Many people have the misconception that baking is as easy as following a recipe and at the end you’ll wind up with a beautiful and delicious product. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and it’s probably where the idea of having a ‘knack for baking’ comes from.
While I would like to stress that baking should be a fun experience, I can understand that it can be quite frustrating when something just doesn’t turn out.
I can assure you that no one simply picks up ingredients and knocks out perfect treats every time. We’ve all had our major baking fails. Like the first time that I made a Japanese Cotton Cheesecake and it turned out like a wet piece of couch foam, or that time when I tried baking bread and I ended up baking a lethal weapon to the thrown at an intruder… my very own baked brick.
Sometimes things just don’t turn out and there’s nothing that you can do but try again, and that’s okay! But here are some tips that would keep you on the right path to delicious desserts almost every time….
Correct Butter Consistency
I can’t stress how important butter consistency is to a recipe. This will definitely make or break what you’re baking.
Recipes generally call for room temperature butter, but what is that really? Room temperature butter is different for someone living in a cold country vs. some one living in a warm country.
I live in the tropics, and leaving butter on the countertop to “warm up” can mean butter becoming almost melted. That’s no good for baking at all! So what do you do?
A great trick that I’ve developed to check your butter is a simple poke test. Gently poke your packaged butter, and if the stick has a little give, just enough to leave a slight impression of your finger, then you’re good to go.
Do not, and and I mean do not try to microwave your butter in an attempt to quickly warm it up. I can’t stress enough what a terrible idea that is. You will ruin whatever you’re trying to bake! Step away from the microwave unless your recipe calls for melted butter. Always remember, the golden rule to baking – consistency is key!
Room Temperature Ingredients
Again, like the butter, most recipes call for room temperature ingredients. If they don’t specify if an ingredient should be cold or hot or room temperature, then they probably assume you know to use it at room temperature.
But what’s all the fuss over room temperature ingredients? Is it really all that important? Will anyone notice if I throw a couple of cold eggs into my cake rather than letting them warm up before? Well, the short answer is yes.
The reasoning behind it is quite scientific, but equally interesting. You see there are two main reasons for using room temperature ingredients while baking.
The first one being that warmer ingredients bond easily. The warmth creates an environment which allows these ingredients to be incorporated smoothly and evenly. This results in a lovely smooth batter and ultimately, well incorporated and uniformed baked goods.
Mixing together cold ingredients usually results in lumpy batter, clumpy frosting, dense cookies and chunky cheesecakes. This is because cold ingredients are harder to incorporate or might not even incorporate at all.
The second reason for using room temperature ingredients is that room temperature dairy products form an emulsion when mixed that traps air. This is a good thing. While baking your mix in the oven, the trapped air will expand from the heat resulting in fluffy baked goods.
Read the Recipe Before Starting
This is a step people tend to skip, but it’s something that you should make a habit of doing.
By reading through a recipe completely before you begin will ensure you know how many servings your recipe makes, if you’re capable of preforming the required techniques, and if you have enough time to make what you intend to!
It’s a good idea to check if you can or need to make a part of the recipe ahead of time.
Also, some recipes even call for ingredients to be separated, like a half a cup of sugar here and a quarter cup of sugar there, but in the ingredient list it said three quarter cup of sugar. It would be pretty lame to realize that you dumped all of your sugar into one part at the beginning, and now you have to start all over because it’ll be too sweet or worse yet, not come together properly.
Have Your Ingredients Prepared
It’s a good idea to have all of your ingredients prepared before you start any recipe. This way you ensure that you have everything that you need to begin with and make substitutions if you need to.
Can you imagine having to run out to the store in the middle of making something because you only now realize that the ingredient is not in your pantry?
Another reason why it’s a good idea to have everything prepared is because some recipes involve you cooking part of it on the stove up. Imagine having to hustle to find and measure out ingredients to add to your pot, all while what’s already cooking starts to burn!
And if those reasons aren’t enough, by having everything prepared and organized before you start would ensure that you don’t forget to incorporate an ingredient all together.
Learn How to Measure
This one is really important. While you can get away with eye balling ingredients sometimes for cooking, that doesn’t tend to work out so well for baking.
