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Barest basics of baking

I consider myself to be an above average home baker.  Actually, no, I consider myself to be a fair home baker, but from the feedback others give me, I guess I’m above average.  At least ‘modern’ average.  Compared to our grandmothers I’m just fooling around, probably.

What continually strikes me the most, and if you bake from scratch yourself you’ve probably experienced the same, is whenever I share something with friends, coworkers, etc. they’re usually blown away.  People now are so used to blah supermarket baked goods, brownies from boxes, and mass produced cakes from Costco or BJs, that something baked from scratch is amazing to them.  Heck, I made Rice Krispie Treats, RICE KRISPIE TREATS for crying out loud, and people were telling me they were the best they’d ever had!  That’s crazy to me.  Just pay attention and make them well, people!  I know, I know, half the battle is just making the time and paying attention to your craft.  With a barking dog and three screaming kids, it’s not that easy, I guess.

I think many people are just afraid to try baking from scratch.  Yeast is frightening.  Maybe they tried and failed in the past, producing something unevenly cooked and disappointing after spending a lot of time on it, plus the cost of the ingredients.  Compared to a box of Ghirardelli brownie mix that’s simple and ‘pretty good’, why bother?  Well, if you’re ready to bother, maybe you’d like some of the simplest, ‘entry level’ tips that might help.  It’s just some of the things I try to do based on a lot of reading, mistakes I hear other people make, and trial and error.  (Note: I’ve only ever used an electric oven, I can’t comment on whether gas would be much different.)Here are some things you can do that cost little or nothing:

  • Preheat your oven.  No really.  Preheat your oven.  Just because the little light went out doesn’t mean it’s fully preheated.  Anything up to 400 degrees, give it a good 10 minutes.  Over that, give it 15.  The little light may have gone out, but it may just be because the spot by the thermostat is hot.
  • Is your oven temperature correct?  It’s probably not if you’re just going by the dial.  Yes, even if it’s digital.  Get an oven thermometer.  For example, it turns out my oven runs about 25 degrees hot.  That’s quite a bit!  At lower temperatures it’s a bit less, at hotter temperatures it’s more.  I know where the dial needs to be now, for the most part, right where the sweet spot is just a hair under 325 to get 350.  But I still check my thermometer.  And you know what?  Temperature is so important when I thought my oven thermometer was going bad I got another…I’ve got two of them in there now.  They’re not expensive, just a little bimetal one is fine.  Put it in the back, middle height.  Oh, and they respond a touch slow, so if the oven says it’s preheated and the thermometer is still 50 degrees short, give it 5 more minutes and check, don’t just crank the oven up another 50 degrees.
  • Are your racks in the right spot?  Unless a recipe calls for you to move them, around the middle is better.
  • Do you have hot spots?  Cold spots?  Some ovens apparently have some areas that are quite different from each other.  They talk about this a lot on the America’s Test Kitchen radio show/podcast.  They recommend putting slices of plain white bread all around a baking sheet and heating them to look for uneven browning.  Hot/cold spots are going to make things cook unevenly, as you can imagine.  I don’t think my oven is overly troubled with these, but I still rotate sheets when I’m baking cookies (which I do A LOT), half way through I put the top one on the bottom, and vice-versa.  I don’t have to bother with things like a pan of brownies or a loaf of bread.  But if you have hot/cold spots, rotating back to front halfway through should help.
