When you are new to baking the whole process can seem very alien, and taking the steps towards learning it a little daunting. Unlike in general cooking, some quite complicated chemistry is involved, and it helps if you have an idea of some of the basic principles before you start.
Below we have outlined some of the essential baking principles, along with the tools and ingredients that you will want to have to hand when starting to bake. Armed with these, your transition from baking amateur to home-baker-extraordinaire should be a smooth and speedy one!
1. The importance of measuring
When cooking, you can often get away with approximating quantities, and a degree of experimentation is often expected. You can in many cases swap or leave out certain ingredients without drastically changing the end result.
This is not always the case with baking. Many of the ingredients need to be in a specific ratio to each other in order to function correctly, and produce the desired flavor or texture. Leaving out a critical ingredient could result in a sloppy mess rather than a fine, risen cake.
It is important therefore to take care when measuring ingredients and not deviate too much from the suggested quantities. Once you have the basics down and you have a better understanding for the basic principles of baking, you can start to experiment with different quantities and ratios.
Scales are usually the most accurate, but not everyone has one. It is definitely possible to measure ingredients without a scale though. Take a look at this guide on how to measure accurately without a scale.
2. Role of each ingredient
Each ingredient in baking plays one or several roles. Quite often an ingredient will provide not only flavor, but a critical element in the chemistry of the baked product.
Eggs are one such example, which provide structure, leavening, moisture and flavor when used in a cake. Fats such as butter can be critical in the formation of a pastry dough, but at the same time provide texture and flavor.
Swapping the type of fat used therefore may alter how rich or soft a pastry tastes and feels, while reducing it or removing it entirely could result in a hard, chewy crust.
3. Formation of gluten
Wheat flour contains the proteins gliadin and glutenin, which when mixed with water join together to form gluten. The formation of this protein, or the prevention of it, is one of the key principles in baking, and understanding it will help you to grasp the importance of several of the other techniques.
Gluten forms into long strands and networks which are capable of trapping escaping air that is produced in a dough or batter during leavening. This helps the dough or batter to rise, to puff up or to expand.
In a bread dough, you want to maximize the degree of gluten formation, so that the maximum amount of air is trapped in the dough to produce a voluminous, airy loaf, with a chewy texture.
In cakes and most pastries, on the other hand, you want to limit the degree of gluten formation, to give a tender, crumbly texture. This is achieved by the addition of fats and sugar, which interfere with the binding of gliadin and glutenin.
Incorporating the ingredients into a dough or batter is not just a matter of throwing them all into a bowl (or a stand mixer) and mixing them around. There are various techniques for incorporating ingredients that may be required in different recipes, and it is important to use the right mixing technique to produce the desired effect.
A bread dough may require kneading, which is a technique whereby the dough is quite vigorously stretched and re-combined to aid in gluten formation. Butter and sugar may be creamed before being added to a cake or pastry, to produce a creamy texture and incorporate air into the mix.
Butter may be rubbed into flour in a pastry dough to coat it and prevent the formation of gluten. Egg whites are often beaten with a whisk to change their chemical structure and then folded into a cake batter. Cream can be whipped to incorporate air, and flour sifted to remove lumps.
The various forms of mixing help in some cases to ensure even distribution of ingredients, and in others to affect physical changes to the ingredients themselves. Be sure to mix the ingredients in the right way while following a recipe!
Whether it is eggs, yeast or baking powder, some form of leavening agent is needed in most baked goods to make them rise, puff up or expand. This process creates structure in the product, increasing volume and affecting texture.
Leavening can happen in many ways, but for the most part occurs when some form of gas is produced and trapped in the batter or dough by its gluten structure. The leavening agent is the natural or chemical ingredient which produces this gas, either by combination with other ingredients or by the addition of heat in the oven.
Natural leavening occurs with the addition of yeast through the process of fermentation. The yeast cells eat up the sugars in a batter or dough, and produce carbon dioxide, as well as other organic by-products such as alcohol. The evaporation of water into steam is another natural leavening process, and one which is common in pastry doughs.
Baking powder on the other hand is a chemical leavening agent which is often used in cake baking. Here a reaction occurs between the active ingredient sodium bicarbonate and an acid, producing carbon dioxide as a by-product.
It is in the oven that everything comes together, and the magic occurs. If all of the ingredients have been measured and mixed correctly, the application of heat in the oven should cause them to transform from batter or dough into a finished bread, cake or pastry.
Baking the mixture achieves several things. It activates or speeds up many of the chemical reactions that are required to create the product. It transforms ingredients, causing them to change form, alter their structure and produce texture and flavor.
Sugars caramelize, starches harden, and eggs denature and coagulate. Starches and sugars in crusts react to turn them golden, while the leavening agents give off gas and breathe life into your creation.
As well as understanding the concepts in baking, you will need the right tools to carry them out. There is a whole host of different baking tools and gadgets available today, many of which are only needed for advanced techniques or which offer alternative solutions to common tasks.
There are a few essentials however, and with these you should be well-prepared to start baking as a beginner. Take a look at these 12 essential tools for beginners as well!
