There are generally two types of chefs: Those that bake in addition to cooking all kinds of savory dishes, and those that don’t want any part of it.
There’s a reason why many chefs don’t want to bake. It’s not as foolproof, it doesn’t always give you the same room for creativity, and it’s much more scientific. If you forget an ingredient in your favorite pasta dish (unless, of course, you forget the salt), it may not be quite as good, but it will still be edible. Forget something in the birthday cake for your nephew’s birthday party? There’s a good chance you’ll be stopping at your local grocery store on the way to the party.
Baking is much more scientific. It involves precise measurements, fresh ingredients, and temperature control. If you’ve ever tried to get a loaf of bread to rise in a cold winter kitchen, you know that unless you give yourself a lot of extra time, your bread may never come out how you hope.
When you’re making a savory meal, you can easily adjust the seasonings, make your sauce as thin or thick as you like, or add a little extra cheese. While you can still definitely ruin a dish, there is much more room for error. When making a cake, even an extra teaspoon of cinnamon or vanilla can change the texture of your cake. It won’t always make it inedible, but you may be disappointed that you’re not getting the light and airy product you’re hoping for.
This is why boxed mixes are so successful. They are formulated to make baking foolproof. In most cases, even if you add an extra egg or too much liquid, the results will still turn out okay. It won’t taste as good as something made from scratch, of course, but you don’t have to worry about precise measurements and fresh ingredients.
If you’re looking to try your hand at baking, or want to learn how you can make your own supermarket staples like bread, there are definitely rules you should keep in mind to ensure success. Baking successes don’t come from knowing how to follow a recipe as much as understanding the science behind why certain things matter.
Tips on Making Your Next Baking Adventure a Success:
Read the Recipe
This is an important step in any type of food preparation, but especially when it comes to baking. Read your recipe thoroughly so that you know not only the ingredients you need, but how they are supposed to be used. Many ingredients like butter and eggs should be at room temperature, and in some instances, such as making a pie crust, cold flour is preferred.
Reading the recipe will also tell you how long you’ll need from start to finish. Bread will taste best when allowed to rise in the fridge overnight, and some complicated pastries could take several days to prepare. Never assume a recipe is a straight through project.
Follow Instructions Precisely
If a recipe says your eggs should be at room temperature, cold eggs won’t do. If it says to chill your dough for 30 minutes, set a time and chill it for 30 minutes. Mixing too long, using ingredients that aren’t the right temperature or not giving yourself enough time for dough to rise will all affect the outcome of your recipe. It may not seem important, but if you want soft cookies, chewy brownies, or flaky pie crust, it most definitely is.
Use Fresh Ingredients
If you don’t bake often, you may have a container of baking powder in your pantry that you don’t remember buying. If this is the case, it’s probably not going to do what you’re hoping it will. The same goes for baking soda, yeast, brown sugar, and even flour.
To make cakes rise and cookies puff up, many ingredients are used in certain combinations as leavening agents. If they are old and can’t do their job right, there’s no sense in having them. Make sure to use fresh products and store them properly.
Be Careful Making Substitutions
You may think you can substitute something like wheat flour for white flour, and in some recipes that might work. In others, you may end up with a tougher result. Even something as innocuous as swapping bread flour for all-purpose can make difference; different flours have different protein counts, all of which affects the texture and outcome of your finished dish.
Some swaps may be fine, such as using pecans instead of walnuts, or raspberries instead of blackberries, but make sure that the ingredient called for in the recipe doesn’t have a specific job. If you’re not sure, it’s best to either wait until you get the right ingredients or be prepared for the worst.
Make Sure You Have the Proper Equipment
Mixing dough, measuring flour, and cutting fat into flour all require the right tools to get the job done fast and efficiently. You can of course, so some tasks by hand, but once you’ve tried to whip egg whites with a whisk, you may quickly change your mind.
Again, read the recipe before starting to make sure you have everything you need. If the recipe says beat the eggs with a stand mixer, and you only have a hand mixer, it will work; it just won’t be as easy. Know what you’re getting yourself into before you start, but also keep in mind that some tasks, such as waffles or muffins, may need an exact tool to get the job done.
Learn How to Measure Ingredients
If a recipe calls for one cup of flour, you probably just get your trusty measuring cup out and get down to business, right?
Did you know that depending on how you put that flour in the measuring cup can have dramatic results on your dish? It’s true. If you take the scoop and dig into the container of flour, you will end up with way more flour than if you set the cup on the counter and spoon the flour into it (this is the proper way to do it.) This can make a big difference when your cake is done. The same goes for brown sugar. If the recipe calls for packed brown sugar, make sure you press the sugar into the measuring cup.
The best way to measure ingredients is to get a digital scale and measure by weight. This way, you are sure to have the exact amount of flour, sugar, butter, and anything else in your recipe.
Gluten Free Baking is a Topic All Its Own
Even if you are an accomplished baker, baking gluten free breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods is not the same. Gluten is what gives baked goods their light texture and flavor, and you can’t simply swap it out. Doing so will yield products that are heavy, dense, and may fall apart. You’ll need the right mix of flours to get a taste and texture similar to traditional gluten containing products. When trying to bake gluten free, it’s sometimes best to forget what you know and learn everything from scratch. You’ll be glad you did when you can’t tell the difference between your gluten free goods and their counterparts.
Baking is a much different aspect of cooking, and should be treated as such. It’s more than simply following a recipe; there are many principles of baking that require the right ingredients in the right amounts, at the right temperature in order to be right. Learning these rules will help you whether you are looking to become an accomplished baker or just make a few decent desserts once in awhile.