Ha! I bet you thought I had cornered the market on knowledge of baking, but really it is just helpful information I like to pass along. That being said, please don’t email me and say that something I said here didn’t work for you or is inaccurate. My bubble has already been burst!
To bake is akin to being a craftsman: someone who makes home baked foods skillfully, one building block at a time. While a craftsman is usually one “who does something with great skill and expertise,” a home baker needs only to pay attention to each stage of the process and the expertise will come.
Our grandmothers had a repertoire of biscuits, cookies, pies, and cakes they baked by adding a pinch of this and a teacup of that. They could tell by the consistency of the batter when there was too much flour or they’d forgotten the sugar or poured in extra milk. You will get to that point, too, if you bake daily. But for novices and intermediate bakers, choosing ingredients and measuring properly, mixing ingredients well at the proper temperature without overbeating, and baking at the correct oven temperature, all contribute to the symphony of a luscious chocolate torte, fluffy coconut cake, or a batch of tender, moist muffins or chewy chocolate chip cookies.
Most importantly, a home baker must thoroughly read the recipe and know the game plan before the ingredients are assembled.
Gathering and Prepping Basic Ingredients
Your sense of smell and taste is key to ascertaining freshness; smell the spices and sample the nuts and chocolate. If you are toasting nuts, they will be done when you barely smell the aroma from the oven.
Unbleached all-purpose or unbleached bread flourare naturally aged without bleaching agents and can be used interchangeably with all-purpose or bread flours, which are milled and treated traditionally. Flour measurements in most recipes are written with the expectation that you will spoon flour into a dry measuring cup and level the top with the straight edge of a knife. While weighing flour on a kitchen scale is the most accurate way to measure, many recipes do not specify weight measurements.
Baking powder, baking soda, and yeastare measured in the same way, and accuracy is key. If you add too much, the lifting bubbles produced by the baking powder or soda get too big, bump and push each other to the surface and pop, producing heavy, fallen baked goods. Too little leavening won’t make the batter budge. The leaveners are perishable, so check expiration dates before you use them.
To measuresugar use a dry measuring cup and level it off; it is fine to scoop granulated sugar directly from the canister. After scooping brown sugar, pat it down, firmly packing it, and level the top. Do not use a glass or liquid measuring cup with a pouring spout for dry ingredients because it never measures accurately. Measure confectioners’ sugar as you do flour, spooning it into the dry measuring cup.
Dairy products such as milk, buttermilk, sour cream, and eggs have expiration dates, too, and should be used at room temperature. Using cold ingredients reduces the volume of the batter or dough and will affect the texture.
When recipes call for butter, use unsalted. Salted butter adds more salt to the recipe, and you end up with less control over the taste of the baked product. It should be softened to incorporate and hold the fine air bubbles from mixing; so if your kitchen is hot, the butter needs to be slightly cooler and soft, but not melted.
Mixing and Baking
Start by preheating the oven before you mix the batter or dough. The slap of a hot oven activates the leavening and sets the structure of the baked food.
Mix dry ingredients well before incorporating them. You don’t want lumps of baking soda in your cake; stirring the dry ingredients before you measure them helps to prevent clumps. When you have the flour, leavening, and spices measured together, whisk them well to distribute them evenly.
When you initially cream the butter and sugar together, you are beating in fine air bubbles and making it ready to accept the eggs, flour mixture, and liquids. When you are finished, the butter/sugar mixture should be fluffy and several shades lighter in color. Hand mixers can take longer to do the job than stand mixers; it is important for any mixer to reach around the sides of the bowl and for you to scrape down the sides several times.
If you can trust the source of the recipe, have all your ingredients ready, follow clear instructions in the method, and your oven is calibrated, you are all set to bake successfully. Easier said that done, right?!? Don’t worry…..
More Tidbits of Baking Tips/Helpful Hints
- When boiling milk, first stir in a pinch of baking soda. This will help keep the milk from curdling.
- Add one teaspoon of lemon juice to each quart of water when cooking rice, this will keep rice fluffy.
- First rinse raisins, dates and figs in very cold water before putting them through the food chopper. They will not form such a gummy mass.
- For crisper salads: Place a saucer upside down in the bottom of the salad bowl before filling with salad. Excess moisture will run underneath the saucer and this will help keep the salad crisp and fresh.
- Tasty flavored whipped cream: First whip cream then add 2 tablespoons of flavored jello and continue beating on slow until the whipped cream is right consistency.
- Leftover ham: Lay ham slices in a baking dish then cover with maple syrup. Refrigerate overnight then fry the ham in butter the next morning.
- Add a dash of lemon juice into meatballs before cooking them.
- You can substitute crumbled cornflakes for bread crumbs when making meatloaf.
- When a recipe calls for butter the size of an egg, use four tablespoons.
- Cookie & Cake Decoration: Keep a small amount of sugar in small glass jars, add a few drops of food coloring and shake jar. Keep several colors on hand.
