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Q: making brownies ( Answered,   0 Comments )
Subject: making brownies
Category: Family and Home > Food and Cooking
Asked by: gedaliah-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 08 Sep 2003 13:22 PDT
Expires: 08 Oct 2003 13:22 PDT
Question ID: 253594
I am an American living in Johannesburg S Africa.  I have made a
living since 1990 making brownies. The problem regarding altitude/air
pressure is fairly well known and I have to some extent learned how to
handle it. I spent three years making literally thousands of brownie
cakes (my brownies are made in baking pans and are 20 x 24 by 5 cm – 8
x 10 x 2 in) in order to create what I’m pretty sure is a unique
recipe. I am capable of making extremely good, dense & chewy brownies
MOST of the time.  They contain very little air and hence keep very
well, can be frozen, defrosted, refrozen endlessly without any
problems.  They weigh over 1.5 kg (that’s about 3.3 pounds).
However, over the years I have learned that there are some variables
which periodically require significant alterations in the recipe. 
Some of these variables I am aware of, but I'm pretty sure there are
others of which I am not.  I know, e.g., that flour is an important
variable -- I know that I want 'soft' flour, with a minimal protein
content.  I do not think that that is one of the current variables of
which I am ignorant or not able to deal with.
In spite of making a pretty decent living producing brownies, I get so
frustrated that I frequently want to abandon the entire business,
because I am a bit of a perfectionist.  If the end product does not
suit me, I will not sell them, even though customers here almost never
complain.  But though they may not complain, they will not rave about
them (as they do when they are ‘right’), and eventually my business
will suffer.  And in any case, I simply cannot sell something I’m not
satisfied with!
What I would like to know is: (1) knowing that air pressure (due to
altitude – Johannesburg is about one mile high) makes the recipe here
quite a bit different than at sea level, requiring less raising
agent), I have recently become aware (through buying an altimeter
watch) that at any given altitude the barometric pressure can vary
considerably, day to day.  In terms of altitude, it can change its
reading by as much as 120 meters (at the same physical altitude) over
a period of a few days.  I’m not sure exactly what this represents in
terms of change in air pressure, but it’s quite a bit.
So my first question is: can these day to day changes in barometric
pressure noticeably alter the texture of a brownie, by making it more,
or less, dense?  I know that if I were to use the same recipe that I
use here (one mile high), at sea level, it would badly fall (in the
centre) and would not be commercially viable.  Conversely, if I were
to use a sea level recipe here (one mile high), it would overflow the
pan and would in any case be much too ‘caky’, i.e., have too much air
in the brownie.
So this first question is: can the differences in air pressure that
result from ‘weather’ (high pressure, low pressure etc), at one and
the same altitude, make a substantial difference in the ‘cakiness’ vs
collapsing of a brownie?  And could that be one of the reasons for
these recurring problems in baking brownies?  I am doubtful that this
can be a significant factor because I can go for long periods – say
six months – without having to change the recipe at all, and then,
over a period of a few months, have to be constantly changing it.  I
don’t think changes in barometric pressure work that way.
My other question (for now, at least) is: (2) could a change in the
moisture content of the flour be a significant factor in the same
regard – texture/density etc?  And can the humidity significantly
affect the flour’s moisture?  If the moisture content of the flour is
important, would simply adding more (or less) water to the batter be a
solution?  For the first five or so years, I did all the baking
myself, but I could not really tell you, even now, what effect
changing the amount of water in the batter makes, other than that too
little water makes it difficult to pour.
I’m aware that these may seem very ‘minute’ questions and that there
may not be anyone who can really answer them.  I have other questions
as well, about flavour and the apparent change in the quality of cocoa
powder, but I won’t get into that now.  And it may well be that the
variables I am looking for lie altogether elsewhere – temperature,
humidity (Johannesburg is very dry, almost semi-desert).  If so,
that’s what I’d like to know about.
I just read your tips about how much to be willing to pay.  I have
listed $100, but would be willing to pay more to be in touch with
experts on this subject.  It needs both someone who has a great deal
of hands on experience with baking, probably brownies, but also
someone analytic enough to be able to think through some of these
issues.  The kind of problem you get in finding a good auto mechanic
or doctor!

