, our baking formulas consistently call for the following:
- whole milk
- high-fat, European-style unsalted butter
- large eggs (not extra-large)
- fine sea salt—we like La Baleine
- instant yeast—we prefer SAF
European-Style Butter Standard butter contains about 80 percent butterfat. European-style butter contains about 85 percent. The increased fat and decreased moisture give this butter more elasticity, which makes it a pleasure to work with. See for yourself by spreading some cold on a cracker—it’s got grip, not slip; wear, not tear. For certain recipes, European-style butter is critical in terms of performance as well, such as when you’re working with layers in pastry (like puff), with shapes that shouldn’t spread or shrink (like butter cookies and pie pastry), or with a dough—any dough—you want to behave and cooperate.
A number of European-style butters, many of them made domestically, are available in stores like Whole Foods and in specialty markets. We find unsalted Plugrá, in its regal gold wrapper, the most reliably fresh and tastiest European-style butter in wide distribution in the United States. Plugrá tastes sweet and fresh—never “off”—and performs with real discipline.
All-Purpose Flour Unless a recipe specifies a particular flour, please use an unbleached all-purpose with moderate protein content, such as Arrowhead Mills organic enriched unbleached white flour (our preference), or Gold Medal or Pillsbury unbleached all-purpose. Don’t use bleached all-purpose flour, high-protein all-purpose flour such as King Arthur, commercial cake flour, or any super-soft white flour like White Lily.
Our Flours Many of our flours are so fine, so rich in oils, and are packed so compactly for shipping that they arrive tamped down and compressed. This explains why a cup of flour scooped from a just-opened bag is heavier than one scooped from a bag that is half full, a discrepancy that makes cup measurements really problematic for accurate recipe work. The only effective solution is to measure by weight. We recommend weighing ingredients on a digital kitchen scale for all of our recipes anyway—it’s cleaner, quicker, and more precise. And, in the case of our flour, it’s also essential. If you simply cannot weigh our flour and must measure by volume, dump the entire bag—whether full or half empty—into a mixing bowl, whisk to lighten and aerate the flour, and then use the dip-and-sweep method for measuring: dip a measuring cup into the flour, scoop up a mound, and sweep off the excess with a straight edge. And don’t forget—always store Anson Mills flour well sealed in the freezer or refrigerator to keep it fresh.
COOKING AND BAKING TOOLS
Cast-iron Skillet For centuries, a cast-iron skillet has been the most important piece of cookware in any Southern kitchen. Nothing produces the crisp, authentic patina for breads and pan-fried foods quite like it.
Cooling Racks They keep baked bottom crusts crisp and allow batches of cookies to cool off quickly—so you can eat them sooner.
Digital Instant-Read Thermometer Never mind for the roast chicken, we use a thermometer to probe breads. Without one, you’ll never really know when a loaf of bread is done. For lean breads, 200 degrees is standard; for rich, sweet breads, 180 degrees. We use an instant-read thermometer for custard cookery, too.
Digital Kitchen Scale Why so many home cooks continue to dip and sweep, spoon and scoop, and struggle to wrest peanut butter or molasses into and out of a measuring cup when they can simply dump their ingredients into a bowl on a scale? Break your addiction to the measuring cup! Accuracy? There’s no comparison, people.
For weighing out ingredients, nothing beats a well-designed digital kitchen scale. We’ve been perfectly happy with our homely, highly practical Tanita digital scale, model KD-200-210, going on several years now. The scale operates on batteries or electricity, and moves between pounds and kilos like a solid citizen of the world. It measures items weighing up to 4.375 pounds (2 kg) and as little as 0.1 ounce (2 g), and has a sturdy, washable 7-inch-square stainless steel platform. Small and compact, the Tanita comes with us on trips when we’re planning to do some baking.
Dried Beans (2 to 3 quarts) for Blind Baking All of a piece when presented, pies actually consist of incompatible elements: a crust and a filling. Crusts try to become crisp and supportive; fillings try to make crusts soft. This is why crusts need solitary time in the oven to bake (called “blind baking”) and fortify themselves against their fillings. To prevent pastry from sliding down the sides of a pan or ballooning up from the bottom during baking, the dough-lined pan must be supported by aluminum foil and filled with dried beans before going into the oven. After baking, cool the beans, and use them over and over again.
Electric Knife Noisy, retro, uncool—an electric knife is all these things. It is also a master of nuance, taking the drag out of slicing super-light layers or contrapuntal textures without damaging their appearance and making a mess of your presentation: towering layers of filled sponge cake; a crisp, slippery apple strudel; a flaky, hot puff pastry–wrapped saucisson. We use our electric knife to slice cakes, pastries, and tea sandwiches—not to carve roasts.