- Pickle Juice uses: Use sweet pickle juice to thin salad dressing or make French dressing with instead of vinegar, more delicious.
- Cook vegetables with one or more bouillon cubes instead of salt–improves flavor.
- Salt added to flour used for thickening gravies, etc., will help to prevent lumping.
- Chilled evaporated milk, whipped until fluffy, may be used as the base for several frozen desserts by the addition of different flavors, fruits, nuts, instant coffee, cocoa, jello, and other flavorings. Then add coconut, drained fruits, etc., as desired. Use easy crusts such as crushed cereal or crackers such as graham.
- After crimping the edge of the pie crust, lift the edge of the crust gently all around with your fingers. This keeps the dough from sticking to the dish while baking and makes it easier to take out the pieces of pie.
- Place crackers, dried bread, cookies or sugar which has lumps in a sturdy plastic bag (make sure it has no holes). Roll with a rolling pin or fruit jar as coarse or as fine as you like then pour into a measuring container. If you have more than you need at the time, just tie the bag and place in a pantry or freezer for later use.
- A teaspoon of sugar mixed with your yeast and water makes it raise better. Even if you are making bread you can use some sugar. Never mix salt directly with the yeast and water mixture as the salt kills the raising action.
- Keep brown sugar in a closed container with an apple in it, the brown sugar will stay soft and moist.
- Grate orange and lemon peel before peeling. Dry and add to spice cake or any cookies or puddings. The dried grated peel will keep well in a covered jar.
- Wrap parsley in foil first, then freeze. Shave off as much as needed, rewrap and return to the freezer. It will retain its flavor and freshness.
- For fried foods that require flouring, try pancake flour for a change, it’s quite nice.
- To keep peeled potatoes from turning dark without putting them in water, wrap in paper towel and wet under the faucet.
- Baking bread? Do not preheat. When you light your oven, pop in the bread pans immediately and you’ll be amazed at the resulting lightness of the bread.
- Toast oatmeal in the oven before adding to other ingredients when making oatmeal cookies-–delicious!
- Add two teaspoons of vinegar to jello and it will keep the jello from melting when you serve it.
- If you scorch milk by accident, put the pan in cold water and add a pinch of salt. Takes away the burned taste.
- Add a few sprigs of fresh peppermint to leftover tea while it is still warm, then refrigerate. Serve over ice.
- Roll pastry on waxed paper. Before placing paper on work surface, wipe surface with a damp cloth to prevent slipping. Flour paper lightly, and with forefinger draw a circle an inch and a half larger than the pan you intend to use. You’ve seen pastry cloths with guidelines…and they really do help. When pastry has been rolled out, pick up paper pastry and all. Fit into pan, paper side up and then pull paper away from crust. Prevents tearing or stretching twist paper and pan. Another nice tip: You can also roll pastry between two sheets of waxed paper.
- If it is a meringue pie you are making…add four or five marshmallows cut into pieces or 1/2 cup miniature ones, to meringue just before spreading. These marshmallows give both flavor and body to the meringue. The latter is important if pie is to stand for sometime before serving.
- Lemon juice or vinegar in water where cauliflower is cooked makes it keep its white color.
- To pare pineapple easily cut into rings and peel each slice separately.
- Add a slice of lemon to peeled sweet potatoes while cooking. The lemon will help them clear and free of discoloration.
- A tablespoon of minute tapioca sprinkled in apple pie will absorb excess juice while baking.
- Add one teaspoon baking powder to mashed potatoes to make them fluffy.
- Dip the blades of shears in hot water before cutting marshmallows, they won’t stick.
- Have a small bowl of melted butter and just brush on corn on the cob with a pastry brush. If you have a metal bowl you can put a chunk of butter in the bowl and set on grill to melt while meal is grilling.
- For bananas that are ripe and ready to eat but you have too many, peel the bananas and freeze them then dip in melted chocolate and freeze again, these make a nice treat!
- Fill a large hole or sugar shaker with flour and use that when needing to dust surfaces with flour or just pour out a tablespoon as you need it, this is handy way to keep a bit of flour on hand instead of digging in the flour bin.
- Use pastry wheel to cut rolled cookie dough in squares or diamonds, much less rolling and very pretty.
- Rinse measuring cup in hot water before using syrup, oil, etc. Will pour out clean and not stick to cup.
- Canned fruit is much better if opened and removed from the can an hour or two before using to restore the oxygen.
- When making popcorn balls, slip plastic bags on your hands when shaping them, won’t stick or burn your hands.
- A wire cheese cutter is ideal for cutting chilled refrigerator cookie dough.
- To liven up day old bread or rolls you can put the bread in a large bowl and place in a pot with a shallow level of boiling water. Remove from heat and cover the pot to steam the bread briefly. The bread will be warm and soft in a couple minutes.
- An ordinary funnel makes the best cooling rack for your tube cake pans.
Feel free to add your favorite baking or cooking tips below .