  • Got a cake tester?  They’re like 99 cents.  Better than a toothpick that can’t penetrate far enough or a skewer that makes too large of a hole.  I love my cake tester.  The only time it lets me down is something packed with gooey, melty chocolate chips, hard to tell them from uncooked batter. But eventually it sort of makes sense, just takes more poking around.
  • Get your hands dirty.  Unless you’re making no-knead bread dough, make sure everything is thoroughly mixed and well (yes, WELL) kneaded (not 5 minutes of daintily squishing the dough about).  Bread, particularly yeast breads, are not going to be perfect on the first try.  They definitely take practice and patience.  You need to know what the consistency has to be like to be ready.  You have to know how much to knead during a punch down.  You need to know when to add a bit of flour, a bit of water.  If you really want to be a bread baker, a kneaded yeast bread baker, you have to commit.  Maybe it’s not worth it to you and that’s fine, but if you’re going to do it, and I think it’s worth it, it’s a commitment.  My best advice, though, doesn’t fall in this category…see below in the pricey section.
  • Fresh ingredients work and taste better.  The more you bake, the more you’ll turn over your ingredients, so it will be self-sustaining.  That baking powder you got from your grandmother’s cabinet 8 years ago?  Yeah, not so much.  Flour?  Yeah, that can go rancid.
  • Use tested recipes.  There are some decent blogs out there with bloggers that test their recipes several times, preferably with others testing them as well to account for variations.  There are also bad ones that might look great, but then you follow their recipe and end up with garbage.  Treat food blogs the way you do other info on the internet, big grains of salt.  Check out my blog roll, those are some good ones.  Invest in a few good cookbooks from tried and true sources or their websites.  I heartily recommend King Arthur Flour, not only their cookbooks, but also their products and the recipes on their website.  They’ve got a ton of free recipes on their site, and believe you me, they’ve been tested.
  • Do NOT try out a new recipe the night before you really need it.  If you’ve promised brownies for a bake sale the next day, don’t try out the new, exciting-looking recipe you found on a random blog at 9:00 the night before.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.  I still test bake as much as I can.  I plan to make something new for a special purpose next week – I’m going to test bake that recipe this weekend.  Tip: coworkers LOVE sampling things you test baked.
  • Get a feel for the weather.  Don’t be afraid to go light on the liquid at first, you can add in more later as you mix.  If it’s humid you’re going to need less and if you’re baking in the dead of dry winter, you’ll need it all.
  • Pay attention to the time.  Really.  Use a timer.  Check whatever it is a little early.  Take it out when it’s done.
  • Tent!  Bread getting too brown on top?  Just put some foil over the top.  Only works if you notice it though, so pay attention.
  • Let your pans cool.  Don’t just throw the next batch of cookies on there, the butter will melt and they will spread and you will swear or cry.
  • Follow the recipe regarding ingredient temperature.  Sort of.  I basically never soften butter, but I use a mixer and creaming the butter is usually first.  If you cut it up and cream it a bit longer you don’t need to soften it, the mixer will do it.  Dirty little secret there.  I take out eggs if I think of it, otherwise I just use them right out of the fridge.  I want to say there are some things where this is very bad, but I don’t think I make those things.  I do use lukewarm water when called for, etc.

