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The Most Confusing Recipe Instruction, Debunked & Demystified

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Some recipe instructions are frustrating ("cook until done"), but there's one step—an aside, really—that makes my sweat run and my skin itch.

5 Recipe-Writing Quirks That Bug a Professional (& Maybe You, Too?)
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5 Recipe-Writing Quirks That Bug a Professional (& Maybe You, Too?)

"Be careful not to over-mix," many a baking recipe commands, vaguely and with little indication of what will happen if I, accidentally, disobey.

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Here's the point when I confess, in tiny text, that I've delivered this instruction myself. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.

Seeing this warning, I feel like I must mix with one hand clinging limply to a wood spoon, the other half-covering my eyes, the third... With this warning, I feel doomed.

The problem, of course, is the lack of specificity: It instills fear while offering little guidance. Of course no one sets out to over-mix—baking is (usually) not an act of self-sabotage. But the same group most susceptible to over-mixing—the beginning bakers and, hello, the eternally anxious—is also full of those less likely to know exactly what over-mixing looks like. "It all comes down to precision of language," is how Food52er Stephanie put it in a comment on a recent article, "Say what you mean to say and mean what you say!"

So throw us a bone. Give us a visual cue or ten. (Okay okay, we did: Scroll down to read what over-mixing looks like—and how to avoid it!)

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Our 52 Favorite Tips for Smarter Baking

Often, I feel so deeply worried about over-mixing that I under-mix. After I transfer the cake batter to the pan or reach the bottom of the bowl with my cookie scoop, I hit a mine of raw flour. Or, when my biscuits come out of the oven, I see that they're just as lumpy as when they went in. I was just so frightened of toughening them up.

No more, I say. Over-mixing, we will break you down. Over-mixing, you will no longer be a demon. Repeat after me: We will mix just enough but not too much. We will mix according to the end result we desire. Here's how:

The Surprising, Unorthodox Ingredient for Loftier, Fluffier Biscuits
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The Surprising, Unorthodox Ingredient for Loftier, Fluffier Biscuits

First, understand the problem with over-mixing:

There are several issues at play with over-mixing. The first is aeration: If too much air is incorporated into the butter-sugar-egg mixture of cookie dough, for example, the cookies—in the oven for relatively a short amount of time, and without structural support from the sides of a pan—will rise, then fall. Over-aeration is not as big of an issue for sweets like cakes, which rely on this very process for height and fluff.

The second problem revolves around gluten development: Mixing flour with liquids activates the gluten proteins that give baked goods their structure. Over-mixing, therefore, can lead to cookies, cakes, muffins, pancakes, and breads that are tough, gummy, or unpleasantly chewy. (Multiple tests on other websites confirm that over-mixed cakes are "dense" and "stringy", but one test, surprisingly, offered alternative results: The most-mixed cake was so fragile that the baker couldn't get it out of the pan without it breaking. Either way, bad news.)

And then there's the butter issue, which you'll come across with pie doughs, biscuits, scones, and other pastry that ask you to rub or cut the butter into flour: By over-working the dough in this instance, you'll make the butter pieces too small (and warm them up in the process), which will be detrimental to the tenderness and flakiness of the end result.

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Everything You Need to Know About Pie Crust by Erin McDowell

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Baking Fats: Butter Versus The World

Baking Fats: Butter Versus The World by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm

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Second, know your mixing verbs:

In How to Bake Everything, Bittman offers of key baking verbs: Identify these in your recipe and you'll have a better sense of exactly how you are supposed (and not supposed) to mix.

  • Stir: no need to aerate or be too careful
  • Fold: a method for very gentle stirring that's typically done with a rubber spatula until ingredients are just incorporated; the goal is to avoid deflating delicate ingredients by making broad, scoop-like movements from the inside of the bowl outwards
  • Beat: combine until smooth and aerated, with a stand mixer, electric hand mixer, or whisk
  • Whip: applies to heavy cream and egg whites, which can be whipped to two general stages (soft and stiff peaks)
  • Cream: applies to the combination of soft, solid fats (like butter, cream cheese, shortening, or coconut oil) and sugar; rather than being a mere mixing technique, "it plays a role in leavening and giving structure to cakes, cookies, and pastries. Quick beating breaks up the fat with the sugar crystals, to make an emulsification and force air bubbles into the mixture, which helps provide lift; for maximum aeration, beat the fat and sugar for 4 to 5 minutes," Bittman recommends
How are we doing here?
How are we doing here? Photo by James Ransom

Third, when in doubt, follow this basic rule:

As Nicole Weston of Baking Bites advises, "Do the minimum amount of mixing necessary to make a uniform dough." When no streaks of flour remain in the mixing bowl (be sure to scrape down the sides), stop mixing. If you're going to be adding more to your mix—chocolate chunks or chopped nuts, for example—stop when a few small streaks remain, since you'll need to give the dough another turn or so to distribute them.

