*Herbs

Most of the herbs I use are in *fresh form only while cooking/baking (cilantro, thyme, sage, rosemary, basil, oregano, mint, parsley, chives & tarragon). I started doing this a few years ago and have noticed such a drastic change in flavour. Do not be afraid to add fresh herbs during the cooking process, they really are not meant just for garnishing at the end. They add a burst of fresh flavour when they are added in during the simmering or baking process. The difference in taste between fresh and dried is extraordinary, you do need to add more fresh than you would dried as dried is more concentrated. When I am adding fresh herbs I am normally adding at least ¼- 1 whole cup depending on the recipe. 

*This of course does not apply to the tea, flower, root, healing, spiritual, energetic, unique or alchemical herbs. Which of course I still use in their dry forms. 

Spices

I have quite a large spice cabinet but most of my spices are in their whole natural form and I grind them in small batches as needed to keep them as fresh as possible. The longer the spice has been sitting grounded the less flavour it will have. So when you can buy in the whole form it is best to keep smaller batches in air tight glass containers and grind as needed. Or buy smaller amounts of the grounded spice and use up as quickly as you can.

Salt

Salt is flavour. When it is adding to cooking or baking it brings out the flavour of the dish, heightens it and takes it to another level. I personally only use pink Himalayan salt {or pure sea salt} in everything I cook. It is packed with extra benefits (80+ minerals and elements) because it is formed naturally within the earth and is said to be one of the purest forms of salt in existence. Because it forms naturally it also already has iodine in it, instead of it having to be artificially added in, which are bodies have a hard time processing properly. It has less sodium per serving (because of the size of the crystal) and because of all its natural occurring minerals it helps our bodies stay healthier.

When it comes to dough salt helps control the fermentation rate of yeast (its chemical reaction with yeast calms the fermentation to a steadier level), without salt bread will rise faster resulting in large air pockets where the gluten has broken (as salt strengthens the gluten structure while it rises and proofs). Without salt baked goods would be bland (especially breads) but also be careful not to over salt has that can also change the proofing time and give your baked goods an overly salty taste. Salt added into pastry enhances the texture as well as making it stronger and tighter.

When it comes to meats I always rub in a generous amount of salt and pepper to season before cooking, sometimes all you need for flavouring meats is salt and pepper.  

Butter & Fats

I want to start by saying fat does not make you fat. Really you can trust me on that one. Now too many baked goods will contribute to some extra pounds but that is because of the sugar in baking not the fat. Fat again adds flavour, lots of flavour, it also helps baked good get that golden brown hue. I use an array of fats in my cooking and baking from oils to ghee to grass-fed butter & grass-fed beef suet to coconut oil. I don’t like to use overly processed oils so I stick to mainly olive, grape seed, sesame, and coconut. Butter being my ultimate favourite to cook and bake with. Also a trick to stop your butter from burning in a pan is to add some high temp oil first and then add some butter (this is also a great non-sticking egg trick).  

Pastry

Pastry is actually quite a simple recipe, most of the time it is a combination of flour, fat, water or milk, salt & maybe sugar. Of course you can get fancy and add in some spices, different liquids or herbs but overall pastry recipes have very minimal ingredients. For a good pastry it comes down to technique...

It is best to use all-purpose or pastry flour as they both have the proper balance of starch and protein needed to absorb the water, work with the fat and develop the gluten which then creates a dough that is both flaky and tender.

Fat in pastry contributes most to the flakey texture, how much and the way it is added to the flour will determine just how flakey and tender the pastry will turn out. For best results (from what I have found, this can vary throughout every pastry chef) using very cold (like straight from the freezer) butter and adding it in large chunks (not combining thoroughly or until mealy) leads to those beautiful flakey layers of a pastry. When the butter is left is larger chunks (like pea size or even larger) the pieces of fat melt in the oven and create pockets in the crust, pockets turn into flakes, gorgeous tender flakes.

The liquid that is added to the flour and butter is needed to help form the gluten structure and for binding all of the ingredients together. Without the liquid gluten won’t develop which will lead to pastries falling apart or coming out dry and crumbly. Liquid can be anything from water, cream, milk, eggs, liquor, sour cream or yogurt.

Salt and sugar are both important factors in pastry dough as well, as we talked about above salt adds flavour in a big way, it also counteracts bitterness bringing out the sweetness. Sugar & salt are inhibiters of gluten, slowing down the process of gluten development, allowing it to take its time and form properly thus making a more tender crust.

I believe the most important factor in a tender and flakey pastry is keeping all of your ingredients cold. Putting everything from your flour, water, rolling pin, bowl, etc in the fridge for at least a half an hour before making your dough can help tremendously. I keep butter in the freezer for my pastry baking to make sure it is crisp and cold, cold, cold. I also put ice in my water once I take it out of the fridge so it stays cold. Another smart tip is putting a Ziploc bag of ice on the surface you are going to roll your dough onto for 10 minutes before you roll to keep it extra cold as well.

Now the best trick/tip I have recently found on adding in butter is from thekitchn and it is by using a cheese grater! Take your butter out of the freezer and grate (extra points for putting the cheese grater in the fridge for a while before hand) it on the largest hole setting, then add it to the flour tossing lightly. The butter will naturally clump together and form perfect pieces of butter that are not too small and not too large. Next add in your water or liquid and this is when you start to mix it together with a chilled spoon. When in the oven the butter will melt creating steam within the pockets of fat and flour, which in turn lifts the pastry creating those flakey, tender layers.

