When it comes to baking, the approach is so much different than cooking. Baking is a science and so it should be treated as such. Whether you are an expert baker or just a beginner, there will always be room for improvement.
The following are a few tips and tricks to help you elevate your baking skills or just to use as a refresher course for all you more experienced bakers out there.
1. Follow the Recipe
Maybe you have an old recipe you want to use or perhaps you acquired one online and want to try it out. Well, no matter what it happens to be or where it came from, one thing never changes. Follow the recipe down to the letter.
Just as we said in the introduction, baking is a science. It is absolutely crucial to follow the recipe. Baking is not like cooking where you can just add a few ingredients here and there to see if it works in the end. You also can’t just eyeball ingredients when adding them to the mix. Everything needs to be precisely measured and added in the correct order.
When reading a recipe, generally the order the ingredients are listed in is the order they will be used. Most dry ingredients tend to be mixed together before adding any wet ingredients to ensure they are melded together well. Things can go bad very fast if the instructions are not followed, so stay on track and stick to the directions.
2. Use the Best Ingredients
When buying new ingredients there are so many different choices to choose from the same type of ingredient. Sure, you could go with the cheaper brand and save a few bucks, but for some ingredients that means you also sacrifice the quality of the product
For instance, when purchasing heavy whipping cream, the price can raise substantially from brand to brand. You may be thinking that if you buy an off brand of heavy cream that it will be the same thing. Well you would be wrong because of the quality. The more expensive heavy whipping creams usually have a higher fat content of 40-50% whereas the cheaper brands will be around 20-30% fat content. This means it will definitely change the outcome of whatever you are making, especially when it comes to custards, puddings and whip creams.
Other ingredients like spices and seasonings will also lose their potency over time. Black pepper will start to lose its flavor within 30 minutes of being cracked.
Leavening agents like baking powder, soda and yeast will also begin to deteriorate overtime which will harm your proofing process by not allowing the dough to rise properly.
In the end, it is wise to just buy the freshest ingredients possible to avoid any problems.
3. Adding Ingredients
There are specific ways to go about adding particular ingredients that may not be explained in the recipe or written that way. For instance, when adding eggs to the bowl or mixer, you want to make sure you only add one egg at a time so the ingredients get well incorporated and the eggs are beaten properly.
If you make a batch of cookies and want them to be perfectly shaped and evenly baked across the whole batch then try chilling the batter in the fridge for about 1 hour before spooning them out on the pan and getting ready to bake.
Another great tip is to sift all the dry ingredients. This is not as necessary with flours, but with other clumpy dry ingredients like cocoa powder and powdered sugar it is. The small little clumps will create small air pockets in the dough and in turn create small holes in the finished product.
One of the most important methods of adding hot and cold liquids together is called tempering. This is vital when it comes to making custards or adding warm chocolate to creams. When making a custard, usually you have to add scalding hot cream or milk to beaten eggs and sugar. In order to do this without scrambling the eggs, you will need to temper the mixture as you go.
Place the bowl of beaten eggs and sugar on a damp towel so the bowl doesn’t move around when you start to whisk the mixture. Then grab a measuring cup of some of the hot liquid and begin to slowly pour into the egg mixture while whisking constantly. Try to just add a little bit at a time over and over until the egg mixture has not only thinned out but risen in temperature as well. Once this has happened then you slowly pour the egg mixture into the rest of the hot liquid while also stirring constantly until everything has been incorporated.
There are really only a couple times when substitutions can be used in baking and if you are not comfortable using them, then it’s probably best you don’t.
One of the most common substitutes in baking is the eggs because of allergies or veganism. You can use other binders like bananas or flax seed in place of the eggs. It may not be the same or the strongest but it will work. In order to use the flax seed or chia seed it will take some time so try and do the day before you want to bake with it. Place some of the seeds in a small bowl and fill with warm water to cover. Then place the bowl in the fridge and allow to sit overnight. In the morning there will be a jelly that has formed from the liquid and that is what you will use in place of the eggs.
Then there are times where it is not OK to use substitutes like using salted butter instead of unsalted butter. Or if the recipe calls for high gluten flour and you decide to use all-purpose flour instead. Well the bread you use it for will not turn out the way you want it to and everything you will have done will be all for not.
