If you were to ask me my preference for baking vs. cooking, I'd be tempted to tell you cooking since that's what I went to school for, but deep down I'll always know that baking is where my heart is at. It's more enjoyable to me, I'm intrigued by the science behind it, I've always been a rule-follower, measuring doesn't bother me, and for some reason I get more joy out of baking for people than I do cooking. A few of my culinary school instructors even tried to persuade me to transfer to the baking and pastry program instead of culinary arts because they saw that's where my passion really was.
I've loved seeing how my baking skills have evolved over the past decade. Dough is my friend now. I've prefer all my cookies to be the same size so they make a more attractive looking gift. I'm not intimidated when a cake recipe is three pages long and includes 5 recipes within a recipe. If you were to ask me the ultimate secret to better baking, I'd say time and practice. Each attempt will be a little better than the last. So in the spirit of holiday baking, I'd like to share 12 of my favorite tips for baking success. Enjoy!
1. Always start any baking endeavor by reading the entire recipe. Nothing is worse than making a bread recipe a few hours before you need bread and then realizing the bread starter needs to ferment overnight. Or realizing halfway through a cheesecake recipe that you don't have enough eggs and your cream cheese is still cold. Read the entire recipe, make sure you have all the ingredients on hand, and plan your timing accordingly!
2. Check the quality of your ingredients before you start making a recipe. If you don't bake often throughout the year and go on a baking binge just for the holidays, make sure your spices, oils, extracts, flours, baking soda, baking powder, and baking chocolate are fresh. Check the use by dates and if they are expired, buy new ingredients! Old ingredients could be rancid, dull-flavored, or less potent when it comes to chemical reactions in baking.
3. If you plan to make modifications to a recipe, make it two or three times before you actually need the baked item so you can be sure your substitutions/modifications result in the food you were envisioning. Healthy cooks or people cooking for special diets often want to alter the ingredients called for in a baking recipe - particularly the type of flour, fat, or sweetener. Every item in a baked good is there in a specific amount and form for a purpose (usually), and sometimes substitutions will drastically alter the final product.
4. Always make sure your oven is fully preheated before you bake anything in it. Placing doughs and batters in an oven when the temperature is still fluctuating can impair browning, rising, or result in under or over-cooked centers.
5. Do not use the microwave to soften butter or cream cheese. The high heat of the microwave will usually over-soften these items or even melt them, resulting in baked goods that spread out too much or a batter that is too thin. Give your butter and cream cheese a good 30 minutes to one hour to reach room temperature for optimum mixing.
6. Use liquid measuring cups to measure liquids only. Using liquid measuring cups to measure dry ingredients will result in inaccurate measurements. A one-cup measurement in a liquid measuring cup indicates 8 fluid ounces. This is important to know because dry ingredients, such as flour and sugar, vary in weight. One cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.5 ounces, so using a 1-cup liquid measuring cup would result in way too much flour being used.
7. If a recipe calls for you to measure something by weight, do it. Don't guess. Digital kitchen scales can be purchased for as little as $15 and are well worth the investment. Another option is to buy exactly the amount of an ingredient a recipe calls for from the bulk section of the grocery store so you can utilize their scales.
8. Be careful not to over-mix your ingredients. Mixing too vigorously or for too long can result in dense, tough baked good. If you are using a stand or handheld mixer, mix until the ingredients are barely combined, and then mix till just combined by using a rubber spatula to lightly fold the batter in an under-and-over motion.
9. Be gentle when you heat chocolate. Chocolate burns very easily, so if you melt it via the microwave, only heat in 30 second increments. Stir it well between each heating increment so you can evenly distribute the heat before microwaving again. The best, most foolproof way to melt chocolate is in a bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water. Be sure to stir it as it melts!
10. When measuring sticky ingredients, such as molasses or honey, coat your measuring utensil with cooking spray so that the ingredient will slide right out. This will prevent your measuring utensils from becoming a sticky mess and ensure you get an accurate amount of the ingredient in your recipe.
11. Always measure flour by lightly spooning it into the measuring cup and leveling off the top with the back of a knife. Scooping the flour or packing it into the cup will make your baked goods dry, hard and dense, so take the extra time to lightly spoon it into the cup.
12. Allow muffins, breads and cookies to cool properly by transferring them to a wire rack as soon as they are cool enough to comfortably handle. Cooling them in the pans will cause them to sweat and have wet, soggy bases.
What are your baking secrets and tips for success? I'd love to hear about them in the comments section below!