Your Baking Questions Answered

The dynamic duo behind Columbia City Bakery answer our readers' burning questions in the kitchen
| Updated: April 13, 2020
Our baking connoisseurs: Marlena Zatloukal and Evan Andres of Columbia City Bakery

So you’re obsessed with home baking projects now, with a sourdough starter you’ve named and a hot tip on where to find black market flour. Join the club.

We figured we’d help you learn to be better bakers: You asked questions on social media, we went to the experts for answers. Below, read through the incredibly thorough and brilliant advice of Columbia City Bakery owner Evan Andres and pastry chef Marlena Zatloukal. (The bakery is temporarily closed due to the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, but you can, and should, buy gift cards here to support them in the meantime.)

Question # 1. Explain the difference between your everyday flours? AP, Caputo, OO, etc...

The two main variables in different types of flour are protein content, and how much of the wheat bran and germ have been removed after milling. 

At the bakery, our everyday flours are bread flour, all-purpose (AP) flour, cake flour, whole wheat flour (WW), whole rye flour (WR) and durum flour.  The main difference between bread flour, AP flour, and cake flour is the protein level. Bread flour will have a protein content of 11.7% - 12.3%, all-purpose 10.5% - 11.5%, and cake flour 7% - 9%.  Durum is a different variety of wheat and is primarily known as a flour for making pasta. It has a protein level of 12.2%. The WW and WR flours are milled at the bakery just before we use them to ensure that they are as flavorful as possible. They are the whole wheat or rye berry, with none of the bran or germ removed. The protein content of whole wheat flour can also be very high, but less predictable. 

In general, higher protein flours mean more structure. For a delicate cake layer that will melt in your mouth, cake flour is best. For crusty, chewy bread, I use higher protein flours. The combination of flours I use determines the toothiness of the crust and the flavor and chewiness of the crumb in the final loaf. At the bakery, we proof the shaped loaves overnight in a walk-in refrigerator. I have found that higher protein flours stand up better than lower protein flours during this long fermentation time.

As a bread baker, I do not use Caputo or 00 flours. These are Italian milled flours that are mostly used for pizza and pasta making. The grading system ranges from 2 to 00 and indicates how finely ground the flour is and how much bran and germ has been removed. Caputo flour is made from the European winter wheat and has been ground to a fine powder. It is favored for pizza making!

Question # 2. What's your best corn bread recipe? 

I know there is some debate about this, but I like a sweet cornbread. This is my go-to:

2oz unsalted Butter, melted
6oz honey
2 eggs
1C buttermilk
1/2t baking soda
4.75oz fine cornmeal
4.5oz all-purpose flour
1t salt

  1. Whisk together cornmeal, flour and salt, and set aside.
  2. Whisk together melted butter, honey and eggs until very well combined. 
  3. Combine buttermilk and baking soda. Add to butter and honey and mix to combine.
  4. Add dry ingredients and mix just until combined.
  5. Pour into a buttered or oiled 8-inch-by-8-inch pan.
  6. Bake at 475 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through the center. Test with a toothpick or cake tester!

This is a simple recipe, and so the quality of the cornbread will depend on the quality of the ingredients. Use the best butter, honey and cornmeal you have! At the bakery we are currently using a buckwheat honey from Mt. Adam’s Honey. It is dark and earthy and wonderful. We mill our own cornmeal so that it is as fresh and flavorful as possible! You most likely don’t have a mill—just find a good organic cornmeal that smells strongly of corn and you will be good!

Question # 3. What can we replace eggs with, while baking muffins? 

Muffins are a great pastry for making egg substitutions—the smaller size means that you don’t have to worry as much about missing the lift that eggs give to batters. There are several easy egg substitutions that I trust. If you are making a hearty, dense muffin (bran, morning glory, whole wheat, etc.) I would recommend the classic banana! One small ripe banana can replace one egg. Add it at the step where you would add the egg, and mix thoroughly. If you are making a lighter cake-like muffin, I would use a powdered egg replacer. I like this recreation of an Ener-G type replacer. I have also been experimenting recently with Aquafaba powder! It is the dried liquid leftover from cooking chickpeas. Here’s one that I have used. I was skeptical, but it has been working great in several of my muffin and tea cake recipes! I have found that when making any substitution for eggs, I need to increase the bake time for the pastry to account for the extra liquid and density.

Question # 4. Can I make decent pita bread at home? 

I have successfully made a good pocket pita at home using a pizza stone. The key is kneading well to ensure that the pita dough is strong enough to balloon in the oven.  

Here is a recipe I have used:

1C 80-degree water
1T dry active yeast
1T sugar or honey
3C flour (white or WW)
2tsp salt
2T olive oil

  1. Stir the yeast and honey into the warm water and let sit 10 minutes. 
  2. Combine with flour, salt and olive oil, and mix then knead for 10 minutes until soft and smooth. Let rise 1 to 2 hours in a bowl covered with a dish towel until doubled. 
  3. Deflate and divide into 8 balls and let rest, covered with a dish towel for 30 min. 
  4. Roll into discs about 6 inches across and rest on a floured surface for 10 to 15 min. 
  5. Preheat oven with pizza stone to 450 degrees. Bake until desired color is achieved, around 4 to 6 min.

Question # 5. I've noticed puff pastry has flour in the butter layer. Should croissants also have that? 

