Cooking is an art. Baking is a science. So, for the novice baker who is used to experimenting in the kitchen with cooking, baking can be frustrating. In cooking, add a little of this and a little of that, and you can craft a masterpiece. If you try that in baking without a keen understanding of proportions, you'll likely craft a disaster. Too much or too little of even one ingredient can lead to a flop. The pastry challenged novice bakers can use a little help getting started in baking.
Until you're a master, following these simple baking rules can keep your novice baking experiments from becoming disasters:
- Use mixes. Craft your own homemade mixes to make baking easier. If you have prepped the exact proportions of dry ingredients for your favorite recipes, creating a baking success can be simpler and faster.
- Always bring your ingredients in standard baking recipes to room temperature. Yes, it can be a hassle to wait for eggs, butter and milk to warm up on the counter, but it's worth it. You'll find much more baking success if you start off with all of your ingredients at the same temperature. If you don't have time to wait, you can warm eggs in warm water more quickly.
- Sometimes you'll need to chill an ingredient, like butter or shortening in order to cut it into a recipe. Get the butter as cold as possible before attempting to shred or dice it. I've found that freezing the butter and shredding it in a food processor before tossing it into the dry ingredients works best. And always use unsalted butter so you can adjust the salt level according to the recipe, rather than guessing about the amount in your butter.
- While many recipes call for all-purpose flour, as you get into baking, you may find that bread or cake flours make better baked goods.
- Always fully preheat your oven. Don't get in a rush and throw those cookies in a few minutes early. Baking is a science, remember? So it can go wrong with even that tiny little change.
- Sift, sift, sift. I'm guilty of skipping this one frequently (which may be why I'm still a beginner and not a master baker). I'm persistent, but not skilled in the science. But, sifting your dry ingredients can make a huge difference in the quality of your baked goods. You may also want to consider weighing your dry ingredients rather than measuring volume. Weight is a much more accurate measurement for dry ingredients.
- Use the proper measuring tools. If you're using a dry cup measure for liquids, it's the wrong amount. If you can level the ingredient off with a knife, it's considered a dry ingredient. This seems counterintuitive with ingredients like sour cream, peanut butter and yogurt, but it's the most accurate way to measure those ingredients. The ingredients are simply too thick to be accurately measured in liquid measuring cups.
- Don't overmix. You know when your muffins get those smooth domes on top instead of crumbly ones? That's from overmixing. You want your wet and dry ingredients, in most baking recipes, to be barely combined.
- Don't overknead. Particularly for biscuits, you'll want to fold the dough just a few times. With breads and pizza doughs, knead only until the dough is a bit shiny and slightly springy.
- Position the pans in your oven properly and, if you're not using a convection oven, you may want to rotate your pans for certain recipes (not for cakes, as this can cause cakes to fall).
- Particularly if you have an older oven, you may want to place an oven thermometer in your oven, which can be more accurate than the on-board version.
- Once it's done, cool it on a rack. Some baked goods will fall in the pan if they continue to heat from the reserved heat in the pan. You also risk overbaking if you don't properly cool your baked goods.