Tips that are going to cost you, but are worth it:

  • Like to bake cakes?  Want nice even layer cakes that aren’t mounded in the center?  Get some cake strips.  You soak them in water then wrap them around your cake pan, fastening them in place with velcro.  The water helps slow down the baking of the edges.  When the edges bake faster and firm up the middle has nowhere to expand except up.  The strips help make the whole cake cook more evenly.  You might get a slight rounding, but overall you’ll have nice looking layers for a great looking cake and people will wonder why your cake isn’t a half basketball like they produce.  No more trying to slice it apart leveling it.
  • Bread machine.  Oh how I love my bread machine.  No, they’re not cheap, but unless you go top of the line, they’re not going to break the bank, either.  Yeah, they take up room, but if you’re going to make bread regularly, just do it.  If you’re anti-single use devices, well, I still think they’re worth it.  And I don’t even bake bread in mine!  I only use it for mixing and kneading.  I actually burned out a bread machine a few years ago and had to buy a new one (I have baked exactly one loaf in that machine, I tried one loaf to see how it did).  I dearly wanted the same one, but they’d discontinued it years ago 🙂 and I got something similar.  I think it was Consumer Reports that tested bread machines vs. stand mixers vs. hand kneading (something like that…maybe it was food processors instead of hand) and found bread machines consistently did the most consistent job kneading dough.  It’s really easy, you add ingredients, make sure they’re incorporating well, add more flour or water as needed, and it takes care of the kneading, first rise, punch down, and second rise.  Pull it out, put it in a pan, and bake.
  • Buy some high quality bakeware.  I’m fond of USA Pan products.  Get some heavy duty baking sheets, the flimsy floppy cheap ones that cost a dollar at the discount store…well you get what you pay for.
  • Parchment paper parchment paper parchment paper.  And baking spray.  Just do it.  So so disappointing to have something baked all lovely and you have to chisel it out of the pan.  The baking spray with flour really does work.  Parchment paper does wonders for keeping things like cookies from sticking.  Better yet, go for the Silpats.  I have two half sheet pans with Silpats and use them a LOT.  I love them.  The non-stick aluminum foil is pretty awesome, too.
  • Scoops!  I love my scoops.  I’ve got a small one that’s like 1-2 teaspoons that I use for small cookies, a heaping tablespoon scoop that’s my go-to cookie scoop, and a big one for muffins and the like.  You can’t beat consistent scoops for cookies that come out round and even and cook at the same rate.
  • I cannot stress this enough – your baking is only as good as your ingredients.  If you use the cheapest ingredients on the shelf, your baked goods will reflect it.  Sometimes I think half of the praise I get from coworkers is simply because I use good ingredients.  Here are my favorites for some of the ingredients you’ll use the most:
    • King Arthur Flour (KAF) flour.  It’s all I use.  All purpose, white whole wheat, and bread.  America’s Test Kitchen gets all whiny about KAF because they have a bit more protein, but if it’s all you use, you get used to it.  I used to use Gold Medal, their Better for Bread is pretty good, but I went all KAF years ago.  Watch for sales at the supermarket and stock up.  I do.
    • Land O’ Lakes unsalted butter.  Salted butter is tasty, but not used for baking.  It throws off the salt that will be added separately.  It’s got a special paper wrapping that helps keep out tastes and odors.  I’ve tried more expensive options, but can’t tell the difference above the LOL price point.  I got some Kerrygold and tried them side-by-side and didn’t think it was better.  It’s noticeably better than cheaper brands, though.  Again, stock up and freeze it if you can.  I buy a ton of LOL butter during the baking season when it’s heavily discounted (like around Thanksgiving/Christmas) and freeze it.  It keeps fine, I put the boxes in a ziplock.
    • Ghirardelli baking chips.  Similar to LOL, there are more expensive options, but I’ve bought bags of different kinds and taste tested them, even had my wife taste test them with me (boy, she hated that!) and I couldn’t find any improvement for more cost above Ghirardelli.  Again, they are noticeably better than lower-priced competitors, though.  I actually actively hate Toll House, now.  They’re nasty tasting.  Hershey’s are OK, especially the dark.  Reese’s are good for peanut butter chips.  I have way too many massive bags of bittersweet Ghirardelli chips from BJs when they ran a big sale with coupons a while back.  They’re my go-to chip.  And I may never have to buy them again 🙂
    • Ghirardelli baking chocolate.  I prefer it slightly to Baker’s.  Yes, I’ve tried even more expensive, but don’t get much out of it.
    • Trader Joe’s bulk chocolate.  You need to chop up some dark chocolate for a recipe?  I actually really like those Pound Plus bars from TJs, it’s quite good where you just need some chocolate added in.
  • Buy a scale.  Seriously.  Just do it.  Using measuring cups is like baking in an open hearth.  Baking is all about ratios and a scale is the best way to nail them.  Ideally get one that does both ounces and grams and use the grams whenever you can.  I love this handy-dandy reference from KAF.  I put it in a spreadsheet and trimmed down to the ones I use the most and taped it inside a cabinet door for easy reference.
  • If you frost a lot or just want to be able to frost halfway decent, go ahead and get an offset spatula.  So much easier.  Also good for smoothing things out in a pan before you bake.
  • And, the biggie, a stand mixer.  I hesitated, a lot, before getting one.  Was afraid I wouldn’t use it enough, but I do.  And now I use it for things like meatloaf and such, too.  After some research, though, I bypassed the traditional Kitchenaid and got a Breville.  Special order through Bed, Bath & Beyond, but worth it.  Doesn’t have all the cool attachments of a Kitchenaid, but does what it does very well.

I can’t guarantee anything, but these rather simple things may well make you an above average home baker, too.  You may be surprised by the results as you start to implement these things, especially the ones that cost nothing except some patience and practice and the willingness to break away from the box and just do it.

Ready to try but have questions?  Fire away in the comments.

Happy baking!