Stressed and stuck at home, many people are turning to baking to pass the time under quarantine. The joys of baking are numerous, but it can be a little intimidating. To non-professionals, baking is an exact science—seemingly minor missteps can drastically alter, or even ruin, the final product. It’s even more frustrating when the result isn’t quite right, but you’re not sure what went wrong along the way.
In my years of experience (read: baking constantly and messing up a lot) and learning from the pros, I have picked up on a handful of things that consistently trip up home bakers, leaving them wondering why their cake fell flat or their cookies came out bland. Luckily, there are solutions to each of these hindrances. Here are six things home bakers can do to streamline their baking and take their final products up a notch.
1) Switch to a Scale
Most home bakers are used to measuring out ingredients using volume: cups and tablespoons. The problem with volume is that one cup of flour in my kitchen may not be equal to one cup of flour in yours. The amount of space an ingredient takes up depends on the amount of air trapped between its particles. This means that, for example, if I used the measuring cup to scoop flour out of the bag and you poured the flour into the cup, I could end up with a lot more flour in my cup than you, and our cakes could end up really different. You can avoid this problem entirely by getting a digital kitchen scale and weighing your ingredients instead. Mass measurement is much more consistent than volume, and much less work once you get the hang of it. Not all recipes provide mass measurements in addition to volume, but most recipe giants (like NYT Cooking, King Arthur Flour, Smitten Kitchen, etc.) do, and these recipes tend to be more rigorously tested and therefore more reliable.
Note: You can get a pretty high-quality kitchen scale for around $15 on Amazon or through most kitchen supply retailers.
2) Set Out Your Ingredients Ahead of Time
The French phrase for this, used frequently in the culinary world, is mise en place: everything in its place. Setting out all of your ingredients before you start baking is one of the easiest ways to streamline the process. This means pre-measuring all of the ingredients into their own bowls, unwrapping and peeling and chopping whatever you might need, separating eggs, softening butter...I could go on and on. Basically, you should read all the way through the recipe before you start, and if anything can be done ahead of time, do it. Yes, this creates a lot of dishes. But the ease and efficiency you create by being able to grab the bowl you need and dump it in without thinking is absolutely worth the extra work.
Which brings me to my next point:
3) Make Sure Your Ingredients Are at the Right Temperature
This is a sneaky one. I’ll cut to the chase: the temperature of your ingredients is really, really important. Dumping cold milk or eggs into a room-temperature batter can make it very unhappy. So part of your mise en place process should be bringing ingredients to room temperature, unless otherwise specified. If you don’t have time to let everything sit out for an hour, there are some things you can do to speed it along. Milk and yogurt can just be microwaved. Eggs can get a warm water bath (make sure the water isn’t hot enough to cook the eggs!). Butter can be microwaved, still in the wrapper, in seven-second bursts (keep flipping it over so it warms evenly), or you can cut it into cubes and microwave for about 20 seconds. There are tons of other solutions a quick Google search can offer.
Which brings me to my NEXT point:
4) Learn What “Softened” Butter Really Means
This piece of advice was particularly life-changing for me. When a recipe calls for softened butter, it means the butter will be working with the sugar to create a fluffy batter. If the butter is too warm or too cold, it can’t do its job properly. Softened or room-temperature butter shouldn’t be so soft that you can stick your finger right through it. It should still be slightly cool to the touch, but soft enough that you can bend the stick easily. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but with time and practice you’ll be able to tell quickly whether your butter is ready for use.
5) Get to Know Your Oven
The vast majority of ovens bake unevenly, even high-end ones. This is especially true of home ovens. But fear not: if you figure out where the hottest spots are in your oven, you can work with what you have. To do so, put a parchment-lined baking sheet covered with sugar or coconut flakes into a preheated oven, then see where the browning happens fastest. Armed with this knowledge, you can position your pans strategically. Also, whenever you’re baking cookies, you should double-rotate the sheets halfway through the baking time: swap their places, and rotate each sheet 180 degrees. This is the best way to ensure even baking.
6) Don’t Be Afraid of Failing
Finally, the most important thing a home baker can do to take their game up a notch is mess up. Seriously. Baking is an art of trial and error—the unparalleled best way to learn is to make mistakes so you know what not to do next time. You could spend all day reading about how to avoid baking mishaps, but in order to really cement that information, you have to see, touch, smell, and taste mistakes with your own senses. Failure is part of the long-term strategy; embrace it, and you’re on your way to some serious next-level baking.