It is best to use the exact ingredient the recipe calls for. So, if you don’t like an ingredient in a recipe, maybe try and find a different recipe before you try to change it.
5. Plan Ahead
Once you have acquired the recipe you want to create, then you are going to want to gather everything you will need for it ahead of time. This will save you the trouble of trying to find a whisk when you really need it or a spatula when it comes time to temper the chocolate. So, make sure you have the correct pans and tools set out before starting to make the recipe.
Another helpful tip is to measure out your ingredients separately ahead of time into individual bowls. This will create more dishes in the end but it will come in handy when it comes time to build the recipe. Most professional pastry chefs will do this before creating a recipe. They call it “mise en place” which is a French term for “everything in its place”.
6. Understand the Ingredients
Once you start to become a better baker, it is best to learn how some ingredients actually work when added to a recipe. This will help you in the long run to make the recipe better and in turn help you to create your own recipes. You will want to know the difference between baking soda and powder and how they react with different ingredients in the bowl.
When making a dough that you have to knead, there are a couple of hints to help the gluten to activate and bind together well. You want to make sure to knead the dough for at least 10 minutes or however long the recipe calls for.
When making pasta and some breads, a good rule of thumb to know when you are done kneading is to press your thumb into the dough and if it bounces back then you are done. You will also want to wrap it or cover it after kneading and allow it to rest for at least an hour so the gluten can all bind together.
One of the most important ingredients in baking breads is yeast. There are two types of yeast: dry active yeast and wet yeast. The dry active yeast is the most commonly used type and knowing how it works will help you to make a better loaf every time.
You want to mix dry active yeast with warm water before adding any other ingredients and let it rest for at least 10 minutes then whisk very well. This process is called blooming the yeast. Once that is done then you can add the other ingredients.
Except for salt. Salt will kill the yeast so it is best to mix everything else first and once the dough starts to form, then add your salt.
Once the dough is created you will need to proof the dough and the best way to do so at home without a proofer is to preheat your oven or try to get the room temperature as close to 85 or 90 degrees as possible. The colder the room, the longer the proofing process will be.
Cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to rest so that it will rise enough before the baking process.
7. Temperature of Ingredients
Sometimes the actual temperature of ingredients will play a large role in the recipe. Some people say it is best to also let your eggs sit out and get to room temperature before adding them to the recipe.
Aside from ingredients like liquids, butter is the most common ingredient that needs to be followed when it comes to temperatures. It can be called-for cold straight out of the fridge in order to make drop biscuits, croissants and phyllo dough. Or it may need to be softened or melted when making cookies or beignet batter.
8. Measuring and Conversions
When looking for new recipes you will find that you run into two different types. The imperial system which is what Americans use and the Metric system which everyone else uses. The metric system is going to be more exact and the proper way to measure ingredients. For instance, if an imperial system recipe calls for 1 cup of flour, the weight will usually be different every time.
With the metric system, you will need to weigh flour out usually down to the gram. This is incredibly accurate and will help to create the recipe the same way every time. So, get yourself a digital scale to weigh out all your ingredients every time.
If you want to convert the recipe from one system to another it is fine to try and covert to the metric system. But if you are trying to convert to the imperial system, it will be different every time and really isn’t that necessary.
9. Proper Use of the Oven
This should go without saying, but you always want to make sure you preheat your oven every time before starting the baking process. You will also want to get an internal oven thermometer. Your oven will have a thermometer on it but most of the time it is not that accurate as they will need to be calibrated every so often.
To save money on this, buy an oven thermometer for a few bucks and save yourself the headache.
Once the product is in the oven, set a timer and keep the oven door closed. The second you open the oven door to check on the item or just to get a peek inside, all of the heat and moisture will escape immediately and the temperature will drop drastically which will hurt your end product.
10. Bake Every Day
Ultimately, in order to become a better baker, you need to practice. This means you need to try and bake something every day. It can even be the same thing every day so that you get really good at that one thing by perfecting it. Or you can try a new recipe each time to try and widen your baking range.
Whatever the case may be, you need to keep at it and not give up. Baking is tricky and it will take time and practice to get really good at it. But no matter how good you are, even if you are the best baker in the world, there is no doubt about it, you will learn something new constantly. Here’s the main point to improving your baking skills, always keep learning and growing.