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A Quick Guide to Baking Terms

If you’re new to baking, chances are you can’t wait to make all sorts of yummy creations, ranging from basic cookies and cakes to much more elaborate goodies.

One of the keys to good baking is the precise following of the recipe. Most recipes are tested again and again before being printed to insure that the end result is the best it can be so adhering to it is essential. But while most recipes are fairly easy to follow, some new cooks may be baffled by some of the baking terms they encounter during their early baking attempts. Here’s a quick guide that will help you know just what it is you need to do when you find one of these unusual (or not so unusual) words in your next recipe.

Beat – Generally, the term “beat” refers to beating with an electric mixer, either hand-held or of the stand variety. Usually, if an electric mixer is not called for, the recipe will say “mix by hand.” Which electric mixer you use will depend on the thickness of your batter or dough – i.e. heavy cookie dough may demand a stand mixer while a cake batter may blend just find with a hand variety.
Caramelize – This refers to the act of heating sugar in a skillet or saucepan until it turns a light brown color. Caramelization is the oxidation of the sugar and the process releases chemicals which produce that signature caramel flavor. The caramelization process might be utilized in making frostings or sauces.
Cream – You’ll often find this term used in reference to butter used in cakes, cookies, or other baked goods. If the recipe indicates the necessity to cream the butter, you’ll want to beat it with an electric mixer until it reaches a soft and creamy consistency with no remaining lumps. (The first step of many baked goods is often the creaming of butter and sugar together.) It’s usually good to soften the butter before creaming.
Cut In – Generally found in recipes for pastry or pie crust, the term “cut in” refers to the act of working solid shortening into dry ingredients. Usually, the shortening remains in pea-sized lumps once it has been cut in and the dough should not be smooth. This allows for flaky pastry. Cutting in can be done with a handy pastry blender or is often achieved by using two butter knives.  
Dot – A recipe may ask that the top of a dish be “dotted” with another ingredient, like butter. This merely means to take small amounts of the ingredient and place them in different spots on the top of the dish, usually just before it is placed in the oven to bake.
Firmly packed – This term usually refers to brown sugar, which must be measured by pressing it tightly into a measuring cup, unlike other dry ingredients such as white sugar and flour. Measurements will not be correct if the sugar is not firmly packed.
Fold – This term refers to the act of gently blending ingredients, usually by hand and often using a rubber spatula or other soft utensil. Egg whites, for example, are often folded in by hand so that do not get stiffer in the mixing process.
Knead – A term which you’ll find in recipes for bread and other similar baked goods, kneading is the act of working dough with your hands. It usually involves pressing into it with the heel of your hand or folding and stretching it until it becomes smooth and quite elastic.
Pinch – A pinch is a measurement that varies from person to person. Not an exact measurement, it generally involves a seasoning or spice and is the amount that can be picked up between the thumb and forefinger – usually a very scant portion.
Scald – Scalding refers to heating a liquid to a point just before boiling. Generally, scalding produces small bubbles around the outer edge of the liquid but no bubbles in the center. Milk is often scalded for particular recipes.
Stiff peaks (soft peaks, etc.) – Peaks are created when beating ingredients like egg whites or heavy cream with an electric mixer. The longer they are beat, the stiffer they become. Stiff peaks can stand straight up by themselves when the beater is lifted. Soft peaks will bend slightly.
Zest – Zesting refers to gathering small bits of skin from the outside of a citrus fruit. Recipes may call for a teaspoon of orange zest, for example. To gather the zest, scrape the fruit with a sharp knife, a potato peeler, or a small zest tool, which resembles a grater. When zesting, be sure not to include the bitter white part under the skin.