Some people are bakers and some are cooks. But while you’ll meet your share of creative chefs who hate the precision of measuring for baking and some perfect pastry types who’d never be seen by the frying pan, I like both.
For me, cooking is for sustenance, for putting together classic combinations of ingredients in new ways, and for trial and error. But baking is not all strict one-cup measures either. There’s creativity there, but there is also a basic set of skills to build up before you can truly be creative. One of them, by the way, is not to be a perfectionist–baking seems to bring that out in people. But didn’t you hear that story about the woman who accidentally dropped chocolate chips into plain cookie dough? Her mistake had delicious results, and though not all mistakes will, you really just never know.
**How to Bake**
Measuring Flour. For best results in any recipe, scoop your flour into the desired measuring cup. Don’t push it down or shake the cup to even it; doing either of those things will compact the flour. Scrape off the extra using a flat knife. Keep flour in an airtight container with a wide neck, and place a small scooper or extra measuring cup in the container. Each time you bake, you’ll simply scoop flour into the measuring cup you need (over a bowl), scrap off the excess (also over a bowl), and add to your recipe. Many bakers have moved to a weight-based system, which prevents all this scooping and scraping nonsense. Weighing is both easier and more precise…and yet, I still largely measure by volume.
Equip Yourself. If you plan to get baking in your small kitchen, here’s what you’ll want to own:
- a set of 3 mixing bowls
- an inexpensive handheld mixer (costs about $30!)
- a rubber or silicon spatula, a cookie sheet
- dry measuring cups
- 2-cup wet measuring cup
- measuring spoons
- parchment paper
- a 9-by-9-inch baking pan
- a muffin tin
- a loaf pan
- a 9-inch springform cake pan with a removable bottom
- small offset spatula, for loosening sweets from their pan and spreading frosing
I’ve got specific recommendations for some of this gear in the Kitchen Stuff archives.
Conquer Cookies. Start your baking adventure with chocolate chip cookies, quickbreads, and brownies. Once you’ve perfected this repertoire, you’ll be able to play with variations, and your wheelhouse won’t seem limited anymore. In basic recipes, experiment with add ins–nuts, dried fruit, toffee bits, different kinds of chocolate–and flavorings–vanilla, citrus zest, espresso powder, cocoa, cinnamon–and you’ll never have to make the same thing twice. Until, that is, you stumble on a combination so good you’ll want to make it a thousand times.
Butter. The temperature of your butter is one of the most important indicators of how your sweets will turn out. For most cookies and cakes where step one is “cream the butter,” you’ll want your butter quite soft and moldable. The best way to achieve this texture is to leave the butter on the counter for 3 to 4 hours before you use it. Once you’ve gotten the hang of what softened butter should feel and look like, you can use your microwave in short, 5 or 10 second bursts, to achieve the same end with cold butter. For biscuits, scones, and pie crusts, on the other hand, you want your butter to be cold out of the refrigerator. If it’s not, your baked goods won’t be flaky. I store extra butter in the freezer and stock up when there’s a sale at the supermarket.
Stay Stocked. More so even than in cooking, if the baking wing of your pantry is full, you can make a wide range of sweets without having to shop. Be sure you have flour, butter, oil, sugar and eggs. That alone will get you far.
Overmix at Your Own Risk. For quickbreads, pancakes, and other sweets that get their leavening from baking powder, you never ever want to overmix the dough. The baking powder will take care of any remaining lumps while your treats cook. If you overmix, your sweets will be gummy, dense, and unappealing. It takes some restraint, because mixing is fun, but try to keep that arm of yours in check.
Baking Powder & Baking Soda. Baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents–what makes your cake rise. Baking powder is baking soda mixed with cream of tarter and cornstarch, which means you can make your own if absolutely necessary. Both ingredients should be in your pantry, as they’re irreplaceable in most recipes. Baking soda, by the way, is also the best for cleaning pans with batter stuck on them: wet the pan slightly, sprinkle the soda over, let sit for an hour, then scrub away.
Remember Proportions. If you can remember a recipe or two–or at least the proportions of it–you’ll be able to impress friends and family with your baking, even when you’re away from home and your cookbook collection. When you’re making your favorite sweet at home, try not to look at the recipe. You’ll slowly start to memorize it.When in doubt, remember 1-2-3.
Salt. It’s a popular misconception that salt is for savory food only. The best baked goods have enough salt in them to bring out the flavor of the sweet. Some recipes don’t include much salt, but your baked goods will always be improved by adding at least a pinch.