Eugene Valberg

Request for Question Clarification by missy-ga on 08 Sep 2003 19:26 PDT
Hello Eugene!

What a terrific question!

I'm checking in to let you know that your query is being investigated
- not to worry!  It *is* going to take a while, though, as there are a
number of sources I'm combing to try to explain the details for you.

The short of it is that yes, barometric pressure, moisture content of
the flour, temperature of the flour, and a host of other nit-picky
little things can indeed affect the texture and density of *any* baked

Chef Marda Stoliar explains:

"It takes observant bakers who see what their surroundings are every
day. You can't go in and bake the same way every day and get the same
great loaf of bread. You have to be aware of the water temperature,
flour temperature, room temperature, barometric pressure. All of those
things will have bearings on the finished product."

International School of Baking

This is true not just for breads, but for pastries and cakes as well. 
Baking is often referred to as a delicate science for a reason!

Please don't chuck your brownie business out the window!  Even world
famous bakers have the problem you're experiencing!  In the meantime,
I'll keep you apprised of the progress.

--Missy, who likes to play in the kitchen.

Clarification of Question by gedaliah-ga on 09 Sep 2003 11:31 PDT
Hi Chef Marda,

I'm still a novice at Google Questions and didn't quite know how to
post a 'clarification'.

About my brownie question: Please remember that these problems --
these 'gremlins' -- can be in abeyance for months at a time, so that
are unlikely to be things that do change and fluctuate nearly every

Btw, I went to your website and was most most interested and
fascinated by the
discussion of bread.  I do not bake bread but everything you related
resonates with me totally!  Strangely enough, there are good bakeries
in Jhb, almost all run by Europeans (Italians & Germans that I know
of). You can get extremely good rye bread.  I was in Nigeria for three
years and once went to neighouring Benin (francophone).  I had had a
frech baguette years before and expected the Cotenue version to be
poor.  It wasn't.  It was very good.

I would love to discuss such things with you someday and would make a
good understudy!  I do have some interesting 'flat' bread stories to
relate, where the culprit was almost certainly the flour.  In both
Nairobi Kenya and Port Moresby Papua New Guinea (where I was teaching
Philosophy at the local universities as I did in Nigeria), I used to
make fabulous flat bread (no 'pocket').  Not commercially, just for my
own use.  Friends who tasted it in PNG did indeed rave about it. As
you say on your site, simple as could be, but the result was an
outstandingly chewy texture, 'leathery', as I would put it, to which
was added sesame seeds put into the dough itself.  No yeast.

Anyway, all of a sudden, NG.  Hadn't a clue.  Tried and tried, but
never came out right again. All the flour in PNG came from Australia,
and there obviously was a change in this respect.  I have tried here
as well, with no results.

So, back to brownies.  I did pick up one possiblly relevant idea
today.  Was speaking to someone about barometers and he mentioned
(what is pretty obvious) that as temp goes up humidity will tend to go
down, since heat makes water evaporate.  The most recent spate of
problems have been going on for about a month now, and this just
happens to coincide with the transition from the cold season to the
warm season.  The winters here, while not as cold as even 15 years ago
(when I came), are still much cooler than the summers.  Temps
fluctuate greatly from day to night, but average temps from say a
month ago to now has to be up by at least 10 Celcius.  Unfortunately,
I have kept no notes or records of the last 13 years, and so could not
tell you if this is a pattern or not.

As I mentioned earlier, Jhb is very dry.  This guy told me that the
average humidity here (now?) is about 55%.  I'm not sure how much it
varies throughout the year, but summer (now beginning) is generally
the rainy season.