Fine-Mesh Strainers Strainers help make liquids beautiful, filtering out flecks of egg, clumps of grated ginger, unidentified particle mass, or bones and vegetables. A strainer is a real pro when it comes to sifting flour and confectioners’ sugar, too. Cleaning a strainer is not so much fun—we scrub ours with a stiff fingernail brush. It’s nice to have a few sizes of strainers nesting together—one is never enough.
French Rolling Pin Tapered ends, a slender carriage, and no ball bearings make a French rolling pin the best choice. You can put pressure on the dough without instantly hydroplaning into a ditch. The tapered ends work beautifully to round edges, too.
Kitchen Shears Trimming dough, sure, kitchen shears are fantastic for that. But we use ours for other less savory tasks as well, such as snipping slippery fat off raw chicken. Kitchen shears needn’t be a particular kind of scissor—they just need to be sharp and clean.
Little Offset Spatula It’s the friendliest tool in our entire arsenal—so thin, so short, so flexible, so willing. We use the little offset for everything from icing cupcakes to lifting dough edges; to easing the first wedge, slice, or bar from the pan; to scraping the last bit of peanut butter from a jar. Any metal spatula—long, short, offset, or straight—should be flexible. The stiff ones? Forget them.
Measuring Cups, Dry and Liquid If it sounds prissy or orthodox to make the distinction, we apologize. But these two types of cups cannot be used interchangeably. The dip-and-sweep measuring method we recommend as an alternative to weighing dry ingredients requires cups with level rims that can be swept with a straight-edged spatula. Liquids, on the other hand, benefit from a fill line and a spout. Spoon flour into a glass measuring cup and it’s tough to get a decent read. Pour milk into a dry measuring cup and splash! You’re crying over spilt milk.
Metal Bench Knife This simple straight-edged tool cleans dough from counters and cuts and blocks dough beautifully.
Metal Ruler, 18 inches Thin and flexible, a metal ruler has an almost surgical austerity that is better suited to the kitchen than to the classroom. Use it to notch off rolled out dough for crackers, pastry strips, or simply to take a read on basic thickness, length, width, or diameter. We suggest equipping the kitchen with a ruler that’s about 18 inches long and dedicated to kitchen use. Many art rulers have a thin cork strip on their backs that can get a little messy if the cork becomes damp, but we love them anyway.
Paring Knives We like them sharp, Swiss, and cheap.
Pastry Brushes We like those with soft, synthetic, washable bristles.
Plastic Dough Scraper A plastic dough scraper is a supremely tactile and deceptively simple tool that possesses flexibility and a smartly resilient edge. We use dough scrapers for relatively menial tasks like scraping down bowls, and for very delicate ones like folding egg whites and whipped cream into batters. The scraper pulls together wet and dry ingredients to make a pie dough right on the work surface. Its direct grip (the wrist and forearm become its handle) can heave a whole batch of cookie or bread dough onto the counter. Its straight side smoothes rolled dough to even thickness. A plastic dough scraper cleans dried dough from surfaces too, particularly those you don’t want to scratch.
Pie Plates These days everybody has Pyrex pie pans, but the truth is, glass isn’t a terrific heat conductor for browning. We prefer old-fashioned metal pie plates.
Pizza Stone To get a superior bottom crust on any crust, a pizza stone is essential. Go rectangular, not round, and buy one as large, as thick, and as heavy as your oven will tolerate. Heat it for an hour before baking.
Rimmed Baking Sheets Known as half sheet pans in commercial kitchens and jelly roll pans at home, rimmed baking sheets typically measure 13 by 18 inches. But salient the point is they’ve got sides, and sides really come in handy.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
Creaming Butter and Sugar Author and kitchen detective Shirley Corriher has noted that under-creaming butter and sugar is one of the most common mistakes home bakers make. We agree. In cake and cookie recipes, it’s tempting to rush through the butter and sugar stage and hurry on to the addition of eggs. But patience will reward you with superior loft and texture in your cakes and muffins and a better crumb in your cookies if you don’t rush. Note that our recipes give the butter and sugar more than a 30-second spin under the mixer’s blades—and it’s for a good cause. A longer creaming period also creates time to combine the recipe’s dry ingredients, so the extra minutes are not idly spent.
Measuring Ingredients We develop our recipes using weights for most ingredients, and then step backward into cups in order to offer volume measurements for those cooks who don’t own a scale. But the translation is not always easy, and as a result, some of our recipes’ cup measurements are not neat and tidy. Weights precede volume measurements in our recipes, and we urge you to scale out your ingredients for the best results.
