Holiday Baking Guide
Freshly baked goodies…yum! Here are a few of our favorite tips to help you share the best of your kitchen with your loved ones.
- For superior flavor, use the freshest ingredients available. Flour, eggs, butter and spices can all pick up flavors from other items stored next to them, so buy fresh for the best results.
- Dried spices lose their potency and freshness within six months to a year from the date they’re first opened, so the spices from last year may need to be replaced. Buy small quantities of dried spices in the bulk section to prevent waste and unnecessary clutter in your pantry.
- If you want homemade goodies but are short on time (or skill!), purchase some of the ingredients pre-made. For example, pie crusts, tart shells, lady fingers and freshly whipped cream are all available in your local Whole Foods Market.
Cakes and Pies
- If your cake doesn't look done in the amount of time on your recipe, see if it's springy to the touch and insert a toothpick. If it's got a spring to it and the toothpick comes out clean—you should be good to go.
- Undercooked cakes tend to sink in the middle and may be unusually heavy.
- Overcooked cakes are dry and have thick crusts.
- For flaky pie crust, keep all of your ingredients super cold to keep the butter and other fats from melting. Chill the bowl, freeze small pieces of butter, use ice water and a machine (not your warm hands) to blend ingredients and work in the coolest corner of your kitchen.
- For a great apple pie, variety is the secret ingredient. Each type of apple has its own unique qualities. Combine them for a complex flavor and pleasing texture.
- To help prevent cracking in your loaves of holiday quick bread, let the batter sit in the loaf pan for 20 minutes prior to baking.
- To keep crisp cookies crisp, store them (once they cool) in a tin or can with a loose cover.
- To keep soft cookies soft, store them in an airtight container with apple or bread slices, changing frequently.
- Pay careful attention to pan size. Bars baked in a pan that's too small result in a cake-like treat—not a toothy, chewy one. Bars baked in a pan that's too large tend to be dry and crumbly.
- Resist the temptation to check on your creation while it's baking. Opening the oven door lets heat out and can negatively affect your goodies.
The ABCs of Flour
Ever wonder what makes a particular flour good for one recipe and bad for another? Gluten! When flour is moistened and mixed for dough or batter, gluten forms from the protein in the flour. Some flours have more protein, some less, forming more or less gluten, which is key to making breads expand and cakes stick together. For the best baking results, learn about these three basic types of flour:
- All-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat. The balance of gluten from these creates the texture you want for quick breads, pie crusts, cookies and most everyday uses.
- Bread flour has a higher gluten-forming protein content, creating dough that is nice and elastic. This makes it ideal for making kneaded breads.
- Cake flour is made with soft wheat, producing less gluten, so your cake will have that perfect delicate and slightly crumbly texture. Note: self rising cake flour usually contains baking powder and salt.
When substituting an alternative flour (whole wheat, rice, oat, soy, etc.), you'll need to balance the change in gluten. Check out recipes calling for that type of flour to see how they do it, review our Guide to Substitutions for Cooking & Baking and have some fun experimenting.
For general baking, use unsalted butter. Flakier pastries, higher cakes, chewier cookies and better flavor are some of the results you will get from European-style butters. What’s their secret? A higher proportion of butterfat to water and they start with the best quality cream. You can truly taste the difference!
The best chocolate contains only cocoa butter and no other fats. Read the label; if the chocolate contains vegetable oils, it isn't the best quality chocolate you can buy. Here's a quick primer on the types of chocolate:
- Milk Chocolate contains milk solids along with cocoa solids and cocoa. Though it is great for eating, it isn't the best for baking.
- Semi-sweet chocolate is good for all-purpose baking.
- Bittersweet chocolate has less sugar than semi-sweet, so it has a more assertive chocolate flavor.
- Unsweetened baking chocolate should contain only cocoa butter and cocoa solids. It has an intense chocolate flavor and is only used for baking.
- Unsweetened cocoa powder can provide the most intense chocolate flavor of all, without the fat. It should contain only cocoa solids separated from the cocoa butter.
- White chocolate contains cocoa butter without the cocoa solids, so it lacks the flavor of true chocolate.
- Remember that chocolate easily absorbs odors — never store it alongside strong-smelling foods. Otherwise, your crowd-pleasing chocolate cake may smell like onions or cheese.
- It's best to melt chocolate over indirect heat, so as not to burn it. Try the proven double-boiler method. Chop your chocolate into small, bite-size pieces before placing them into a stainless-steel bowl, then set the bowl over a saucepan or pot of gently simmering (not rapidly boiling) water. As the chocolate melts, stir it constantly.
Learn more about chocolate in our Guide to Chocolate.
Updating your recipes to healthier alternatives can be a fun and creative process. Experiment by trying out a variety of alternative ingredients to discover new tastes that appeal to you and your family. Our Guide to Substitutions for Cooking and Baking provides tips for altering sweeteners, flours, eggs and more. We also offer some substitutes for alcohol in recipes, so you can have all of the taste but none of the alcohol.
Here's a quick list of basic items we like to have on hand for our holiday baking projects.
- An assortment of nuts
- Baking chocolate
- A variety of your favorite sweeteners
- Flavorings, such as vanilla, peppermint and almond extracts
- Butter or non-hydrogenated margarine
- Your favorite holiday spices
- Dried fruits
- A variety of whole grain flours
- Natural food colorings
- Homemade or ready-made frozen pie dough
- Frozen cookie dough ready to cut and bake
- Canned pumpkin
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Cocoa powder
Ready to start baking? Try some of our favorite Holiday Desserts and Baked Goods.
get coupons for holiday favorites