Since baking is first and foremost scientific, it’s important to make sure you’re measuring your ingredients accurately. This is because baking is a chemical process and you want to have the right ratio of dry and wet ingredients in order to ensure that your recipe turns out right.
Failing to do this can result in a less than desirable outcome, such as rock hard bread or watery cupcakes that just won’t rise. But how do you accurately measure out your ingredients?
Baker’s use two methods depending on if they’re measuring wet or dry ingredients. These methods are by volume and weight. Okay, we’re going to get a little scientific so bear with me a little…
Volume is what’s used to measure wet ingredients. What do I mean by volume? Basically, you use a measuring cup.
Since all liquids take up the same amount of space, we measure them in fluid ounces. If you look on the sides of a measuring cup, you’ll notice lines indicating where a quarter cup, half cup etc is.
You’ll also notice lines indicating how many ounces are in each of those measurements of a cup. These markings are what will allow you to accurately measure how much liquid is inside the cup.
But in order to make sure that you have the right amount of liquid in the cup, you must view the cup at eye level. This is because liquid in a glass forms a meniscus (a gently curved line). You want the bottom of that curved line to reach the appropriate measure on your cup.
What I mean is, if you’re trying to measure out a half cup of milk, set your measuring cup on the table, stoop down to eye level and slowly poor in your milk. When the bottom of the milk line reaches the half cup line, stop! You’ve just accurately poured yourself a half cup of milk.
When it comes to measuring out dry ingredients, the most accurate way to do that is by weight. For this we would use a digital scale. Simple right?
Well here’s a twist, all dry ingredients are not created equal! A cup of flour will yield a totally different amount than a cup of cocoa or a cup of chocolate chips.
Luckily, most recipes that go by weight will simply tell you the correct weight, like 200 grams of flour. If the recipe indicated a cup of flour though and you want to know how much that is, you’ll need to refer to some weight charts like these (insert link to weight charts). Spoiler alert, one cup of all purpose flour is 120 grams.
So you’re a beginner baker and you don’t own a kitchen scale? Now what? Well, luckily there’s a product called a dry baking cup. This is awesome because it allows you to approximate the weight of your dry ingredients.
They’re pretty simple to use too. Simply heap the flour into the dry measuring cup, then use the flat side of a knife and gently sweep it across the top of your cup. Doing with with knock off the excess flour without compacting it into your cup! You would use this same method when measuring dry ingredients with tablespoons and teaspoons.
Keep the Oven Door Closed
This can be a hard one for some people, but please step. away. from. the. oven!
When your oven reaches to the correct temperature, place your cakes or baked items in quickly. Try to center them in the middle of the rack.
If you’re baking more than one cake at once, do your best to keep the centered, on the same rack, and with space between the pans. This helps the hot air to circulate, and will ensure your cakes bake evenly.
Do not spend too much time however, fiddling around with your pans to get them in the perfect spot. Why? The longer the oven door is left open, is the quicker your oven temperature will drop.
So when you’ve gone through the trouble of preheating your oven to 350 degrees, only to fiddle around with pan placement for five minutes, your cakes will start baking at a lower temperature than you originally set.
This works the same way when you want to check on your cakes. Just don’t do it!
The more you open the oven door while your cake or baked good is baking the more chances you’re leaving for the oven temperature to drop and your cake along with it.
Ever wonder why the center of some cakes fall in the oven? Uneven heat will cause that. So step away from the oven door people!
If you must peek, use your oven light and look through the window.
A good rule to follow is the 20 minute cake rule. Once the cake is in the oven, do not open the door for the first 20 minutes. After that, you can test your cake if you really, really need to. But please, leave your cake and let it bake.
Cakes will let you know when they’re finished baking, you just have to look out for these signs. (link to post about how to tell when a cake is done baking).
So there you have it! These six tips will have you baking better cakes in no time. Having a knack for baking isn’t a special skill that some are born with. It’s having an understanding of ingredients and how to use them.
We’ve all had baking fails and we can all have baking success stories. Keep these tips in mind the next time you plan to bake up something special.