separating wet and dry ingredients

Separating Wet and Dry Ingredients Creates a Better Bake

Are Two Mixing Bowls Really Necessary?

If you’ve ever dabbled in baking, chances are you’ve read a step instructing you to separate the wet and dry ingredients into different bowls. When you reach that stage of a recipe, you’re presented with the choice of two paths. One option follows the instructions and trusts the process, even if it’s an extra step and bowl to wash. The other path says to hell with doing extra dishes and instead uses one mixing bowl. They’re all going to blend anyways, right? While one less dish to wash is a gift from the kitchen gods, there is a reason most recipes include separating wet and dry ingredients in their steps. Will using one bowl have an impact on the flavor? Not at all. However, it may produce a dense or tough bake thanks to gluten development.  

Gluten Development? Doesn't Flour Already Contain Gluten?

When people think of flour, we think of a simple grain that is wheat-based or a gluten-free alternative. But there’s a lot more going on at a molecular level than we may realize. Technically, flour doesn’t contain gluten. I know; I was shocked too. What flour does contain is glutenin and gliadin, two of the three building blocks needed to make gluten. The third block is water; once that is added, the proteins mix and create gluten. Gluten-free flour simply doesn’t contain glutenin and gliadin. 

wheat growing

I may be splitting hairs, but it’s important to know how gluten forms as a baker. Once gluten starts to produce, science becomes the backseat driver of your recipe. If you’re not a food nerd like me and enjoy the science behind it, don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief. 

Gluten Creates Structure

When glutenin and gliadin first mix in water, the molecules are jumbled. As a recipe is mixed or kneaded, the molecules organize, and gluten strands form. Those strands create structure and elasticity in pasta, pizza dough, bread, and cakes. The more you work a dough or batter, the stronger the gluten strands and connections will become. If you’ve ever overmixed pizza dough, you know the frustration of trying to roll it only to snap back into a ball. The overproduction of gluten causes that rubbery effect, and it will need time for the strands to relax. Baking with gluten is all about finding the sweet spot. You don’t need many gluten strands to group together for cakes and muffins baked in molds. The opposite is true for artisan bread which requires more strands to hold its shape, and that’s why it’s kneaded to create the strands. One way to control gluten production is to separate wet and dry ingredients. 

Separating Wet and Dry Ingredients Controls Gluten Formation

Once water mixes with glutenin and gliadin proteins, the gluten production and connecting strands can have a mind of their own. Luckily, knowing how gluten behaves allows you to have some control over it. Separating wet and dry ingredients is one form of control, and how you mix a recipe is another. There are two ways separating ingredients provides control: 

Delayed Gluten Formation

The first advantage of separating ingredients is you control when the building blocks of gluten come together. If you have a bowl of dry ingredients and a second with wet, you can mix them individually without kicking off gluten formation. And by mixing the ingredients separately, they will combine more quickly once you do blend them.  How you combine ingredients can significantly impact gluten chain formation.

Controlling Gluten Chains

You may be tempted to blend the ingredients in one go, but there’s a better way. Once you’ve given the wet and dry ingredients a whisk separately, combine the ingredients in three smaller batches. In between batches, lightly fold to mix the ingredients. Once you’ve added the last batch, stir just enough to combine. The more you work a dough or batter, the more gluten molecules collide and form chains. It may take a little longer, but the result is worth it! 

Is Separating Wet and Dry Ingredients Needed for Gluten-Free Recipes?

For gluten-free bakers, you may assume that it isn’t necessary to separate gluten-free ingredients. After all, if separating is to control gluten formation, why separate a gluten-free recipe? Gluten-free recipes are possible by replacing wheat flour with rice, coconut, almond, and even potato flour. Manufacturers often create blends with additives like xanthan gum and arrowroot to replicate the structure created by wheat flour. Gluten-free alternatives typically absorb more water, so more liquid is needed. To promote even absorption, separating ingredients can help avoid clumping and produce a more even bake. Separating wet and dry ingredients is essential not only for gluten control but also even mixing. 

Additional Resources

What we covered today is just the tip of the gluten iceberg. When I was researching gluten formation, I found a few helpful resources that went in-depth into how gluten forms and reacts in recipes. Those resources include:

Save Your Bakes and Use a Second Bowl

The next time you’re baking a recipe at home, take the time to reach for a second bowl if a recipe instructs you to. While separating ingredients doesn’t affect the flavor of a recipe, it can impact gluten production. The number of gluten chains that form can quickly turn a lighter bake into one that’s dense, rubbery, and not as enjoyable. And if you’re taking the time to make a recipe at home, why sacrifice the quality? If you learned something new today, I’d love to hear it in the comments! 

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