There is a lot to learn when you are beginning to learn to bake, and it can be helpful to know a few tips and tricks from seasoned experts to help you along your way. Here we have collected twenty-five tips that will set you off on the right foot, and make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes that others have made when starting out.
1. Read through the recipe carefully
Great baking is all about preparation. Make sure that you read through the recipe carefully before you start to bake, and ideally before you visit the supermarket! This serves a number of purposes. Firstly, it ensures that you have all the ingredients on hand. There is nothing worse than being halfway through making a cake, only to realize that you are missing a crucial ingredient. It also ensures that you have a good overview of all the steps involved before you start. It may be that you need to work quickly during one step, and need to make sure that previous steps or ingredients are prepared in advance. On that note…
2. Follow EVERY step and instruction
Baking is very different from cooking. There is a lot of complicated chemistry involved, and the ingredients need to be mixed and prepared in just the right way for the chemistry to work as intended. You don’t need to be put off by this as a beginner however, nor do you really need to know much about the chemistry itself. By following the steps in the recipe, and making sure that every instruction is carried out in order, you should be rewarded with great results. That is, do not be tempted to skip a step or ignore a seemingly trivial suggestion. It can make the difference between success and disaster!
3. Mise en place
Mise en place is a French term that means “to put everything in its place.” Basically, it refers to getting everything prepared and in place, ready for cooking. Professional cooks do it, and bakers should too – even home bakers! It is really an extension of the previous two tips, and involves getting all of the ingredients in place, and quite possibly weighed up or prepared, before the baking begins. Sift your flour, crack your eggs and preheat the oven. Make sure you have all your tools on hand and know the steps involved. Your baking will run much more smoothly and will be much more fun. Trust me!
4. Measure ingredients carefully
The ratio of ingredients in baking can have a profound effect upon the finished product. Having more sugar, butter or flour in a cake for example, can drastically affect the flavor, texture and structure. Too much or too little baking powder could result in a cake that rises too quickly, only to collapse and dry out, or which doesn’t rise well at all. Altering the amount of yeast in a bread dough can make it prove far too quickly, or take too long to be practical in the time you have available.
It is therefore extremely important to measure all of your ingredients carefully. Invest in some good measuring jugs for liquids, and a set of measuring cups for small volumes. If you want to be absolutely certain of the weights of those critical ingredients however…
Measuring jugs and cups are great for measuring volumes of liquids, but when it comes to the weight of dried ingredients, you can’t beat an electronic measuring scale. Measuring cups can vary in size, and dried ingredients themselves cannot reliably be measured by volume. Factors such as the coarseness of the ingredient and the level of compaction can greatly affect their volume in relation to their weight. Take a look online at several conversion charts, and you’ll see a vast range of values for particular ingredients. A digital scale solves your problem.
6. Convert volume measurements to weights
You’ll undoubtedly come across recipes that call for volume measurements of dry ingredients like flour or sugar. For the reasons discussed in the previous tip, it can be a good idea to convert these volume measurements into weights to make your job easier next time, and to ensure consistency across your bakes. Weigh the ingredient once you have measured it by volume, and jot it down next to your recipe. If you are pleased with the results of the bake, you can use this same value next time.
7. Weigh your water
This one only applies if you are using the metric system, but if so it can sometimes be convenient to weigh your water instead of measuring it by volume. This is especially true when you are dealing with awkward quantities which may not be easy to read off from a measuring jug, with the water splashing around inside. As the metric system of measurement was developed with its basis upon water, 1 ml of water weighs exactly 1 g. 1 liter of water weighs 1 kg. Therefore, using your digital scale, you can now measure 473 ml of water with much greater accuracy.
8. Be careful when substituting ingredients
If a recipe calls for a certain type of flour, sugar or butter, there is probably a good reason for it. Self-rising flour is mixed with baking powder, so if you substitute it for plain flour your cake will not rise. Cake, pastry, and bread flours have different levels of protein and hence gluten, so will likely not be good substitutes for each other in particular recipes. Likewise, different types of sugar offer different flavors and textures, so substituting them can affect the final outcome. Unsalted butter allows more control over the amount of salt in a recipe, so if you are substituting for salted, make sure to reduce the amount of extra salt that is added.
