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Breaking cooking/baking 'rules'

I was making waffles on Mother's Day for our family brunch. My recipe uses separated eggs; the whites are whipped to soft peaks and folded in at the end. Being a lazy sort, I was separating the egg whites directly into the mixer bowl and, of course, on the last egg I accidentally dumped the yolk in and it leaked. I fished it out as best as possible, but definitely not completely and proceeded to beat my whites. This has happened to me before, so I knew that my whites would still whip up to the correct texture and they did.

But it made me think of all those recipes and instruction books that insist that no bit of yolk or other fat be in the whites or they won't whip up. And that made me think of all the things I do in the kitchen contrary to the 'rules.'

Such as...

I don't always make my cornstarch into a slurry when thickening. Sometimes I sprinkle it on top of the sauce/stew and quickly blend it in. And it doesn't go lumpy.

In baking, I don't always measure every ingredient exactly. Actually, I never measure salt or vanilla, I just eyeball them. I think the measuring thing comes from the pastry kitchens where I worked, where most measuring was kind of slapdash.

I don't add my eggs on at a time in most recipes and they always mix in properly.

What about others out there? What 'rules' do you break?

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  1. Yep, I break a lot of "rules" without penalty. My favorite is using bleached AP flour (it's less expensive than the other flour and sometimes I have to watch my pennies) in place of unbleached bread flour. My Ciabatta, Sourdough boule and other breads come out of the oven with a beautiful crumb, chewy and I have never had a problem. I admit that I do also use bread flour and unbleached AP flour if I can get it at a decent price or if I'm preparing something like bagels or pretzels (then too, I have made some pretty good pretzels with bleached AP flour) but I don't let the fact that I have none of the "special" flour from preventing me from making bread.
    I also don't usually proof my active dry yeast. I just mix it in with the other dry ingredients and move on. Works just fine ... Of course, if I ever get hold of some dead yeast I'll pay a price for my arrogance. But it hasn't happened yet and unleavened breads or those made with a starter (the wild yeast element) are still pretty good if the starter is working at all.

    1. I also eyeball teaspoon/tablespoon measurements or fractions thereof. I've also noticed that a bit of yolk in egg whites beaten in a mixer with sufficient power (I have a Kitchen Aid K5A standing mixer) doesn't really affect the way they beat up. I sometimes add eggs whole to cake recipes that call for whites and yolks to be separated (and beat the heck out of the butter/sugar/egg to compensate). You maybe sacrifice a bit of volume (but nothing terribly significant in my opinion).

      1. Yep, I like to live on the wild side,too. I read often that baking is less forgiving of ad libbing than other cooking and I sort of get that...but I don't buy it as THE LAW in the hands of an experienced and fearless home cook.

        I do see that If you love garlic and want to use 6 cloves in a roast chicken rather than the 1 clove the recipe suggests, then go for it...but you can't use 6x the vanilla in that white cake.

        But I don't measure slavishly, I substitute whole wheat flour for AP white, I add things that suit my family and tastes. And if something goes "wrong" (that triple layer cake doesn't rise properly because I got carried away with adding too much banana liquere) then just get out the whipped cream, make a peanut-butter sauce, grab the jelly and announce you are serving Tipsy Banana Trifle. Who would ever know or care?

        2 Replies
        1. re: LJS

          Ah yes, good one. Last minute renaming of dishes is an invaluable skill in my kitchen, too.

          1. re: cimui

            Ha. I may have to try that more!

        2. Phew, I don't even know where to start, I break so many. I never sift my flour. I don't often mix my dry ingredients together separately (they seem to do ok if you put the flour in first, follow with leavening agents, etc..., and kind of swish 'em all together a bit before you swish them into wet ingredients). Definitely do the collective egg pool thing, too....

          (Mind you I don't consider myself a good baker!)

          3 Replies
          1. re: cimui

            Cimui: But thats the thing...my friends DO consider me a good baker and I have won contests and so forth. I can't imagine a really good baker that doesn't experiment and that has got to mean breaking rules...after all, Julia Child herself advocated a cavalier attitude that served her VERY well.

            1. re: LJS

              Ah, I know. There are *many* reasons why I'm not a good baker, wholly unrelated to my inability to measure ingredients. :) My cooking, luckily, sometimes does better for the creative license.

            2. re: cimui

              When baking, I tend to mix dry ingredients, mix wet ingredients and then combine, despite recipes which have complicated combinations. Usually works fine.

            3. Some of the rules arose also when we went from cooking as a home art to cooking as a more scientific thing. In the early 20th century when "home economics" arose as a discipline and profession. Fannie Farmer's book played a role. She eliminated things in recipes like a pinch of salt or butter the size of an egg and said that correct measurements were critical. This book (Perfection Salad) talks about the history of all that stuff:


              1. I never cream the butter and sugar when I'm baking. Since I'm starting with frozen butter I have to thaw it out first, and it's just as easy to put it in the microwave with the sugar and let it melt. It seems to work just as well and it saves a lot of elbow-grease! You just beat a bit more when you mix in the eggs to make up for the lack of air.

                Adding cornstarch directly to the sauce is a bit of a gamble... but when my slurry isn't enough, I'll add some more and whisk it in and 90% of the time it's fine.

                I never EVER sieve my flour. It comes straight of the packet into my measuring cup. Spices and raising agents get mixed into the egg/butter/sugar before the flour goes in to make sure they're evenly mixed through the batter.

                And I never measure herbs and spices with a measuring spoon... it's straight out of the jar and guess.