Chilling the dough is also super important, it allows the gluten to relax and develop. It also allows the flour to absorb a lot of the moisture in the dough which will give you (if you used all of the above steps as well) a tender and flakey baked good. Plus chilled dough is much easier to roll out than warm dough, the gluten is relaxed and pliable so it won’t tense up while rolling out as much. If you do find that it keeps shrinking back just wrap it back up and pop it back into the fridge for another 15-30 minutes.

Difference between under-kneading and over kneading-dough

Under-kneaded dough will be floppy, loose, lifeless, won’t hold its shape and will tear easily. When this is happening you just keep kneading…you can usually tell your dough is done kneading when it is smooth, supple and bounces back when poked gently.

Over-kneaded dough usually happens when you are using a stand mixer, by hand it is quite hard to over-knead dough. You will tell it is over-kneaded when it feels really dense and it is tough to actually knead. It is hard to flatten and fold over and the dough will have issues being incorporated into each new fold as you roll it out. Over-kneaded dough can, like under-kneaded dough tear easily because the gluten is too tight and needs some time to relax again. Really there is not much to do if your dough is over-kneaded, you can try and let it sit longer to relax the gluten more but it usually results in a remake!

Sugar

When it comes to sweeteners in my baking and cooking I try to stay away from overly processed sugars and stick to sweeteners in their most natural form. Which means I only bake and cook with raw pasteurized honey, high grades of pure maple syrup, dates and sometimes coconut sugar (the most processed sugar I will use (well I will actually use an organic icing sugar in my butter-creams too because buttercream!). I find these are all much easier on my body to digest. Yes a sugar is a sugar but I feel better using these types instead of regular white or brown sugar. I also notice a major taste difference, honey, maple syrup, dates and coconut sugar have a much more natural flavour, when I taste something now baked with overly processed sugar I find the taste not as nice and I can even sometimes taste the grain.

Honey best uses: caramels, soft moist cakes (will normally be denser), breads, curds, creamy desserts

Maple Syrup best uses: sheet cakes, coffee cakes, puddings, icings, mousse, whipped cream

Dates best uses: pastes, caramels, cookies, muffins, loaves

Coconut sugar best uses: cakes, cookies, shortbread, pastries, frosting

Honey and maple syrup are both sweeter than processed sugar so when I am baking I will usually lessen the amount of either so for 1 cup of regular sugar use ¾ cup honey or maple syrup. You will also need to lessen the liquid in the recipe if you are substituting regular sugar in the original recipe. So for 1 cup of honey or maple syrup subtract ¼ cup of liquid from the recipe.

When I am using honey to help the rising process I will put it in my stand-mixer and mix it on high speed for 3-5 minutes until it becomes a translucent colour, this allows some air to penetrate through it making it rise better. You should also always add ¼ - ½ tsp of baking soda to the recipe when using either honey or maple syrup.

Note: honey and maple syrup do not cream into butter as they don’t have the hard edges like sugar crystals do that when mixed vigorously with butter create air pockets that help contribute to the risen baked good, you can try my trick of mixing the honey on high before hand and then mixing in a melted coconut oil or butter & using baking soda I have had successful risen baked goods using that method. But for layer cakes I tend to use coconut sugar now to guarantee success.

Coconut sugar can be replaced 1:1. It does make your baked goods a lot darker because of its natural hue so just remember when you are baking a vanilla cake and expecting it to come out nice and white it will be a brown hue because of the sugar. Coconut sugar can tend to dry out your baked goods but you can compensate that by adding in extra wet ingredients or fat.

When I am baking with dates I usually just chop them up and add them to a muffin/cake/loaf batter or you can boil them down with some water and spices and make a paste out of them which work amazing for cinnamon buns!

Flours

I mainly use four types of flours in my cooking and baking, all-purpose and spelt are my main ones and I have been experimenting a little more lately with coconut and almond.

All-purpose flour is your most common flour, it has 8% to 11% protein (gluten) which makes rising anything very easy. I don’t use any bleached flours as they go through a chemical process and I like to use things with the least amount of processing. The bleaching process that white or all-purpose flour goes through stripes it of some flavour as well and it will have less protein content.

I love spelt flour and I have talked about it a few times on my blog and also have it in quite a few of my recipes. It has a nutty, slightly sweet flavour to it, somewhat similar to that of whole wheat but I find it much nicer. It is great to use in baking, pastries and even doughs. It is low on the gluten scale although it does still have gluten in it. When I use it in a recipe I always add at least a half a cup of all-purpose with it to combat any rising issues it might have (it would be the same as using whole wheat, adding a little extra all-purpose will help it rise better). Spelt flour is great if you have any issues with digestion, normally you are able to digest spelt easier than all-purpose or even whole wheat.

Almond and coconut flour are great for those trying to cut back on carbs as well as gluten and on the paleo diet. They do not rise very well as they don’t have that gluten component to them but they are great for things like pancakes, waffles, cookies and even pastry crusts. When using coconut flour you will need to add equal or more part liquids as it soaks up liquid extremely fast and without the extra liquid your baking or cooking will turn out quite dry, crumbly and even fall apart or not even bind at all. Adding more eggs when using coconut flour helps as well. Almond does soak up liquid as well but not nearly as generously as coconut flour.