I love baking, and it comes pretty easily to me, but I know that’s not true for everyone. Today I’m sharing some tips on how to be a better baker so you can head into the kitchen with confidence.
I have a tendency to underestimate my own skills and knowledge. I make the mistake of assuming that if something is easy for me, it’s probably easy for everyone else. Also, I don’t appreciate that I’ve been building my kitchen knowledge for 20 years, and I know more than I give myself credit for.
See, my husband is participating in a bake-off challenge for work, and because I’m a horribly bossy backseat chef, I’ve left him in the kitchen by himself to get on with his recipes. This is how we maintain a happy marriage. But guys, basically everything he’s tried to make has been a disaster.
Granted, these were not simple beginner recipes. He’s tried to make Scottish tablet, lamingtons, and some sort of Costa Rican corn cake so far. They were all bad. But I got inspired to share a few tips with you in case you’re struggling with baking as well. It’s definitely a different animal than cooking dinner. Here’s what you need to know.
Read the recipe
Before you do anything, read the whole recipe from start to finish. And don’t do this as you’re about to make the recipe. Do it when you first think of making it. I’m guilty of just looking at the ingredients when I’m planning and not reading all the way through. Then as I’m baking, I realize something needs to chill for four hours, or there’s a piece of equipment required that I don’t have.
Make sure you have all the ingredients and all the equipment you’re going to need before you get started. Make sure you understand all the terminology. If there’s a technique you’ve never heard of, research it. Chances are, there’s a YouTube tutorial for that. Make sure you know what you’re doing before you get started.
Don’t swap ingredients
If cooking is alchemy, a sort of magical amalgamation of flavors and textures transmuted by heat into something that is more than the sum of it’s parts, then baking is definitely it’s more stoic cousin, chemistry. You can be limitlessly creative with the decoration and presentation of your baking, but the cake or bread or pie or pastry or whatever is actually going in the oven needs to follow a pretty strict formula.
Yes, you can change up a few things here and there. You can add a pinch more salt or a little less cinnamon, but the basics like the amount of flour, fat, protein, and sugar really can’t be messed with that much without changing the end product. Those things all work together to form chemical structures that I only vaguely understand.
For example, chemical leaveners like baking powder, baking soda, or self-rising flour are activated by the acidity in your batter or dough. If you swap out an ingredient that changes the pH, your bake won’t rise properly.
If you want to learn more about the science of cooking and baking, I recommend going back and watching old episodes of Good Eats with Alton Brown. Also, check out Bakewise by Shirley O. Corriher.
Don’t deviate from the instructions
The amount and type of ingredients are important to this chemistry experiment that is a cake, but just as important is the way in which the ingredients are mixed. So don’t just dump everything into the same bowl and try to stir it together. Unless your recipe specifically says you can do that.
Wet and dry ingredients often need to be brought together in a specifici way to end up with the desired texture. For example, when baking bread, you want to develop glutens, so you mix the hell out of it by kneading it until it’s stretchy. When you’re making pancakes or muffins, you want to avoid developing glutens as much as possible, so you mix the wet and dry ingredients separately, then bring them together with a light fold to mix them as quickly and gently as possible.
If you’re working with boiled sugar, say for a fudge or caramel, you should have a candy thermometer. And you should actually make sure you bring the mixture to the correct temperature. Don’t get impatient and think that just boiling it will be enough. The molecular structure of the sugar changes at different temperatures. The details are important.
Basically, if you don’t do exactly what the recipe says, you only have yourself to blame. You just have to hope that your baking fail still tastes good enough to eat.
Know your oven
Every oven is a little bit different. You need to know all the quirks and eccentricities of yours. Most bakers will recomend that you get an oven thermometer. I don’t have one, but I probably should. Oven temperature can be the culprit of a lot of baking problems. Make sure you always preheat your oven to the proper temperature.
As an example, I know that my oven is a piece of crap that produces heat from the top heating elements at all times, so I often end up with bakes that are too brown on top without actually being baked all the way through. I’ve rigged up some temporary solutions until I get a new oven. If you know your oven is hotter on one side than the other, you’ll want to get into the habit of rotating your bakes to make them more even.
I really think most baking is easy. I learned through a lot of practice, and a lot of Food Network. I’ve read books and blogs and just kept baking. I still have fails. The more I bake, the more I know how to solve any problems that I run into. I know what’s safe to change and what must be followed to the letter. The good news is, most baking fails still taste pretty good, so even if it’s ugly, you can still enjoy it.
Apparently, I could go on about this forever, so I’ll probably be back with more baking tips in the future. If you still have questions, leave them in the comments, and we can talk them through in a future post.
In the meantime, why not jump in and bake up something awesome. Maybe some simple Chocolate Toffee Muffins, or challenge yourself with a layered Vanilla Cake. And be sure to share your successes (and the failures, too) on Instagram.
Baking a lot is the only way to become a better baker. Trust me, you totally got this. I’m here for you, kids.