Cooking is frequently described as an art and baking as a science. There is some overlap — cooking requires technical abilities, while baking requires artistry. However, with cooking, you make a dish similar to how you would a painting, tasting and changing along the way to incorporate your own distinctive style. When baking, precision and adherence to the instructions are required; otherwise, your cakes will fall, your cookies will spread, your pie crusts will be tough, and so on. However, with these baking techniques, there is no reason to fear baking! The majority of baking errors are readily avoidable by grasping the fundamentals, avoiding substitutes, and adhering to a few simple guidelines.
1. MEASURE ACCURATELY
This is the most vital baking tip of all! While it is ideal to weigh your ingredients using a digital scale, if you do not have one, the right procedure for measuring dry ingredients is to scoop them into a dry measuring cup and level or “sweep” the top with a straight edge. This may seem nit-picky, but it is critical. A cup of flour measured by volume can vary by several ounces, so scooping it into the measuring cup and packing it in can result in far too much flour and dry baked goods. Brown sugar is the only ingredient that should ever be packed into a cup.
Always measure liquid components in clear measuring cups with pour spouts and gradations on the cup’s edge. I adore the ones that enable for visibility of the measurement markers from above (the one pictured right is by OXO).
2. INVEST IN A HIGH-QUALITY MIXER
I keep a 5-quart Kitchen-Aid mixer on the counter and use it for almost everything. If you choose a high-quality one, it will survive decades—mine once fell to the floor and is still functional! An excellent substitute is an electric hand mixer.
3. USE INGREDIENTS PERFECT FOR ROOM TEMPERATURE
When a recipe specifies room temperature components, it is critical to adhere. Creaming cold butter is impossible, and chilly eggs can shock and curdle a batter. While it is recommended to keep ingredients on the counter overnight, I confess that I virtually never remember. Place eggs in a basin and run them under warm tap water for a few minutes to quickly bring them to room temperature. If you need to bring butter to room temperature, you can use the microwave, but keep an eye on it closely because it can spoil a recipe if it becomes too soft. I usually chop the sticks into 1-inch [2.5-cm] pieces and zap them at 50% power for ten seconds at a time until softened.
4. CHECK THE TEMPERATURE OF YOUR OVEN
It’s a good idea to check the temperature of your best oven for baking on a regular basis to ensure it’s accurate. Similarly, when baking, avoid peeking into the oven until the recommended cook time has passed. Otherwise, you will allow cool air to enter, interfering with the baking process. The only exception to this guideline is rotating pans halfway through baking if you’re using multiple pans or if your oven has a hot spot; just be sure to do so promptly to avoid cooling the oven down.
5. AVOID SUBSTITUTIONS
Regrettably, no replacements exist for all-purpose flour, sugar, butter, or eggs. Bear in mind that baking is a form of chemistry; explore at your own risk! However, the “recipe police” will not pursue you if you make minor changes that do not affect the dish’s chemistry, such as adding almonds or substituting orange zest for lemon zest.
6. WORK WITH A LIGHT HAND
If you’ve ever baked, you’ve almost certainly come across the phrase “Do not overmix.” This is because when flour is added to a dish, mixing promotes the development of gluten, which results in a chewy or tough texture. We knead bread dough to activate the gluten and give it a chewy texture—but not in soft cakes and muffins! When a recipe specifies “do not overmix,” whisk only until the batter is homogeneous in color and consistency.
Recipes for scones and biscuits frequently state, “Do not overwork the dough.” Again, you do not want to activate the gluten, nor do you want to warm or melt the butter—cold butter pieces steam in the oven, lifting the dough and resulting in soft and flaky baked items.
We’ll admit it: occasionally, when we cook, we fudge things. After all, who needs a simple weeknight spaghetti recipe? It’s simple to make roasted chicken on the fly. We love the intuitive, little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that kitchen approach because it simplifies our lives and our dinners. However, when it comes to baking, we adhere to the guidelines. Baking is a precise science that frequently prohibits creative license. Dawn Perry, senior food editor, and Claire Saffitz, deputy food editor, both seasoned bakers, explain why guidelines such as setting a timer, measuring wheat, and using room-temperature eggs actually important. There are some principles that cannot be broken when it comes to flakier pie crusts, moister cakes, and chewier cookies. Adhere to these 11 tips to become a far better baker.
1. Make Use of Ingredients at Room Temperature
Once seen, it’s seen a thousand times. How many recipes ask for butter, eggs, and milk that are at room temperature? This is a critical stage that you should not overlook. Many baked items begin with butter and sugar being creamed together, which is made infinitely easier with softly warmed ingredients—ask anyone who has ever attempted to insert an electric mixer in a brick of rock-hard cold butter. “If you’re going to bake, you either have to plan ahead or be patient,” Saffitz explains, noting that she frequently leaves eggs and butter out on the counter overnight and then begins the job the next morning—they gradually come to the proper temperature as she sleeps.
As critical as room-temperature components are same-temperature ingredients: “Add hot things to hot things and cold things to cold things,” Saffitz explains, using a finicky chocolate ganache as an example. When blistering hot cream is poured over chilled chocolate, the cocoa fat might separate, giving the sauce an oily, unattractive appearance. That is why many recipes ask for tempering a hot ingredient with a cold one—it prevents the emulsion from seizing or segregating.
2. Make an Investment in High-Quality Bakeware
You can bake well with a substandard oven—as discussed in tip nine, you can compensate for hot patches and ovens that require calibration, Saffitz explains. However, when it comes to low-quality bakeware, all bets are off. Flimsy, thin pans and sheet trays conduct heat inefficiently, resulting in an inefficient bake for your cake, pie, cookies, or pastries.
This is also true for mixing bowls—Saffitz prefers glass and metal bowls that function as makeshift double boilers. “Never use a double boiler made of plastic,” she advises. Another point to consider? Nonstick coatings have a tendency to flake off over time, introducing foreign matter into your sweets; it is better to avoid them. Is there a better method to avoid baked-on pastries? A pan that has been properly greased (see tip #3), a Silpat liner, or a sheet of parchment paper.
3. Generously butter and flour your pans
“I once requested that someone butter and flour a pan, and she simply swiped a few streaks across it,” Saffitz explains. If this gives you the chills, you understand the power of a well-buttered pan. When a recipe specifies a greased and/or floured vessel, it is for a reason: your batter or dough may bake on and adhere to the pan, so butter it up. Consider every nook and cranny that could become sticky, then apply liberally and thoroughly—this includes corners and seams where the bottom and sides meet.
If you’re also flouring a pan, add more than enough to coat entirely, tip the pan, and tap out the excess. Take care where you hold it—fingerprints on the interior expose the pan and allow the batter to stick.
4. Determine the weight of the ingredients Sperry and Saffitz are both adamant believers in the transformative power of a digital scale. Successful baking requires minimizing the possibility of error, which means being precise with your measures. A cup of flour, for instance, can vary by up to five ounces in volume—a change that might make the difference between buttery and flaky and dense and cakey. A good digital scale—about $20—eliminates all guessing and the need to clean measurement cups. Remember to adjust the tare for the weight of your mixing bowl!