Does the perfectly risen cake or crispy cookie seem out of your grasp?
It’s not, I promise. Baking is chemistry, but it’s simple chemistry. There are so many great resources these days, it’s easier than ever to master the art and science of baking. Follow just a few basic principles, and your baked goods will become the fluffy, golden perfection you’ve always wanted.
As a long-time baker, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a novice say something like this: “I followed recipe exactly, and it turned out horrible. There must be something wrong with the recipe.” Upon further inquiry, it turns out the newbie did not follow the recipe exactly. The recipe seemed “wrong” or “complicated” or “too buttery” so the novice baker improvised a little. Or maybe they didn’t have quite enough of an ingredient, so they just used what they had. I could write an entire post on people who use whole wheat flour instead of all purpose flour in an effort to make something healthy. Don’t do it, people. Just don’t. If you want a healthy dessert, make a fruit salad. Don’t make brownies with whole wheat flour and sea kelp.
- Don’t substitute ingredients! This is the number one reason why baking projects fail. Sure, it seems like butter is the same thing as shortening and that brown sugar is the same thing as white sugar, but don’t be tempted to swap. Only the most experienced bakers make substitutions and even they do so very carefully. It’s best to review the recipe before you start baking, but if you do find yourself without an ingredient midway, just man up and make a quick trip to the closest store.
- Measure carefully. For dry ingredients, dip the measure into the bag or box and level the top with a knife. Flour tends to pack while standing, so for cakes and fine pastries it’s best to sift once before measuring. Then lift the sifted flour lightly with a spoon into standard measuring cup and level off with a knife. If you’re really into it, you can weigh your ingredients, but that’s an advanced technique.In measuring brown sugar, pack it firmly into the cup so that it holds its shape when turned out. With stick butter, 1 pound (4 sticks) equals 2 cups. For accurate measuring of liquids, be sure the measuring cup is on a level surface. Transparent cups with pouring spouts are best for liquids.
- Preheat your oven before you start, and prepare pans before mixing the ingredients. Store-bought vegetable oil sprays are easy and effective ways to prepare pans. If you’re at all concerned about releasing a baked good from the pan, line the pan with parchment paper first and then coat with butter or flour as the recipe directs.Most recipes put these preliminary steps at the beginning for a reason. A chemical reaction takes place as soon as the wet ingredients hit the dry. If your mixture sits around for too long this important reaction will play out, and won’t have a chance to do its thing in the oven.
- Follow the recipe instructions in order. It can be very helpful to measure everything out in advance, but keep ingredients separate until the actual prep. Most cakes and cake-like recipes observe a standard preparation sequence as follows:
- Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. The mixture will increase in volume and lighten in color.
- Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Lest you experience a shell incident, or the proverbial bad egg, crack eggs first into a small bowl.
- Add dry and and liquid ingredients alternately. A recipe for a delicate cake or muffin with a fine crumb, will yield best results if you beat only until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
- Overmixing will toughen most batters. Sturdier baked goods, like breads, can withstand longer and more vigorous mixing.
- Check your product early and often for done-ness. When the kitchen starts to smell delicious, start checking. Has your baked good pulled away from the sides of the pan? Good sign. When you touch it lightly with your finger, does it bounce back? Good sign. Is it a lovely golden brown color on top? Good sign.One of the secrets of baking, and cooking in general, is not to overcook. It’s generally better to err a bit on the side of underdone. Remember, your baked good will continue to cook for a little while after you take it out of the oven.
Above all, relax!
Baking is fun. And it makes people happy. A disastrous cake or cookie experiment is not the end of the world. And there’s usually someone around who will eat even the most unappetizing baked good, even if it’s only the neighborhood racoons.
How do you find a good source for recipes? Besides your Mom or Uncle Leo? Not all food websites are created equal, so stick to known entities when you’re starting out. You will have a reliable beginner experience with websites that are edited by professionals and not crowd-sourced. I like the foodnetwork.com and epicurious sites a lot. As tv sources go, I’ve had good experience with recipes from Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and the Barefoot Contessa. And for the beginner (or expert) who really wants to know how cooking works, try anything in print from Cooks Illustrated.