In any case,I know next to nothing about flour and moisture content
(MC), except that millers can give you a figure, and I recall recently
being told that the MC of the flour I buy is 7%.  But I know even less
about how the ambient (air) humidity affects the MC of flour, nor do I
know anything about how MC of the flour would affect the result
(texture etc).  Finally, I do not know how, if I did know how humidity
affected the results, -- how I could rectify it.  (I think I referred
to this in my first letter.)  We add about one litre of water to the
batter now (though this varies with the variety of brownie -- we make
choc, carob and vanilla, all with and without pecans).

Will look forward to hearing of anything you can come up with.


Eugene Valberg

Request for Question Clarification by missy-ga on 09 Sep 2003 12:03 PDT
Hello again!

I think we've got a little misunderstanding...I'm not Chef
Marda...she's simply a source I used to help explain the factors that
can affect baking.

I've spent considerable time reading my own cookbooks, and visiting
the library today to get more information for you, I hope to have the
final answer prepared for you by this evening.

Subject: Re: making brownies
Answered By: missy-ga on 09 Sep 2003 21:19 PDT
Hello Eugene!

As a lifelong cooking enthusiast and chocolate fiend (colleague
Pinkfreud rightly allows that I'll answer anything that smells like
chocolate!), I found your query to be both interesting and
challenging.  Questions about the culinary arts are always
fascinating, and it's a pleasure to find someone else to talk food

Please let me reassure you that while I'm not a professionally trained
baker, I had rigorous instruction under the watchful eye and
velvet-gloved iron fist of my great-grandmother for many years, and
have been cooking and baking for family and friends since I was a mere
slip of a girl - more than 20 years.  I hope my extensive practical
experience will compensate for my lack of professional cooking

As you are already aware, there are a number of factors that influence
the way baked goods turn out.  While minute fluctuations won't
necessarily ruin a recipe, a combination of these fluctuations can
significantly alter the texture of a given cake, bread, or pastry,
much to the chagrin of even the most flexible and nonchalant of
bakers.  Perfectionists such as yourself will find this doubly

There are several things to consider when trying to determine what is
affecting your recipe:  storage of your dry ingredients, temperature
and size of your eggs, mixing of your eggs, ambient temperature,
ambient humidity, temperature of your liquid ingredients, temperature
and moisture content of your flour, fluctuations in barometric
pressure, and how you measure your ingredients.

Much of learning to take these factors into account comes from day to
day experience in your craft.  Some of it can be learned from
consulting the "authorities".  I've attempted to provide possible
solutions based on hard references *and* personal experience here.

One of the first sources I consulted when researching your query was
Larousse Gastronomique, long regarded as *the* ultimate cooking
reference.  Originally compiled by Prosper Montagne in 1938 and
currently edited by renowned chef JoŽl Robuchon, Larousse
Gastronomique addresses virtually every kitchen concern one could
imagine.  Only virtually, alas.  It did not, offer much detail about
brownies, save that brownies first appeared in the Boston Cooking
School Cookbook in 1896, written by Fannie Merritt Farmer.  Further
perusal notes that flour can be affected by humidity, and that it is
necessary to pay careful attention to ambient conditions when
adjusting recipes to take these factors into account.

Not terribly helpful, but it was interesting to learn the origin of
the brownie, at any rate.

The Professional Chef, 7th Edition (published for the Culinary
Institute of America by John Wiley & Sons) likewise is fairly oblique.
 Page 202 notes that one should store dry goods, flour included, in a
clean, dry, well ventilated place, well off the floor, and use the
first in/first out method of rotation.

Again, not terribly helpful.  But fear not!  There are solutions!