To get accurate measurements, a measuring scale is essential. A digital scale will offer the most accuracy, and is great when measuring small amounts of ingredients such as salt and yeast.
It is recommended to weigh dry ingredients such as flour and sugar, rather than measuring them by volume. The degree to which the ingredient is compacted or its coarseness can lead to variable volumes, so measure with a scale for greatest accuracy.
Measuring spoons, cups, and jugs
Having a selection of different sized measuring spoons, cups and jugs can be useful when you need to weigh liquids by volume.
Having a few mixing bowls on hand is a good idea when a recipe requires certain ingredients to be mixed together independently before being combined. Having several bowls of different sizes is a good idea, and they can be made of glass, ceramic or plastic.
A good rolling pin is essential for rolling out pastries and cookie doughs. Once you get a bit more advanced it can even be used for bashing butter when making laminated pastry for croissants or pain au chocolat.
A variable speed mixer will save your hands a lot of work! Get a mixer that has several attachments, such as beaters, a whisk and perhaps even a dough hook if you want to bake bread and wish to avoid kneading by hand.
A set of cake forms of different sizes can be used for all manner of baking projects. Many of these can also be used for pies, tarts and other baked goods.
For some baked products you will prefer baking pans to cake pans. These can be of different sizes and shapes, and made of glass or metal.
Cookies and other free-standing baked goods will want to sit on baking sheets. Get a few so that you can maximize space in your oven.
You’ll find no end of uses for these. A couple of plastic spatulas are always a good tool to have to hand for scooping out batters, flattening the tops of cake mixes or folding in beaten eggs.
A variety of these in different sizes will help to cover all bases. Go for silicone heads for maximum heat tolerance.
Good for spreading batter and pastes, icing the tops of cakes and lifting baked goods from their trays.
Some tasks require a simple whisking by hand, so don’t forget to have a small hand whisk for times when you don’t want or need to get out the electric mixer.
Baking or parchment paper is used to line cake pans and tins or lie on baking trays. It will stop your cakes and cookies from sticking, and allow you to easily lift out finished products from tins.
Sadly, the thermometer on your oven cannot always be trusted. Especially when opening and closing the oven door to put in, check on, or take out your various bakes, the temperature inside can fluctuate quite drastically.
Not only this, but there is likely to be a significant difference between the temperature at the top and at the bottom of the oven. Having a freestanding oven thermometer can be a good backup and allows you to know with greater certainty the inner temperature.
There can be a lot to do when baking, and it is easy to get distracted. While you may have checked the time when you put those cookies in the oven, can you be sure that you will check the clock again when they’re ready to come out?
Here a timer with an alarm comes to the rescue, and ensures that you don’t end up burning any of your creations. Many of these allow you to quickly and easily add a few extra minutes at a time, if your baked goods are not quite ready.
The baking process is not complete once your cake or loaf comes out of the oven. It continues to bake for a period afterwards as it cools, and some products even mature over the next day or so.
It is essential to keep your creation well-aerated during this period, by having it stand on a cooling rack. This will eliminate any doughy crust underneath, while at the same time protecting your worktop.
So you know the basic principles, and you’ve kitted out your kitchen. Now all you need to do is to buy the ingredients themselves.
Flour provides structure and substance to your baking, forming gluten and serving as food for yeast. There are many different types of flour available, so make sure to purchase the right sort for the type of baking you are doing.
Cake and pastry flour will have a lower protein and hence gluten content, while bread flour will have higher.
Milk hydrates a batter or dough, helping gluten to form and kick-starting chemical leavening agents. It provides moisture, as well as flavor and texture.
Eggs serve all manner of different roles, from providing structure, moisture, leavening and binding action. The two parts of eggs, the yolk and the whites, each provide different properties and functions, and so sometimes are used separately.
The yolks, being mostly fat, can improve the texture of your bake, while the proteins in the whites can be manipulated into a variety of forms. With their high protein and fat content, they even provide a good deal of nutritive value.
An essential cake ingredient, sugar has a tenderizing effect on batters and pastries, as well as sweetening the mixture. Sugar caramelizes at high temperatures, providing more complex flavors, and even binds water, allowing a baked product to stay fresh for longer by preventing staling.
Granulated sugar is a good choice for most needs when mixing a batter or dough. Icing sugar is another common type of sugar that can be used for decoration by dusting or frosting.
While salt provides its own flavor, its more important role in this respect is bringing out the flavors of the other ingredients. Remove the salt and your cake or pastry will taste bland.
It also has an important role to play in strengthening the gluten structure, which is of particular importance when baking bread.
Yeast comes in both dry and fresh forms, with the dry form lasting considerably longer. It is a living ingredient however, so make sure to use even the dried form before its use-by date.
Yeast feeds off of sugars and produces carbon dioxide, helping to leaven a dough or batter.
Baking powder is a chemical leavening agent that consists of sodium bicarbonate and an acid. They are combined in dried form with a filler, and will react once water is added to produce carbon dioxide.
Sodium bicarbonate is also available on its own as baking soda, but here you must be sure to add an acid ingredient into the mix as a reactant.
Now that you have a firm grasp on the baking essentials, check out these baking tips and tricks for beginners to improve your baking knowledge even further.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.