Successful baking depends on adding just the right amount of ingredients. Glass measuring cups with a pouring spout are best for liquids. Place on a flat surface, and read at eye level, filling exactly to the line indicated. If you use a liquid measuring cup like this for flour, you'll end up with at least an extra tablespoon per cup. It may not sound like much, but it can make a big difference in the moistness of your baked goods. Nested metal or plastic cups are best for measuring dry ingredients. Flour settles during storage, so always stir before spooning into a dry measuring cup. Fill to the top, and level with the straight edge of a knife or metal spatula.
On the Rise
Yeast is actually a living organism that remains dormant until it comes in contact with moisture. The best way to activate yeast is to mix it with warm water (100°-115°) and a small amount of sugar. It's important that the water be the right temperature--too hot, and it will kill the yeast; too cold, and the yeast will remain dormant.
Sugar provides food for the yeast. As it grows, yeast creates gas bubbles that cause the dough to rise. Salt controls the growth of yeast, strengthening the gluten and preventing the dough from rising too quickly. Direct contact with salt will kill the dissolved yeast, so always combine the salt with flour before adding.
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To let yeast breads rise, cover the bowl of dough with plastic wrap or a towel, and set in a draft-free location with a temperature between 80° and 85°.
Quick Bread Techniques
Several different methods are used when mixing the batters for muffins and quick breads, and each produces a unique texture. Beating softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy helps to create the delicate cakelike crumb of Lemon Tea Bread.
Parmesan Cheese Muffins and Whole Wheat Date-Nut Bread have a coarser, more breadlike texture. In this method, the liquid and dry ingredients are first stirred together in separate bowls. Making a well in the center of the dry ingredients creates a space so the two can be quickly and easily combined without overmixing.
A pastry blender makes fast work of cutting butter or shortening into small pieces and combining them with flour for light, high-rising Homemade Biscuits. When the dough is baked in a hot oven, the butter melts, creating tender, flaky layers.