Have you gotten to the point in your baking where you’re ready to take it to the next level? (Or any level at all?) Here are 10 tips to help you improve your baking skills.
Follow the Recipe
If you had to boil this article down to a single tip, this would be it. Everything from preheating the oven to whether or not you should grease the pan is already in the recipe. Yes, you often need to grease your pan. But sometimes you shouldn’t. Ditto when it comes to using room temperature butter versus cold. But rather than holding all that knowledge in your head, along with the various exceptions to each rule, and the exceptions to the exceptions, just do what the recipe says. That, after all, is what it’s there for.
Measure Your Ingredients Properly
That means weighing them. This mostly refers to the flour, since it’s the main ingredient in baking and one that is notoriously difficult to measure properly using volume measurements like cups. As a corollary, look for recipes that list the ingredients in grams instead of by volume. Sure, you can do the conversion, but chances are if a recipe is written that way to begin with, it’s going to work better.
Use Fresh Ingredients
Top priority here goes to chemical leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda, because they lose much of their effectiveness after six months or so, meaning your baked goods won’t rise the way they should. But spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves will also lose their potency, especially if you buy the pre-ground kind.
Understand How Over-Mixing Can Effect Gluten
Doughs and batters are made with flour, and flour contains gluten, which becomes increasingly firm and elastic the more you stir it, beat it, knead it, and so on. With a pizza dough you might want that, but with pie dough, not so much.
The good news is that your recipe should offer you some sort of guidance as to how much, how long, how intensely, to mix your dough, so follow the recipe!
Avoid Gratuitous Changes
Yes, this is another way of saying “follow the recipe.” Example: Don’t just randomly add a cup of blueberries to a plain banana bread recipe.
This is not to say that blueberry banana bread won’t be delicious. It might. But given how easy it is to find a recipe for blueberry banana bread, you’re better off using that one than trying to wing it on your own.
Calibrate Your Oven
The issue here is that the temperature in your oven might not actually be what you set it to. If you set your oven to 350 F, but it only heats up to 320 F, or maybe it hits 380 F, your recipe isn’t going to turn out right.
Repairing the oven might be a major undertaking, but the solution is to get an inexpensive oven thermometer. Set your oven to 350 F and see what the thermometer reads. If it’s different, you can adjust accordingly.
Use a Light-Colored Pan
The reason for this is that dark-colored pans absorb more heat than light-colored ones, which can actually cause the bottoms of your cakes or cookies to burn. The assumption is that recipes are written and tested for light-colored pans. If dark-colored ones are all you have, you can lower the temperature or play with the cooking time, but this violates rule #1, so it might be better to invest in some new pans.
Use Unsalted Butter
Again, the recipe will almost certainly specify this, so follow the recipe. But if it doesn’t specify, use unsalted butter. Not only does the added salt affect the flavor, but salt also changes the way the glutens in flour develop, which can affect the consistency of your dough as well.
Scrape the Mixing Bowl
Recipes often remind you to do this, but when you’re mixing batter in a stand mixer, you’re trying to mix the ingredients together as thoroughly as possible, and this doesn’t happen if significant parts of the mixture, like butter, eggs, or sugar, are stuck to the sides of the bowl. Fortunately, it’s a simple matter to stop the mixer every 30 seconds or so and scrape down the sides — as long as you remember to do it.
Keep the Oven Closed
It’s tempting to look inside to see how things are going, but it’s just not a good idea. If you’re baking a cake, the influx of air, or even the vibration of the oven door, can cause it to fall. Not to mention, you let all the heat out, which is obviously going to affect the baking.
Some cooks recommend rotating pans of cookies midway through cooking, but the benefit you gain isn’t worth the lost heat. Keep it closed.