Those who are unable to weigh ingredients should use these measuring techniques:
- dip and sweep - for granulated sugar and flour
- tightly packed - for brown sugar
- sift and spoon - for confectioners’ sugar
Seasoning a Cast-Iron Skillet Our recipes—sweet and savory—frequently call for a “well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.” How do you get a well-seasoned skillet? By starting with a clean skillet. If the skillet contains any cooking film or residue, scrub it first with a gentle scouring powder like Bon Ami or Barkeeper’s Friend. Rinse and dry it well. Heat the empty skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, and then add enough vegetable oil to generously cover the bottom. Allow the oil to heat through for a few minutes, pull the skillet off the heat, and add enough coarse salt to create a heavy salt-and-oil scrub. Scour the bottom and sides briskly with an old, clean cloth or wadded paper towels. Rinse the skillet with hot water only—no soap—and dry it well. Your skillet should now be seasoned. Repeat this seasoning scrub whenever the bottom of the skillet looks dull or filmy.
SUPPLIERS & PURVEYORS
Benton’s Hams Alan Benton’s hams are synonymous with true and careful aging in the classic charcuterie tradition of the mountains of southeastern Tennessee. Dealing in degrees of unctuous flavors at the highest level, Benton imbues all his products with regionally distinctively aromatic smoke. If you are frying Alan Benton’s bacon, you know it.
Bridge Kitchenware European imports for professional chefs.
Browne Trading Company A family-run business in Portland, Maine, Browne Trading Company sources and sells exceptional fresh fish, seafood, smoked salmon, and caviar.
Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork Emile deFelice’s free-range heritage breed pigs are masted on acorns and run over hill and dale on 90 acres in Calhoun County, South Carolina. From these pigs Emile produces an excellent prosciutto, all manner of smoked sausages, chops, belly—you name it.
Fante’s Kitchen Wares Everything for the baker . . . and cook.
Flying Pigs Farm Based in Shoshun New York, these folks make the best smoked hocks we have cooked with, as well as outstanding smoked ham.
J.B.Prince A vast selection of cooking and baking equipment.
King Arthur FlourWe’re not here to rep their grains, mind you, but King Arthur Flour has an extensive selection of baking products and wares, such as SAF instant yeast (which we love) and precut half sheet pan–sized parchment paper (the type chefs use) that won’t snap back like a nervous roller blind.
Occasionally, our recipes call for ingredients that are difficult to source locally. Occasionally, we find ingredients in supermarkets that we like so much that we want you to know about them. We include both categories here.
Buttermilk After decades of cheap, cultured imitations and messy powders, real full-fat buttermilk—the kind someone’s grandmother once used—is available for your cooking and baking pleasure. Some of the regionally produced niche buttermilks, like the type made by Cruze Farms in Knoxville may not be within your reach, but Kate’s Butter of Maine has placed its real buttermilk in national distribution.
Herbs and Spices Bulk spices from some health food stores taste older than dirt. In fact, most dried herbs and spices have given up the ghost way before they hit the shelves. While it is true that little pinches of dried seasoning drift along the bottom of the ingredient stream, their presence should have a big impact on those dishes they’re meant to enhance. Make seasonings work for you—not against you—by purchasing good-quality dried herbs and spices in small quantities from folks who care about them. Two consistently reliable choices are Penzey’s and The Spice House, dueling family businesses based in Wisconsin.
Lard Old-fashioned leaf lard, which makes phenomenal pastry and thrillingly crisp fried chicken, is available online and well worth the effort of procuring it. We like the snowy-white 4-pound pail from Prairie Pride Farm in Minnesota. It will keep for a year in the freezer.
Sorghum Very roughly speaking, sorghum is to the South what maple syrup is to the North: a dark, sweet, seductive syrup with warbling, smoky notes that make you want to pour it on everything. Of course, unlike maple syrup, sorghum syrup is processed from a crop—an important crop, as a matter of fact, in the rotation of cereal grains. Sorghum works to suppress nematodes (nasty pests) under the soil and keeps future plants healthy. Its secondary role is to provide many delightful iterations of sorghum syrup, some so rich that none spills from an inverted container. Great sorghum is said to have the flavor diversity of great wine: a persistent floral, citrusy tang that dances above the predictable caramel and molasses flavor, and a bright mineral balance. The best sorghums—and these are few and far between—are evaporated over live fire in an open black iron kettle. Made with good sorghum, sorghum butter is surpassingly magnetic in its appeal and irresistible on hot cornbread.
A few good producers are Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill in Tennessee, Sandhill Farm in Missouri, and Townsend Sorghum Mill in Kentucky.
Tomato Purée Our favorite—Bionaturae organic strained tomatoes—comes in a tall, slender jar. A flowing, smooth, guileless sauce with a clean, forthright taste, this product is simple perfection when fresh tomatoes are not in season.