With Halloween behind us (just behind us), many people are looking forward to the remainder of fall and the soon-to-be holidays. And for many fall (Thanksgiving) and winter (holidays) is almost synonymous with more baking. So, I thought this would be a good time to share with you (or remind you) some of the keys to successful baking.
Watch Your Oven Temperature
Heat is a key part of baking. I know…duh. But what you may not think about is that your oven may not be telling you the truth. It may say 350°F, but even well-calibrated ovens (which most are not) cycle heat on and off throughout baking times to maintain and adjust temperature to stay close to what it says. The temperature is more like an average. Two thoughts here: (1) Check the temperature using an oven thermometer and (2) learn to use clues and cues to bake effectively. Watch what’s going on periodically. Check color, smell, firmness, etc. And stop when the baked good is done - regardless of the time the recipe says. I can’t tell you how many recipes I have written in the margins to “check after ____ minutes.”. Usually that’s 5-10 minutes before the recipe says it should be done. Start checking early.
Baking is a little part (actually, more than a little) science. Unlike other types of cooking, adding a little more or less here and there is a no-no when it comes to baking.
One thing most of us don’t do, but should, is to weigh our dry ingredients instead of just measuring them. Did you know that a cup of flour measured in volume can be off by as much as five ounces. That’s a lot - especially when it comes to baking. Yes, I know many recipes give volumetric measures (2 cups flour, etc.). You should try to convert that into weight. It’s a more accurate measure of how much flour or sugar or salt you have. In particular, different flours can be a lot different. One cup of a certain brand or type of flour may weigh more or less than that of another. A good digital kitchen scale can be had for only $20 or so. It’s a good investment.
If you still decide to not go the weighing route, at a minimum you should still measure those cups well. Scoop out the ingredient and use a knife to swipe across the top of the measuring cup to remove any excess. A level measure is better (and more accurate) than a measure with too much or too little.
Room Temperature Ingredients
At a minimum, it’ much easier to work with room-temperature ingredients like eggs and/or butter. Many baking recipes call for creaming together ingredients. It’s so much easier and effective without hard butter and cold eggs. Incorporating ingredients is more even when they are at room temperature. Consider leaving eggs and butter out overnight to bring them to room temperature and ready for baking in the morning.
And really it’s not hard to bring ingredients to room temperature. The old-school way? Take them out well before baking time of course. But if you want to short-cut that a little, you certainly can. Placing eggs in warm (not hot!) water for about 10-15 minutes will do the trick. A stick of butter will take about an hour to come to room temperature. Butter can also be brought to room temperature more quickly if you slice it into pieces and let it just sit for about 15 minutes. Or you can really speed things up by slicing the butter and nuking it 2-3 seconds at a time. (Really, just a few seconds.). It won’t take long to get to the right temperature.
Another often-overlooked part of this is to make sure ingredients are about the same temperature. Mixing hot ingredients with cool ones. Think about something like chocolate. Adding hot cream to cool chocolate can cause cocoa solids to separate.
Use Fresh Ingredients
This is especially important for someone that doesn’t bake too often. Look in your cabinet or party. How long has that yeast, baking soda, baking powder, and/or flour been sitting there? Maybe way too long. Flours can go rancid quickly. Yeast, baking powders, etc. Lose their effectiveness pretty quickly. I know we like to safe some dollars by buying in bulk, but tossing a bunch of old flour sort of wastes way more money than those pennies you saved 18 months ago. Buy in smaller quantities as close to your baking date as possible. Lots of groceries now have bulk bins that allow you to buy just what you need.
Whatever flour you have left over, refrigerate it or freeze it in an airtight container to extend its shelf life.
Sometimes we want to speed through a recipe (at least the prep part) and get our baked goods in the oven quickly. And sometimes that’s ok. But all too often doughs and batters are better off resting for a bit. Allow
And don’t try to save time by dumping a bunch of ingredients together (it’s all going into the bowl anyway, right?). Follow the recipe and combine ingredients in the right order. It does matter. Doing things in the wrong order can surely cause problems. Gluten formation, air pockets, and structure just doesn’t happen properly if you don’t do each step correctly. If the recipe says “fold in gently”, fold gently. If dough needs to rest, take the time to let it rest.
Rotate Halfway Through Baking
Again, no one is prefect. They typically have hot spots here and there. (Yes, even the good ones.) So, I’ve found that it’s a good practice to turn your cookie sheet or pan around 180° about halfway through its baking time. That helps ensure that your baked goods will bake up nice and evenly - and avoid some parts overcooked and some parts undercooked. It’s a simple step that you should do EVERY time you bake something.
But let me caution you too, don’t move it around TOO much. Opening and closing your oven too much will wreak havoc on your oven’s temperature. Heat gets released every time you open the door. Its okay once, but don’t keep doing it.
Are these ALL the hints, tips, and tricks out there to help make your baking go smoothly? Nope. There are more. But these are the most common ones and the ones you can use with almost every baking recipe you’ll come across. Remember these and you’re almost assured of successful baking every time!
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