In general, it is a good idea to stick to the stated ingredients when you are starting out, and once you get more experience you can start to experiment a little with substitutions. When you know more about the functions of each ingredient, you’ll be more capable of predicting what changes, if any, a substitution is likely to make to the outcome.
9. Make your own self-rising flour
That being said, if you are lacking self-rising flour, or you don’t feel that you bake enough to justify having several types of flour at home, there is an easy way to convert regular plain flour to self-rising. Simply take 1 cup (about 6 oz or 150 g) of plain or all-purpose flour, and sift it with 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon fine salt. Make sure that the ingredients are well mixed, and add it to your recipe as instructed. This is also a good idea if you don’t use self-rising flour very often, as it loses its leavening power over time. Just make sure that the baking powder you use is not past its use-by date.
Many dry ingredients will last longer if kept in airtight containers and away from sunlight. This protects them from excess moisture and the damaging effects of UV radiation. Moisture can shorten the shelf-life of an ingredient, or in extreme cases cause it to go bad. Sunlight can oxidize it, reducing the flavor and affecting the nutritional content. To avoid this, try keeping your ingredients in glass flip-top or Kilner jars to keep out the moisture, and leave them in the cupboard or a dark pantry to keep out the light.
11. Add a slice of bread to brown or demerara sugar
Brown and demerara sugar have a tendency to dry out, causing them to become hard and for the granules to stick together. This can make it difficult to measure the sugar and break it apart. If this is happening to you, one solution is to add a slice of bread to the container in which you keep the sugar. The bread will impart its moisture to the sugar, keeping it moist and preventing it from sticking together. Just make sure to check the bread regularly to make sure that it hasn’t turned moldy.
12. Room Temperature means room temperature
When a recipe asks for an ingredient to be brought to room temperature, this isn’t just advice. The majority of ingredients will work much better when they are incorporated into a recipe while at room temperature, and will give you much better results. Butter creams much more effectively, and whisked egg whites will offer much more volume. Treat this step as part of your mise en place (see tip no. 3), by taking out all ingredients from the fridge well in advance.
13. Separate eggs with a soda bottle
There seems to be as many techniques for separating eggs as there are bakers. So here is my favorite technique to add to the list! First, crack the egg onto a plate or into a bowl. Take an empty plastic soda bottle, squeeze it a little to compress it, and hold it over the egg yolk. Release the pressure in the bottle to create a vacuum, and the yolk will be sucked up into the bottle, leaving the whites behind. You can then squeeze the bottle again to release the yolk. Not only is this method effective, but it looks really cool too!
14. Use separate bowls for cracking eggs
Even seasoned bakers get the occasional piece of eggshell in their cracked egg, or manage to damage the yolk while cracking it. It is therefore good practice to crack your eggs into a separate bowl before you add them to your mix. This is also a good defense against any rogue rotten eggs that might be hiding in your fridge.
If you plan to separate your eggs, it is an even better idea to have one bowl for the cracked egg, and then an additional two for the white and the yolk. This way, if you should happen to break one of the yolks while separating it, it only affects the egg in question. This is especially important if you plan on whisking the egg whites into peaks, as any fat from the yolk will prevent the whites from transforming effectively.
Save yourself a lot of time and effort by using a variable speed stand mixer. If you get a model that has various attachments, you can mix, whisk, and cream ingredients in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it by hand. If you have ever tried to whisk egg whites to firm peaks with a hand whisk, you will know what I mean! Some of the larger, stronger models even come with a dough hook which allows you to knead bread dough without all the labor.
16. Autolyse bread dough
If you are kneading by hand, then allowing the flour and water to autolyse is another great method to save you time, and preserve flavor. Autolyse is another French term which consists of allowing the flour, water and salt in a bread dough to rest and form gluten naturally. You simply mix together the ingredients into a rough mixture, cover and let them rest for at least a half hour, longer if possible. Gluten will start to form naturally, and will make your final kneading much easier and less labor-intensive.
