This post is the first in what will eventually become a compilation of “top secret” (but not really) tips and tricks that will make your life so much easier when it comes to baking. All posts in this series can be found under the “Baking Tips” category in the recipe index.
In reading the tips below, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following saying that I’ve come across numerous times throughout cookbooks and the internet: cooking is an art, baking is a science.
In cooking, you can throw in a handful of herbs or a little more butter, as if you were adding a little more turquoise to an oil painting. You can make changes as you go and there will (generally speaking) be no catastrophe in the end. In baking, everything matters. Think of baking as chemistry. One small adjustment could be your undoing, but you won’t know it until you pull whatever you’ve made out of the oven.
I’ve compiled the best, most helpful baking tips that truly make all the difference in the world. If you plan on using flour and eggs anytime soon, I suggest you keep reading!
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1. Read the entire recipe before you start
This may not seem like much of a “tip,” but knowing exactly what the steps of a recipe are in advance are crucial. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a disaster in the kitchen because I didn’t realize a certain step was coming up. Reading ahead will make sure you’re prepared and could save you from wasting time, money, & ingredients on a failed dessert!
2. Measure your ingredients correctly
We Americans like to kick it old-school in the measuring department, relying on cups and spoons to give us the proportions needed in recipes; yet pastry chefs worldwide measure their ingredients by weight using the metric system. The reason for this is that a cup of flour can vary greatly in weight depending on the type of flour (all-purpose, bread, cake, whole wheat, etc), and how packed it is.
In a perfect world, all home cooks would use scales and metric measurements to insure exact amounts of wet and dry ingredients. Since that’s never going to happen, make sure to always spoon dry ingredients (namely flour) into your measuring cups and then level with a knife or spatula, never scoop. Scooping packs the ingredient down, meaning you end up with more than you want… and that can cause disastrous results depending on what you’re baking!
3. Use fresh dry ingredients
The majority of ingredients used in baked goods (like baking powder, baking soda, and flour) have a relatively short shelf life, so if you don’t use them often… purchase them in small quantities so they don’t sit in your pantry quietly going bad.
Flour should smell fresh and feel light, not chalky. To check the freshness of baking powder, pour ¼ cup of boiling water over ½ teaspoon baking powder— if it bubbles, it’s still fresh; if not, discard it and open a new tin. To check if your baking soda is still potent, toss a spoonful of it in a bowl and add a splash of vinegar, lemon juice, or other acidic liquid— if it fizzes heavily, it’s still good; if not, use the rest of the box for cleaning, and buy another box for your baking.
4. Use an oven thermometer
Unless you have a brand new or regularly calibrated oven, chances are your oven’s temperature is not accurate. You may set it to 400 degrees, and it may tell you it’s at 400, but it might be off anywhere from 10 to 100 degrees.
As stated before, when it comes to baking, accuracy is everything. Having an oven that’s off can destroy your baked goods, and baking is challenging enough as it is, so there’s no need to add another hurdle to the mix.
You can easily remedy this problem with an oven thermometer. They’ll provide you with a much more accurate reading of what’s going on in your oven (and may make you a better cook).
5. Don’t be afraid of using salt
Fleur de sel (top left), fine sea salt (top right), table salt (bottom left), kosher sea salt (bottom right)
Salt is your best friend in the kitchen, the peanut butter to your jelly. Sometimes salt plays a crucial role in the chemistry of a recipe; for example, in bread baking, salt controls yeast growth and has a strengthening effect on the gluten in the dough. In pastry-making, it helps cut the oily mouthfeel of buttery doughs and encourages browning. But, salt is mostly about enhancing flavors and making things more delicious.
Common table salt, or granular salt, is small, dense, extremely salty, and, unless otherwise noted, iodine has been added to it. I don’t recommend using iodized salt as it makes everything taste slightly metallic. Table salt also contains anti-caking agents to prevent clumps from forming and/or dextrose, a form of sugar, to stabilize the iodine. While neither additive is harmful, there’s no reason to add them to your baked goods… which is why this is the one thing I will insist on: if you’ve only got table salt at home, go get yourself some kosher or sea salt ASAP!
I always keep two kinds of salt on hand: an inexpensive one like bulk sea salt or kosher salt for everyday cooking, and a special salt with a nice texture, such as Maldon salt or fleur de sel, for garnishing food at the last moment.
6. Chill your cookie dough
If you’ve ever been puzzled by a chocolate chip cookie recipe that calls for chilling your dough for an hour, don’t skip it. As little as 30 minutes in your fridge or freezer can help your cookie brown better, spread less, and develop a richer, more chewy texture. There’s a few reasons why, but one important part is it gives the butter in your dough a chance to firm up before baking.
The colder your dough is before it heads into the oven, the less it will spread during baking, which makes for loftier cookies. The chilling phase also gives the flour in your dough time to hydrate, which translates into a cookie that’s more chewy rather than cakey.
7. Be patient; let things cool off
Be sure to let your baked goods cool before taking them off of / out of the pan. (Also, let them cool on a wire rack so air can circulate around the bottom.) Otherwise you could cause your baked goods to crumble and break apart. (I’ve been there before…) Breads, brownies, and custard pies especially need time to finishing baking after they come out of the oven so just let them be for twenty minutes or so. And don’t even think about icing a warm cake or cupcake— I promise you’ll be much happier with the room temperature results.
8. Use the proper measuring tools
Technically, liquid and dry measuring cups hold the same volume, but they are specially designed to more accurately measure their respective ingredients. So if you’re using a dry cup measure for liquids, it’s possible to use the wrong amount. If you can level the ingredient off with a knife, it’s considered a dry ingredient. This seems counter-intuitive with ingredients like sour cream, peanut butter and yogurt, but it’s the most accurate way to measure those ingredients; some things are simply too thick to be accurately measured in liquid measuring cups.
9. Keep fat/oils out of your meringue
A tip specifically for recipes that call for a meringue, such as macarons. When whipping egg whites, every little detail counts. The most annoying detail, though, is when they just won’t stiffen – and your hard work is then of no use in your recipe.
How do you avoid this? For starters, keep all fat and oils out of your meringue (this includes natural oils from your hands). Also, make sure your bowl and whisk are clean and dry. Plastic bowls may retain hidden traces of fat from previous uses, so it’s best to use a copper, glass, or metal bowl.
When it comes to your eggs… cold eggs are easier to separate, but room-temperature whites attain more loft when whisked. Separate the eggs while cold by cracking eggs on a flat surface, such as your counter top, rather than the edge of a bowl (this reduces the chance that a shard of shell will puncture the yolk) then let the whites stand, covered, at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before beating.
10. Use unsalted butter
Call me a control freak; however, you should almost always use unsalted butter because different companies add different amounts of salt to their butter. All salted butters are not created equal, so removing salted butter from the equation puts you in control of salting. Unsalted butter is also sweeter tasting and fresher (since salting is a preserving mechanism and additional preservatives are added to salted butter during processing), and this shows in your baked goods.