Kitchen 101: How to Fold Batter Like a Boss

March 21, 2014

More often than not, recipes are nothing if not cryptic. Whip? Fold? Beat? Cream? And don’t all these things mean the same — to MIX together? The truth is that recipe instructions frequently assume that we all have a chefy vocabulary, which poses a problem when baking because the specific way that we do what we do means something, and makes a difference in the end. Just the same way that melted butter and cold butter make very different pie crusts, so too does the amount of air we incorporate into a batter. There are so many different examples of this but let’s focus on one at a time. Specifically, folding batter.

You’ve all seen those little words in recipes for cakes, muffins and the like before: “FOLD IN.”  If you’re in a rush, you might figure that this means to mix more gently. So, you turn the mixer on a lower speed and voila! You’re cake/muffin/waffle batter is done! But, then you might find that your cupcake crumbs aren’t as light and airy as you might like. Or, worse yet, your cupcakes are more like hockey pucks than cakes. 

When you see “fold in” in a recipe, typically means to use a rubber spatula to very gently, but deliberately incorporate a mixture(s). Why fold? Because whipping, stirring, or mixing (or over-mixing) a batter can result in too much gluten developing. Gluten is the protein that gives breads, cakes and baked goods structure and too much makes your cookies, cakes and breads tough. By folding ingredients gently, some air, but not too much, is incorporated into your batter without making the finished product tough.  This is why you might find that cookie recipes suggest you fold in chocolate chips, nuts or other add-ins at the end of the mixing process; so as not to over-mix the batter. Folding is especially important when working with sponge cake and egg whites; the instructions will suggest that you fold in egg whites so that you don’t deflate the batter because you’ll be mixing with a hand more gently than a stand mixer could. Sometimes you just gotta be gentle. With recipes like this Chocolate Chocolate Rye Muffin that I posted earlier this week, folding is the preferred method for mixing the entire process so that you get a nice airy muffin from whole grain flour. The good news is that this is the least equipment-intensive way of baking, but does take a little extra attention in the technique department.

Because its quite a bit easier to SHOW you how to fold batter (instead of just describing the technique,) I thought I’d put together a little video that cuts to the chase. (The first video on this site! Also, maybe the last. Unless you really like them. What do you think?) 

A couple of notes on folding: when folding you’ll always be adding dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and folding in the ingredients in stages. This is to say you NEVER want to add all the dry ingredients at once, and then fold them in. This will deflate the batter, and will make lots and lots of lumps in your batter and you’ll have to over mix so it will come together. Instead, add some dry ingredients and fold. When those ingredients are completely incorporated, add some more and repeat until all the dry ingredients are mixed into the batter. Working with this technique will you make muffins, cakes, cookies and sponges like a BOSS, even if it takes a couple of extra minutes. I know it seems tricky at first, but the truth is that once you get your rhythm down its pretty satisfying and almost meditative because you’ll actually be watching your muffins (or whatever) come to life, instead of allowing a machine to do it for you. 

So! If you’re a reader, not a watcher this is what you’ll see in the video: me (well, at least my hands) adding the last of the three stages for my Chocolate Chocolate Rye Muffins. Then, I’ll gently plunge the head of a spatula down (holding it so that the spine of the spatula is facing up,) in the center of the mixture. I’ll draw the spatula to the left (you could go right if you’re a lefty,) scraping the bottom of the bowl, turning the head of the spatula so that the flat side faces up and scooping the batter up to the surface. As the batter reaches the surface, I’ll turn the spatula in my hand so as to gently lay the batter across the bowl. When the spatula reaches a point directly in front of me, I turn the bowl 180degrees with my left hand, and repeat, so that the whole bowl gets mixed evenly. I’ll repeat this technique for several minutes, until the dry ingredients are incorporated and we end up with an un-lumpy, chocolaty batter.  

Questions? Good! That means you’re starting to fold like a boss! Get at me with them, and enjoy a weekend of muffins/cakes/and (maybe) waffle batter! Yum! – xo L

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