17. Use wet hands when handling rye flour dough
Taking the step up from wheat bread to rye? It can be very rewarding to bake, and is a nutritional powerhouse, especially if you use wholegrain flour. One problem however is that it very sticky, and can be difficult to handle. The best solution to this is to wet your hands and tools with cold water, before handling the dough. This will allow it to slide off them with ease, and make leveling out the dough in its form a breeze.
18. Chill your pastry and cookie doughs
Once you have mixed up your pastry dough, wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the fridge until it has cooled. This will make it much easier to roll out, allow you to create better fluting or other fancy designs, and can also help prevent it puffing up while blind baking.
By doing the same with cookie dough, your cookies are more likely to hold together when baking in the oven, preventing them from spreading too much.
Some pie and tart recipes require you to blind bake the crust. This is a pre-baking that helps with very wet fillings, or ones which will not be baked for very long. Use some pie weights, or a substitute, on top of your crust to stop it puffing up in the oven while it is blind baked. A good alternative can be to use rice, beans, or popcorn.
20. Switch to silicone baking mats
Sick of your cookies sticking in the oven, or the parchment paper ripping when you try to take them off? Bake them on silicone baking sheets instead, for perfect cookies every time. They are reusable, so they are worth the initial investment, and are very easy to clean and store.
21. Bake bread in a Dutch oven
Ever wondered how bakeries get that great rise and crispy brown crust on their loaves? A lot of it has to do with the steam and temperature in their ovens, which are especially designed for baking bread and other baked goods. A domestic oven, on the other hand, is more of an all-rounder, and it can be difficult to mimic the conditions inside a bakery oven. Steam quickly escapes, causing the crust to dry out prematurely before the loaf has expanded fully, and it is difficult to get enough consistent heat to the loaf throughout the bake.
The best way to bake a loaf of bread therefore is in a Dutch oven. Let it warm up in the oven as you turn it on, remove it when you will insert the loaf, and close the lid before returning it to the oven. The cast iron radiates consistent heat to the loaf while the steam given off by the loaf during baking creates a humid atmosphere inside. You can remove the loaf towards the end of baking and stand it on an oven shelf, to allow the crust to crisp up fully and prevent the bottom from burning.
22. Dust your peel with rice flour
Want to bake your bread on a baking stone instead? You will need a “peel,” a flat board with a handle that is used to transfer the loaf to the baking stone. It is recommended to dust the peel with flour to allow the loaf to easily slide off onto the stone, but regular wheat flour is not always that effective. A great alternative is to use rice flour, which allows the loaf to slide much more easily, and doesn’t burn in the oven, giving the underside of the loaf a much cleaner appearance.
23. Make sure the oven is the right temperature
The baking temperature can be critical. When baking bread, too low a temperature at the start of the bake will not allow the loaf to rise as well. Too high a temperature and you can burn your baked goods. Therefore make sure that the oven is fully heated before you start to bake, and keep the door closed! A lot of heat is lost when you open the door, so only do so if it is absolutely necessary.
The best way to ensure that you have the right temperature is to use a freestanding oven thermometer that you can place inside the oven. Unfortunately, the thermometers on domestic ovens are not always reliable, so having a separate one can be a good backup. The temperature inside the oven can also vary between the top and bottom and the front and back, so an oven thermometer will allow you to measure the temperature precisely where you will be doing your baking.
25. Let your products cool fully
While some baked goods like pies are best served warm, straight from the oven, others need to be cooled fully before they are cut or decorated. A cake should be fully cooled before you attempt to frost it, and bread should cool fully before it is sliced. Cutting bread while warm will damage its crumb, leaving a gummy texture on both the bread and your knife. If you have baked rye bread, then you will want to leave the loaf 24 hours before cutting it, as it needs time to mature. The crumb is still very wet, and steam will continue to be given off over the next several hours.
Use a cooling rack to ensure that your baked goods cool effectively and efficiently, and to prevent any build-up of moisture underneath.
With these tips and tricks, you’re well on your way to taking your baking to the next level!