Dessert

The Most Confusing Recipe Instruction, Debunked & Demystified

February 24, 2017

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.

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

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.

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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!"

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Top Comment:
“How do I make sure to mix it enough to make the ricotta mixture creamy without the batter breaking on me? Please help! The Internet is leaving me out to dry on this one! ”
— Kelly
Comment

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!)

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:

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.

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? 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.

Do the minimum amount of mixing necessary to make a uniform dough.
Nicole Weston

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.

Yeast breads:

Over-mixing alert: ORANGE. While yeast breads gain chew and structure from rough-handling (a.k.a. kneading) and 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.

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."

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.

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.

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:

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

24 Comments

Liz June 23, 2018
And this, my dears, is why I’m NOT a baker!
 
Khuzdaar H. May 19, 2018
Excellent article! Thank you very much. I was making chocolate chip cookies the second time when I overmixed the flour into the butter-egg mixture. The dough had nothing holding it together when i plopped it on the baking pan. However the second time I carefully blended the flour into the butter-egg mixture gradually and baked some nice cookies that didn't rise and fall!
 
Amy K. March 4, 2017
I've never really seen much of a difference as things seem to turn out very nicely and I take care of most things by just paying attention to color and temperature
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 4, 2017
Then you're all set!
 
Amy K. March 4, 2017
Ugh, creaming not freaking. Autocorrect can be annoying.
 
Amy K. March 4, 2017
In this post you recommend, from Mark Bittman, 2 different amounts of time for freaking butter and sugar. One says 4-5 minutes and another says no longer than 3 minutes. As I've never really had a problem when baking I'll stick with my own methods, however, this might confuse fledgling bakers.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. March 4, 2017
The first—4 to 5 minutes—is for maximum aeration (cakes and the like). The second—3 minutes—is for cookies. Hope that helps!
 
Greenstuff February 25, 2017
Seventh grade home ec in the mid 1960s, we made muffins. That's where I learned that they are, as you say, a red alert for not over mixing--we were told that not only would they be tough, they'd have terrible air bubbles. And it's that class where we all became proficient at folding, which from all the discussion below, may have been the best skill I got in that class! Great article!
 
Rachel P. February 25, 2017
*this* is why I love the phrase 'until just combined'!
 
Kelly February 25, 2017
OMG! Okay, community. I need your help! I am trying to get a smoother texture on my ricotta cheesecake. When I mix it too long, it curdles terribly when I add the eggs! And then in the oven, it stays curdled and a yellow liquid rises to the top and it's a mess. I mix for too short of a time, it stays lumpy. How do I make sure to mix it enough to make the ricotta mixture creamy without the batter breaking on me? Please help! The Internet is leaving me out to dry on this one!
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 25, 2017
Hi Kelly,<br /><br />Can you share the exact recipe? That might help us to give an answer!
 
Kayla F. February 5, 2018
It sounds to me like your ingredients are not at room temperature... including the eggs! This is a must with any cheesecake recipe. Hope this helps!
 
Kayla F. February 5, 2018
It sounds to me like your ingredients are not at room temperature... including the eggs! This is a must with any cheesecake recipe. Hope this helps!
 
Kayla F. February 5, 2018
It sounds to me like your ingredients are not at room temperature... including the eggs! This is a must with any cheesecake recipe. Hope this helps!
 
aargersi February 24, 2017
Third hand :-)
 
ChefJune February 24, 2017
Overall an excellent piece, Sarah! <br />However, I know I am not alone in taking issue with this definition from Mark Bittman: <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.><br />Folding is NOT stirring at all. it is (usually using a flexible rubber spatula) lifting the batter up and over the dry ingredients until the two have become one. Stirring will not incorporate the correct amount of air into the product. This has been discussed ad nauseam in the professional baking community, and 98% of professional bakers agree that folding is never stirring.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 24, 2017
Thanks for the comment, ChefJune. Yes, I totally agree that it's a lifting motion! I was quoting Bittman, who does refer to it as a method of stirring—so I guess it all comes down to a definition of stirring, whether broad or specific. Ah, the wonders of language! :) Thank you for clarifying!
 
AntoniaJames February 24, 2017
For an alternate perspective on gluten in pie crusts, may I respectfully commend this by my go-to expert for all things pastry: http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/06/how-to-make-a-beautifully-flaky-pie-crust.html ;o)
 
kels February 24, 2017
So... creaming butter and sugar together for 4 to 5 minutes as suggested in section 2, does NOT apply to cookies, which have a recommended max of 3 minutes in the Cookies section?
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 24, 2017
Yes, exactly. You want maximum aeration for (most) cakes but not for cookies, unless the recipe specifies otherwise!
 
HalfPint February 24, 2017
While we are on the subject of folding, I understand what it means but could you provide better technique for folding. I know what the end goal is, but for the life of me, I seem always over fold and my mixture collapse. Is there some 'foolproof' (I hate to use this word, but here it is) fold without losing most of the aeration that I've worked so hard to get?
 
AntoniaJames February 24, 2017
Mary Berry demonstrates the technique beautifully in several of the GBBO master classes. I cannot remember offhand which . . . perhaps someone here does. In any event, it's really not a stirring motion at all.<br />Here's a good description from the BBC:<br /><br />Folding is to combine a light ingredient or mixture with a much heavier mixture while retaining as much air as possible.<br />-Add the light mixture to the heavier mixture.<br />-Carefully cut through the mixture with the edge of the spoon, working in a gentle figure of eight and moving the bowl as you go.<br />-Scrape around the sides and base of the bowl at intervals to incorporate all of the lighter ingredients into the mixture.<br /> (Sadly, the short video is not available due to what appears to be a geographic blackout.)<br />What's not included here is something my mother always did, whether or not the recipe called for it: stir in a bit of the lighter ingredient mixture into the heavier ingredients to lighten them up a bit before adding all the rest of the lighter ingredients. <br /><br />Also, Mary Berry slices through the batter, north pole to south pole and then pulls the batter up and over while turning the bowl, and then repeats that motion 4 or 5 times -- exactly as my mother taught me. It works! ;o)
 
ChefJune February 24, 2017
thanks, AJ! I didn't read your description before I posted mine. But i cannot imagine using a spoon to fold. I've always (and my mom before me) used a flat object, preferably a rubber scraper.
 
HalfPint February 24, 2017
Thanks, AJ!