Fourth, know how seriously to take "don't overmix" based on the recipe:

One issue with the phrase is that there are so many types of over-mixing: Over-mixing pie dough or biscuit dough is not the same as over-mixing cookie dough is not the same as over-mixing cake batter is not the same as over-mixing egg whites is not the same as over-mixing lean bread is not the same as over-mixing enriched bread.

“There are so many ways to combine ingredients, all of which can have as much of an effect on the final texture of the dish as the ingredients themselves; it’s rarely a matter of simple addition," writes Mark Bittman in How to Bake Everything. With so many ways to mix ingredients—and so many ways to mix ingredients incorrectly—I long for more hand-holding than the dismissive "don't over-mix" wrist-slap. So here we go:

Muffins and quick breads:

Over-mixing alert: RED. The more gently you handle them, the more tender they'll be. Stir until the flour has disappeared and no longer: Leave those lumps!

Pancakes and waffles:

Over-mixing alert: RED. Again, lumps are a normal indication that your pancakes or waffles won't be tough or rubbery.

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How to Make Pancakes Without a Recipe

Yeast breads:

Over-mixing alert: ORANGE. While yeast breads gain chew and structure from rough-handling (a.k.a. kneading) and the gluten development, you are not necessarily in the mixing clear.

For a soft, tender crumb (for sandwich bread, let's say), be cautious: You're looking for a smooth, elastic ball. If kneading in the food processor, the total time should be under 1 minute; in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, kneading will take closer to 8 to 10 (and even more, in some cases, for brioche and other enriched doughs).

And for chewy breads with airy structure, you'll also want to opt for mixing by hand or at a low-speed: Shorter, gentler mixing, with help of stretching and folding, can provide a more irregular open crumb structure, The Weekend Bakery explains.

Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François' 5-Minute Artisan Bread
Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François' 5-Minute Artisan Bread

Cookies:

Over-mixing alert: RED. Because for cookies, there are two opportunities to over-mix.

The first comes when you cream the butter, sugar, and eggs. If you aerate the dough, as Dorie Greenspan explains in Dorie's Cookies, "what often happens when [the cookie dough has] gotten too much air is that they rise and then fall." You should beat long enough so that the ingredients are blended, but avoid beating on high speed.

Bittman gets more specific: With an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar “for no longer than 3 minutes or so, until the individual sugar granules disappear. Once you add eggs, the dough can handle up to 6 or 7 minutes more of beating until it almost doubles in size.”

The second chance to over-mix comes when you add the flour: Dorie recommends adding the flour all at once (you mix less than you would if you added it in several additions), pulsing until the risk of projectile ingredients has dissipated, and then mixing on low speed until the flour “disappears into the dough or is incorporated. Don’t mix any longer—there’s no need, and more mixing will just overwork the dough."

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How to Make Thumbprint Cookies Every Which Way

Cakes:

Over-mixing alert: ORANGE. (Because there's also worry of under-mixing, too.)

For cakes made via the creaming method, the butter and sugar must be creamed until very pale in color and fluffy in texture—Fine Cooking estimates this takes a full 5 minutes in an electric mixer. But with all that mixing, there's the concern of melting the butter. If the fat starts to get too soft (and , chill the bowl for five minutes in the freezer.

Blend in the eggs until well incorporated, as with the cookie dough, then add the flour and liquid, typically in alternating additions. Once both liquid and flour have been added to the mixing bowl, that's when you need to worry about over-mixing. Beat until the flour streaks disappear, but no more.

Double Vanilla Butter Cake with Chantilly Cream

Double Vanilla Butter Cake with Chantilly Cream by Posie Harwood

Devil's Food Cake

Devil's Food Cake by Posie Harwood

Pie dough, biscuit dough, scones, and the like:

Over-mixing alert: RED.

Handle minimally, leaving shards of butter and keeping the dough cold so that the butter doesn't melt. For a light and flaky texture, you want the butter chunks, hopefully dispersed throughout layers of flour, to give off steam in the oven, creating pockets of air.

Royal Wedding Scones

Royal Wedding Scones by mrslarkin

Butternut Sage Scones

Butternut Sage Scones by mrslarkin

Okay, got all that?

And, at last, for some good news (and information you might actually remember), you can't over-develop the gluten in gluten-free baked goods (since there is none!), so beat to your heart's content:

Bika Ambon (a.k.a. The World's Squishiest Cake)

Bika Ambon (a.k.a. The World's Squishiest Cake) by Sarah Jampel

Chocolate Mochi Snack Cake

Chocolate Mochi Snack Cake by Sarah Jampel

Ever encountered a recipe instruction you just can't make sense of? Tell us in the comments below.