A Baking Primer
Baking is a science, yes. But just because English was more your jam doesn't mean you can't master this. Below are some brass tacks, best practice principles for baking that I promise will make you a better, happier, more successful baker.
Before you start...
- Read your recipe in it's entirety from beginning to end. Twice.
First things first, you need to know what you're getting into.
- Preheat your oven.
Unless your recipe calls for whatever you're making to rest (hang out for awhile in the fridge or on the counter) preheating your oven giving it ample time to come to temperature is your first step.
- Gather all of your tools and ingredients.
The process of doing this is called mis en place. It's a French term meaning "put in place." Put everything you'll need for your recipe on the counter within reach. Timing is essential in baking and streamlining your process will make it all that much more enjoyable. Plus, now (not halfway through) is the time to discover that you're out of eggs.
- Prepare your pans.
This is part of your mis en place. Line with parchment, butter and flour, do whatever your recipe asks so that when you're done assembling the ingredients your batter can go straight from the bowl to the pan to the oven.
- Soften your butter if the recipe calls for it.
Some recipes call for frozen butter (most pie crusts and doughs), some for melted. Most call for room temperature butter. It's the ingredient to which all the other ingredients depend on for even incorporation. If it's too cold it won't cream to that smooth, silky consistency. Pull your butter from the fridge, cut the cube in half, and let it hang on the counter for an hour or so. You can also soften it in the microwave in 5 second bursts just be careful not to melt it. Flip the cube to a new side at every interval until just softened.
- Bring your eggs to room temperature.
You've gone to all that trouble to soften your butter. Adding cold eggs to your mixing bowl can unravel all that hard work and potentially throw off your batter by seizing your butter. Imagine a cold water blast after a hot shower. Now you gotta shave your legs again and that is SO annoying. Bring your eggs to room temperature on the counter or, if you need them sooner, place them in a bowl and cover with hot tap water for 5 minutes.
- Respect the differences between liquid and dry measuring cups.
Measuring by weight is the most accurate way to bake but in this country recipes are most often given in cup measure, especially for the home baker. Dry cups used to measure things like flour and sugar are different than liquid cups used to measure things like milk, water, and oil. My mom doesn't respect this difference. Somehow most of her recipes still turn out. It's mom magic. You don't have that. Just respect this one.
- Scrape down the sides of your bowl.
For many recipes, particularly cakes and cookies, evenly incorporating the ingredients is key-cial (key+crucial) to success. Butter stuck to the paddle and sugar crusted to the side of the bowl are unacceptable. Stop the mixer on occasion or when the recipe prompts you to and use a spatula to scrape all that off the sides all the way down to the bottom of the bowl where things tend to hide.
- Get yourself an oven thermometer.
If you've followed every step to a T and your recipe still isn't turning out, it could be that your oven temperature is off. Oven thermometers are cheap. Even for the sake of your savory dishes it's worth knowing how your oven behaves. So get one, set it on the rack inside, and preheat your oven. Check it at the preheat signal AND ten minutes after. You never know if your oven just needs a few extra minutes to come to temperature. If ultimately you come to find that when set to 350 degrees your oven is actually at 325 degrees, you can adjust accordingly.
- Bake in the center of the oven.
Unless otherwise instructed, bake whatever you're making on a rack in the center of the oven. Anywhere else and you risk burning the bottom or browning the top too quickly.
- Open the oven a million times.
Every time you open that oven door the temperature drops. This one mistake can be the lone cause of sunken cakes, fallen soufflés, flat biscuits, and failed meringues. Just be patient. If your recipe calls to bake something for 20-25 minutes for example, you may open the door at 18 minutes.
- Take shortcuts the first time around.
After you've made the recipe a few times over and you know how it behaves you can experiment.
- Ignore cooling instructions
If your instructions ask you to cool your cake in the pan for 10 minutes, set a timer. Turn it out too quickly and you risk busting it in half because it wasn't set. Wait too long and the cake steams inside the pan and becomes soggy. Heed your instructions.
- Get discouraged
Listen...all the prep and prime in the world won't save you from botched baking disasters. I fail pretty regularly. And I cook for a profession post-pastry cook stint. Bad recipes and bad days are very real things. Just keep going.
Consider yourself primed. You may now proceed with your recipe.
do the thing
Need a good jumping off point? Cookies like these are the perfect place to start.
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