Baking, versus cooking, definitely requires more patience, precision and overall adherence to recipes. While a “Sunday sauce” or chicken soup will not suffer from a little more of this or that (and may even benefit as a result), a cake will not be as tolerant.
I have found, over the years, that the most successful bakers are the ones that truly enjoy the process – not just the end result. If you’ve ever rushed through a recipe, only to have it not come out “quite right”, you know what I mean. Baking can be a great joy and lots of fun, but not if you feel unorganized and stressed. And you can definitely “up” the enjoyment factor in your baking if you’re set up and well-prepared right from the start.
Here are my “top ten” tried-and-true tips – the ones that have seen me through pretty much everything I’ve ever baked. I’m so happy to share them with you:
1. For most recipes, you can assemble your dry ingredients in advance – the leavening agents in baking powder, for example, are not activated till you add your liquids. So early in the day, or even the night before, measure/mix the dry ingredients – cover and put aside till ready to use.
2. Using ingredients at the proper temperature is critical to making sure they are well-incorporated. Butter, with few exceptions, is typically used at room temperature. Make sure you’ve factored in the time you’ll need to take it out so it’s ready to use when you start (this can vary depending on the season and how hot/cold your kitchen is). Same with eggs. Whether you use them separated or not, they beat up significantly better at room temperature.
3. Greasing and flouring pans (see this post on how-to) can be done in advance. Just keep the pans in the refrigerator till ready to use.
4. Proper measuring is critical to successful baking. Personally, I am a huge fan of weighing vs. measuring (read here) and love my scale for that reason. It minimizes the number of bowls and utensils I use and is far more precise and consistent.
That said, if you prefer to measure, always use dry measuring cups for things like flour and sugar and liquid cups for – well, liquids. To measure dry ingredients, use the scoop-and-scrape method for the most accurate results – scoop the cup into your ingredient and sweep a knife across – do not pat or tamp down. For liquids, hold the cup up to eye level and pour.
5. When beating ingredients (like sugar or milk) into eggs or egg yolks, always whisk the eggs/yolks first to break them up and emulsify. This will facilitate the blending of additional ingredients and eliminate “yolk burn” – those tiny hard bits that form when you add ingredients to eggs without whisking first.
6. When using sticky or viscous ingredients such as molasses, honey or corn syrup, spray the inside of your measuring cup with a non-stick cooking spray (such as Pam). It will easily pour right out and clean-up will be that much quicker.
7. Try doubling your recipe and freezing half for a later date. Most baked recipes double beautifully and don’t require much more effort or planning. Cakes, cookies, and basically anything with a high butter content freeze really well - and what is more impressive than taking out a delicious, home-baked treat to serve at the spur of the moment (or for that unexpected bake sale/meeting/visitor/thank you)? Once you’ve done this a few times and grow accustomed to having a freezer stocked with goodies you will never bake “just one” of anything again.
8. Make sure you know the accuracy of your oven’s temperature. Read this for how to check and make the appropriate adjustments.
9. One of my favorite baking tools is my mini-loaf rack. Often, a pound cake or tea bread recipe is more than I need for the occasion – a friend coming for tea or a thank you for a neighbor. Here’s an easy conversion that yields several small loaves for the price of one: a recipe calling for a 9×5 loaf pan will yield 3 mini loaves, and one using an 8×4 pan will yield 2. If you are not filling all the pans on the rack, fill the empty pans halfway with water to ensure even heating all around. These mini loaves freeze well and are so nice to have at the ready.
10. I came across this muffin/cupcake do-ahead tip over 20 years ago and it is, hands down, my favorite: line your tins with foil cups. Follow the recipe, fill the tins and place the unbaked muffins in the freezer. When frozen, pop them out and store in ziploc bags. Note the item, oven temp and baking time (as well as the date) on the bag. You can now make as few or many freshly baked muffins as you like – a lovely treat on a weekend morning or after school. Pre-heat the oven according to the recipe, place the frozen muffins in the tins and bake for 10-15 minutes longer than suggested. As in tip #9, fill the empty cups half-way with water to ensure even heating.
What are some of your favorite “tried and true” tips? Please share!