Have you ever had high hopes for a delicious baked treat, only to have it end in total disaster? Here are some basic tips to be aware of that will hopefully help you in your future baking endeavors. Enjoy!
1. Measure Carefully
When cooking, you can often get away with the "a little pinch of this, a little dash of that" mentality. Heck, that's part of what makes cooking so fun - being able to adjust things to suit your taste! But baking is different. A lot of the success of a baked good lies in the delicate and proper balance of ingredients to achieve the right chemical reactions to give you the rise and texture that you want. Are your cookies flat, your cakes tough, or your brownies too chewy? A likely culprit is an imbalance of crucial ingredients such as flour, baking powder or soda, fats (like butter, shortening, etc) and liquids (milk, buttermilk, water). Here are a couple of basic things to keep in mind:
Wet vs. Dry - You probably didn't even realize that different measuring cups should be used for dry and liquid ingredients, right? It's okay. This one took me a while to learn, too. But it's true, there are dry measuring cups - probably the ones you are familiar with - and then there are liquid measuring cups. The liquid measures are typically recognizable by a pouring lip or spout (like a Pyrex measuring cup), and some of them even have handles. Using dry and wet measuring cups interchangeably can result in inaccurate measurements, so make sure you are using the right one!
Level the Top - When measuring dry ingredients, make sure you don't have a big mound heaping over the top of the lip of the measuring cup. Use your finger or a butterknife to level off the top before adding to your mixture. Also, resist the urge to scoop flour out of the container using your measuring cup - doing this can pack extra flour into the cup and you can end up with more in there than you need. Instead, use a spoon to add dry ingredients to the cup, filling to the top, and then finish by leveling it off.
2. Be Wary of Substitutions
Think baking powder and baking soda are the same thing? Think again! Certain that water is an acceptable substitute for milk because they're both liquid? Nope! Be aware of when you can make substitutions, and when you can't. As I stated before, much of the success of baking comes from the delicate balance of ingredients and their individual roles in the chemical reactions taking place, so be careful when substituting. You can get away with changing spices, flavorings, or add ins like chocolate chips or candy pieces, but when you start messing with the meat and potatoes of the recipe like the fats and leavening agents, you can change the texture and flavor, and that might give you an undesirable result. When trying a new recipe, stick to the original for the first time so you know what you're starting with, and then you can make changes to alter the outcome if needed. Here are some common items that are substituted, along with some things to keep in mind:
Flour type: The protein content of your flour can affect the texture of the finished product. Low-protein flours like cake or pastry flours can yield wonderful, delicate treats like cakes, while higher protein flours, like bread flour, will help you achieve a dense, chewy structure. All-purpose flour, the flour that most of us probably have in our kitchen, falls right in the middle as far as protein content. Make sure you're using the proper flour in your recipe.
Baking Soda vs. Baking Powder: Both of these are leavening agents, which means they help a baked good to rise during the baking process, but because soda and powder can behave differently in different recipes, which one is used is largely determined by the timeline of the preparation process and also the presence of other ingredients in the recipe. For example, recipes that call for buttermilk (which is more acidic than milk) will typically be paired with baking soda in a recipe, while baking powder will typically be paired with milk.
Milk vs. Buttermilk: As mentioned above, the acidity of buttermilk reacts differently than milk when combined with other ingredients. Do you have a recipe that calls for buttermilk, but all you have is regular? Have no fear! Just add a tablespoon of plain white vinegar or real lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup, and then fill to the 1 cup line with regular milk. Let stand for a few minutes, and voila, you have a perfectly acceptable substitute!
Butter vs. Shortening: Both have their place in the baking world, and there's way too much to get into in this lil' set of tips, but I'll keep it brief. Whether to use butter or shortening depends on a number of things... flavor, texture, rise, etc, are just some of the things that can be affected by using butter or shortening as the fat in your recipe. While butter may add much more flavor to a baked good, it may not give you the texture you're looking for, and vice versa. For example, when I'm after a cookie that is big, soft, and pillowy, I reach for the shortening. Sure, I may have to add a little extra flavor to it to make up for the lack of butter, but shortening will give me the texture I'm after. However, if you're after that melt-in-your-mouth taste of a shortbread cookie, don't even think of using shortening - go butter or go home.
3. Read and Prepare
As the late great Julia Child once said, "You really have to have a battle plan." Before beginning any baking project, read the recipe through at least twice to familiarize yourself with the steps and with the timeline of the whole process. Will you need to allow time for certain things to chill before you can move on? Is there a section of the recipe that is time sensitive, when you'll need to work quickly and have certain things easily and quickly accessible? Are there ingredients that need to be peeled, chopped, toasted, or cooked before you can begin? Being aware of all of the steps to a recipe will save you from being caught off guard when you're elbow deep in batter and realize you should have pre-cooked those cinnamon apples before you can add them to the mixture. D'oh.
Get it? D'oh? Dough? Really, I kill myself.
4. Know Your Oven
Just because a recipe tells you to bake something at 350 degrees for 20 minutes doesn't automatically mean that recommendation will work for your own personal oven at home. It's important to know if, when you set your oven to a certain temperature, that that is actually the temperature that is reached inside. I recommend that any serious baker invest in a good thermometer (I like this one) to test the internal temperature of your oven. Also, your oven can have hot and cold spots inside, so be sure to test at several different locations. I resisted the idea of an oven thermometer for a long time, certain that the temperature couldn't be that far off to warrant buying one. We had also bought a fancy schmancy oven and range just a few years ago, so it has to be dead on accurate, right?. Wrong. When I finally gave in, I realized that my oven is heating about 15 degrees hotter than what it is set to, and that the back right corner has a significant hot spot that is 10 degrees higher than that! So basically, when I set my oven to heat to 350 degrees, it is actually heating to 375 degrees, and the back corner is reaching closer to 390! I've now learned to set my oven to a cooler setting in order to reach the proper temperature, and either keep things away from that hot back corner, or rotate my items regularly to ensure things are heated evenly. Doing this instantly improved the quality of my baked breads and treats!
Once you have your temperature sorted out and you're ready to pop in a nice batch of cookies, for how long should you bake them? Sure, your recipe may say 10 minutes, but I recommend checking them a few minutes before the recommended bake time. You may find that you need more or less time than what the recipe says. Be sure and make a note for what bake time works for you and also note what type of pan you used, as different types of materials (dark metal, light metal, stone, glass, cast iron, etc) react differently to heat. In general, darker pans will bake faster and will cause more browning than lighter pans.
5. Follow Directions and Ask Questions
This may be a repeat of several of the ideas above, but it can't be stated enough - baking is a science! You have to know the rules to break them, so follow those directions to the letter, especially if it's your first time trying a new recipe or a new technique. Make note of areas on the recipe where you have questions and, if possible, contact the person who gave it to you to clear up any issues before you begin. Ingredients aren't always inexpensive, so avoid potentially wasting time and money by making sure you are thoroughly following all instructions and that you understand each step of the process.
Do you have a specific baking question not addressed by this short list of tips? Leave 'em in the comment section below, and I will do my best to help you out!