As you know, cooking at a higher elevation requires some little extra
tricks to make your recipes turn out well.  About 25% less leavening
agent is required than recipes prepared at sea level, because the
decreased pressure allows leavened products to rise much faster.  You
say your altimeter shows fluctuations of about 120 meters, but don't
indicate whether it's increased pressure (lower altitude) or decreased
pressure (higher altitude).  I investigated both option, and found
nothing to indicate that such a relatively small fluctuation would
have much of an effect.  You might want to tinker slightly with your
formulation to test, but from what you've indicated, it would seem the
difficulty lies elsewhere - namely, with your flour.

First, it's important to understand flour - how to choose it, how to
store it, what its moisture content should be, and how to be certain
that it's ready to be used.  You're absolutely correct that for
decadent brownies, you'll want a soft flour.  That's not your problem.
 Part of your problem (I suspect) is that your flour is getting too
dry and causing your batter to seize and become uncooperative.

You say the moisture content of the flour you're purchasing is 7%. 
According to The Joy of Baking, wheat flour (as opposed to rice, rye,
barley, potato or corn flour) should be at or near 14% moisture
content, so it would appear to me that you're already operating at a
slight disadvantage.  Factor in Johannesburg's low humidity, and your
flour is practically crying for a drink!  Flour that is too dry
requires extra care in storage, as well as extra liquids in recipes.

When storing your flour, the National Flour Mills FAQ recommends that
you keep it in a dark, climate controlled room, at a temperature
between 68F and 70F, with a relative humidity of 60% - 65%.  Given
that your flour is already a little on the dry side, be certain to let
it bask in that lovely, slightly higher humidity, to get some of its
perkiness back, and store the unused contents of opened bags in
airtight containers to prevent later moisture loss.

Next, consider the preparation methods.  How are you measuring?  Are
these brownies being baked in small batches?  Small batch bakers often
measure their dry ingredients by volume, not weight.  This can lead to
inconsistencies from batch to batch, upsetting one's aesthetic
sensibilities.  The Culinary Institute of America, Julia Child, and Le
Cordon Bleu all recommend the same prcedure for measuring:  weight,
weight, weight!  This is the best way to ensure that your formulation
will be consistent from batch to batch and day to day.  It's much
easier to adjust for environmental factors on a given day if your
basic formulation is consistent.  You say you don't do the baking
yourself anymore...check in on your bakers, and if they aren't
precisely weighing out the dry ingredients before starting the batter,
make them start.

What about the temperature of the ingredients?  Are the temperatures
of each ingredient about the same (at or near room temperature?) 
Wayne Gisslen notes in Le Cordon Bleu's Professional Baking manual
that it's important to make sure that your ingredients all fall within
the same temperature range.  If your flour is too cool or your eggs
are being used straight from the refrigerator, or your water is too
cold, or the chocolate too hot, you're going to "shock" one ingredient
or another and affect the finished product's density and texture. 
Either leave the eggs out for an hour or so to let them come to room
temperature, or if you're in a bit of a rush (i.e. someone forgot to
pull them out), plop them in a hot water bath (NOT boiling!) until the
shells are slightly warm to the touch.  If you've properly stored your
flour, and properly cooled your chocolate, you're ready to go as soon
as your eggs are.

How are your eggs being handled during the mixing process?  Mr.
Gisslen explains in the brownie instructions on page 420 of Le Cordon
Bleu's Professional Baking manual that overbeating the eggs will cause
your brownies to become too light, too caky.  If your bakers are
"foaming" the eggs, they're mixing them too hard and introducing too
much air into the batter, causing them to be more like cake and less
like fudge.  Also, at higher elevations, it's recommended that you use
extra large eggs because they offer a bit more moisture (especially
important when the humidity is lower).

If, after adjusting these variables, your brownies are still too caky
to suit you, consider adding an extra (gently beaten) egg to the
batter.  At higher elevations, the cell structure of baked goods can
become fragile due to the decreased air pressure - without the
"heavier" air of lower elevations pressing down on the surface of the
brownie, the cell structure can expand too rapidly.  An extra egg will
add body and texture, and bolster the structure of the brownie to keep
it from expanding too rapidly or exploding altogether.