                1. See if folks listened to us, rather than take as gospel the scarey words in the baking sections of cookbooks, there would be more confident home bakers and a simple old cupcake wouldn't cost $5.00 at the local Evelyn's Elegant (and Expensive!) Edibles.

                  Here's to a world without sieves and the fearless home baker!

                  1. I try not to have rules!
                    I don't measure, really, rarely, ever. It's bad if you aren't paying attention when adding salt or hot stuff, so I have to put the wine down and focus...
                    I hardly ever time stuff or take temps (except huge roasts or beasts-they get probed) - this can bite yer ass if you are baking, so I will throw the timer on if something's in the oven that I just slaved over... I will shut the oven off and leave stuff in there to 'keep warm' - and continue cooking. That has probably saved many meals without me ever realizing!
                    I cook stuff that's been frozen forever. I defrost and refreeze and then cook and no one blinks.
                    I don't worry about what is 'authentic' or if my menu has too much garlic. I don't flip out if I buy off-season asparagus, or slip and grab the cheap jar of whatever that has HFC Syrup, or the off-brand soy sauce that's just colored water- it helps me remember to never do it again!

                    1. I almost never sift flour, I don't use cake flour, and I always bake with salted butter. And I'm a darn good cake baker, if I do say so myself.

                      I'm also not slavish to measurements, even when I'm baking, and I freely substitute ingredients. I think it helps that I have a basic understanding of what different ingredients do in recipes, so I know that if I replace honey with sugar in a cookie it's going to be crunchier and less chewy, for example.


                      1. Well, I do sift flour if the recipe calls for it. I think that is important. But in my heavy baking days I did discover that you can substitute fats at least to an extent. When I do banana bread, I don't use the specified shortening, but 1/2 oil and 1/2 butter. Turns out great. When I was making piecrusts I always used corn oil magarine instead of Crisco. Always.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: sueatmo

                          While being mindlessy slavish to written instructions in cooking is neither stimulating nor consciousness-raising, it does well to keep in mind that there are reasons these 'rules' are given.

                          Taking baking as an example, VERY cold butter does a better job in quick breads like muffins, scones, cornbread, etc., than room temperature butter. So I cut my cold butter into small pieces then freeze them before cutting them into the mixed and ready dry ingredients. Baking powder and soda are very quick-acting as soon as they are exposed to liquid, and expand even more in an appropriately hot oven. So everything should be ready: pan buttered, oven hot, wet ingredients mixed and ready, fat good and cold, cut in fast, then the wet added, mixed quickly and tenderly and whammo into the hot oven. Better rise, better crumb, better all-around texture and flavor. So following basic rules can give optimum results.

                          Also, published recipes are often tested dozens of times with different ratios of ingredients (read an explanation of one of Cook's Illustrated "Best"....recipes lately?) to get the best possible results. They are far from random pronouncements or opinions.

                          That said, I love to experiment as much as the next adventurous cook. Experience is a good teacher. With the years, I've been able to exptrapolate on experience, experiment, and have gotten good results. Likewise, if I'm following a new recipe, and I get poor results, I can back-track and see where the author's (or my own) mistakes lie. But just because a recipe gives ingredient lists, methods, timing, etc, there's no reason not to try things your own way, even if the wheel you are working on has already been invented by another cook, somewhere, some time.Let your Chow instincts be your guide, and enjoy your time in the kitchen.

                          1. re: toodie jane

                            i'll bet money that you make amazing biscuits, toodie.

                            quick Q: i love the flavor of biscuits when i make them with bacon grease, but it's true that i can never quite seem to get as good a rise as when i use cold butter or shortening. think it would help to freeze or refrigerate bacon grease?

                            1. re: cimui

                              I don't intend to answer for toodie jane, but my answer is yes, I think it might help to have the bacon grease as cold as possible. I'd put the amount you need for your batch of biscuits in the freezer on a plate for a little while before you make them. When it's good and cold, you can cut it into small pieces, and then cut them into the flour. If you try it, it'd be great to find out if my conjecture was right.

                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                thanks for your conjecture, caitlin. i'm a pretty mediocre baker, so all of these little tips help a lot.

                                as step 1, i have to start accumulating bacon grease, again. a recent houseguest threw out my dearly beloved stash thinking it was trash! (lucky thing he's one of my oldest friends, otherwise i would've thrown him out after it. ;)

                                1. re: cimui

                                  Oh my goodness! That's a crime indeed. It's unfortunate when friends and family don't just figure there's a reason for the odd things hanging out in we chowhounds' kitchens, even if they have no idea what the things are or what we're saving them for. At least then they ask.

                                  Cold fat gives the best texture to biscuits and piecrust and all because, since they're not as soft, they don't blend into the flour as readily. Distinct bits of fat leave spaces when they melt in the heat of the oven, and the steam they give off gives lift, making a lighter-textured (and flakier) product. It's also harder to overdo the cutting in with cold fat.

                        2. Yea, I'm really lazy and sometimes do not want to weigh everything so I just do it by feel, like "this looks like what a cake batter should look like..." and shove it in the oven.

                          1. Great question!

                            I also sprinkle cornstarch into the sauce....the first time my mom saw me do that instead of the slurry, she was completely surprised! I grew up by her side with the slurry... A whisk is a great thing & works well for me. Light sprinkling only though.

                            Also, I make lots of pasta sauces with chicken stock (reduced/thickened). The first time I did that for friends, they were suspicious about it since it contained not a single tomato & no red sauce....and they loved it! That kind of breaks the rules, doesn't it? Well, a little maybe!