I prefer not to add flour to the butter unless I absolutely have to—I believe it makes a crisper layer to leave it out. This requires a very good high fat, consistent butter, which is hard to come by even for us! Flour can be added to the butter blocks used for laminating croissant dough if the butter you are using is wet. Water content in the butter blocks will pool together as you laminate, causing the butter to crack and possibly even tearing through the dough. Rub a finger over your butter or squeeze some in your hand—if your hand comes away with a coating of water, you should add a small amount of flour to your butter. Two tablespoons for each pound of butter is plenty. It will form a structure in the butter that will keep all of the moisture contained.

Question # 6. Best vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe? 

Vegan baking is not my strong suit, so I do not have a favorite vegan chocolate chip cookie recipe at hand. But I can advise about my philosophy for converting recipes to meet any type of dietary restrictions! Look for a recipe with the smallest amount of ingredient that you will have to substitute. If I am converting a recipe to be gluten free, I want to start with one that has very little flour in it anyway. If I am converting a recipe to be vegan, I want to start with one that has as little eggs and dairy as possible. Most chocolate chip cookie recipes call for both butter and eggs. Eggs are not a huge part of the structure of a chewy cookie—if there are only a couple of eggs in a recipe, they can be replaced with a splash of non-dairy milk. The more important substitution in a chocolate chip cookie is for the butter. You can’t go wrong with Earth Balance for a butter substitute—it has good flavor and good structure even when heated.

Question # 7. Easy pie crust recipe please?

Easy pie crust is the best pie crust! Pie crust is one of those recipes that we tend to overthink and get very fussy with. I like an all-butter, very simple recipe. Here’s my favorite:

1 lb. 4 oz all-purpose flour
2t salt
1 lb. butter, as cold as possible
3/4 C ice water

  1. Cut cold butter into ½” cubes. Set aside in the refrigerator to chill. Butter should be as cold as possible when you start to mix.
  2. Measure flour and salt into a mixing bowl—either a stand mixer or a large hand mixing bowl. Stir a few times to distribute the salt.
  3. Fill a pitcher with ice water and set aside. Have a measuring cup or small pitcher handy.
  4. Add cold butter to flour and mix on low speed, or cut in by hand with a pastry cutter or fork until the butter is completely cut into the flour. The texture should be like cornmeal, and the dough should just begin to start clumping together.
  5. Measure water from pitcher of ice water just before adding to dough to ensure that the water is as cold as possible. Add all of the water in a quick heavy stream.
  6. Mix just enough that the water is evenly distributed, and the dough comes together in one large ball.
  7. Wrap in plastic and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Keep everything cold and you’ll be fine!

Question # 8. How much should a sourdough bread rise before it's ready to bake? 

For however long it needs to give you the loaf you are looking for. Baking for me is about problem solving and system creation to maximize optimum results consistently. What does that mean? Trial and error. Take notes. Invest in a thermometer and a digital scale. When you get a loaf you like, go back to those notes and measurements and see how you got there. I also suggest baking the same loaf over and over until you can make it the way you like consistently. 

I love that so many people are baking with sourdough at home these days. A challenging part about using sourdough is maintaining a healthy, vibrant, culture that responds predictably during the bread making process. To make good sourdough consistently, you have to really get to know your starter. At the bakery, the starters are fed twice a day, seven days a week, and used in bread every day.  At home you might only bake once or twice a week, but sourdough cultures do best when on a schedule.  

If I am using a starter that is healthy and strong, I find that once I have mixed the dough and let it ferment for around three hours, divided it, rested it, and then shaped it, I have maybe two or three hours before the loaf is ready to bake. Stiffness and strength of the dough, room temperature, and shaping technique will affect final proofing times. When ready, the loaf will be visibly larger and puffy and to the touch will give a little and resist slightly.  

I am working on a new dough right now at home. I have been making batches large enough to have several loaves to experiment with. With my last batch I had three loaves. I left one out to bake, and put two in the refrigerator. I baked another loaf after a few hours, and left the last loaf to bake the next morning.  Each loaf had a different flavor and texture. I liked the second one best, so went back to my notes about how long it was proofed and will try to recreate that in my next batch!

Question # 9. How do you make a cake more dense? 

If you are after a dense cake layer, there are a couple of approaches to try. The first is to add or substitute ingredients that will weigh down the lift of the cake. Substituting oil or another liquid fat for butter, melting the butter, substituting sour cream or yogurt for milk, or increasing the amount of fat or liquid in a recipe will all lend a denser texture to a cake. Our two densest cake layers—the house chocolate and the carrot cake—are oil based recipes. The other option is to remove ingredients that serve to lift and lighten the crumb of the cake. Take out an egg, decrease the chemical leavening ingredients, or cream the butter and sugar less to incorporate less air into the batter. Any of those steps will tighten up the crumb of the cake!

Question # 10. Sad bread.  What the heck did I do wrong?

Just from looking at the photo we have several ideas:

Leavening. If this bread is sourdough, I think that your starter is not active enough.  If you are using commercial yeast, make sure that it has not expired. Also use a little more yeast than you have been.
Development. Knead the dough more to develop the gluten and build a stronger cell structure which will improve crumb structure.
Oven temperature. Try baking the loaf at a higher temperature.
Proving. You may be “over proofing” the loaf before baking at which point the gluten structure is breaking down and no longer able to hold the gases created during fermentation.
Flour. Be sure you are using wheat flour with a protein level sufficient to make bread (11.5% to 12.5%). You can substitute and combine other flours like rye, barley, or spelt but these don’t have the same properties as wheat flour.

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