Bruce Weinstein, author of The Ultimate Brownie Book, offers some
additional tricks:

-- For the "fudgiest" brownies, only use enough flour to hold the
butter, sugar, eggs and chocolate together.  (Try decreasing your
flour a little bit, especially on drier days, until you're satisfied
with the mix.)

-- Sift your flour, then weigh it.  If you use cocoa powder instead of
melted chocolate, sift that too.  Sifting "fluffs" the dry
ingredients, allowing the wet ingredients to bind more quickly and

-- Weigh *everything*.

-- Always thoroughly mix your dry ingredients in a bowl separate from
your wet ingredients.  This ensures even distribution of your
leavening agent, and keeps your leavening agent from getting too happy
and going to work before you're ready.  Add your wet ingredients to
the dry ingredients, and mix them thoroughly but *gently*.

-- If practical, pick the pans up about halfway through the baking
cycle and give them a gentle but firm rap against the oven rack.  This
will cause the brownie to "fall", keeping it dense and toothsome.

To this, let me add my great-grandmother's considerable wisdom:  Taste
and touch everything as you make your adjustments.  When your mix is
"on", you'll know it by the way the batter feels on your fingers and
on your tongue

Of course, I can't guarantee that these tips will ensure that every
batch is perfect - your own artistry and tinkering will have to do
that! - but these will certainly get you on your way to being happy
with your product again.  Bakers are often their own harshest critics,
so it might help to get one of your assistants to help out with taste
testing while you tinker.

I used the following sources when composing your answer ( books marked
with a * reside in my personal collection, the rest were borrowed from
the library):

*Larousse Gastronomique - Prosper Montagne, JoŽl Robuchon (Editor)

*The Professional Chef, 2nd Edition - The Culinary Institute of
Published by Institutions Magazine, 1969 (Out of print.)

*The Professional Chef, 7th Edition - The Culinary Institute of
America - 2001

Le Cordon Bleu's Professional Baking, 3rd Edition - Wayne Gisslen

Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks - David Joachim

*The Ultimate Brownie Book - Bruce Weinstein

Baking with Julia : Sift, Knead, Flute, Flour, And Savor... - Dorie

*Understanding Baking - Joseph Amendola

Humidity and the effects on baking



National Flour Mills FAQ

Cooking Q&A: How to properly store food

Quality Assurance

Joan's Pie and Pastry Primer

Temperature and humidity including measuring & controling instruments

High Altitude Baking

If you're inclined to do a little reading for the sake of your craft,
consider writing to the Colorado State University Cooperative
Extension to purchase a copy of their cookbook:

A Complete Guide to High Altitude Baking - Editor, Patricia Kendall
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 2003,
CE42, 6 x 9 paper bound, 190 pages, ISBN.1-889593-06-0

The book is only $14.95, and the CSUCE will ship overseas if you
e-mail in advance of your order to ask for shipping rates.  The book
is written for the high altitude cook, and contains additional tips
and tricks to help *all* of your dishes come out the way you want them
to, every time.

I hope you find this information as helpful as I found your query
interesting!  If I can be of furhter assistance, please just ask for
clarification.  I'll be happy to help. I'm hungry for
brownies! ;)


Search terms:  [ "store flour" temperature humidity ]
[ "high altitude" baking ]
[ humidity baking ]
[ "barometric pressure" baking ]
[ humidity altitude baking ]
[ "ideal humidity" flour ] the noted books and twenty years of practical baking

Request for Answer Clarification by gedaliah-ga on 09 Sep 2003 23:08 PDT
Thanks.  I admit I wasn't clear just who was who.  Will await your
findings.  Gene Valberg

Clarification of Answer by missy-ga on 10 Sep 2003 11:33 PDT
Good morning, Gene!

Did our posts cross in the ether?  Your answer has been posted, please
don't hesitate to ask for clarification if you need additional

There are no comments at this time.

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