Baking is one of the things we most commonly hear people say they cannot do. With so many things to keep track of, it can be daunting! We’re here to help. Whether you’re totally lost as soon as you pick up measuring spoons or you have a go-to cookie recipe that pleases every time, we have tips on getting started and the science behind the essentials to help you feel more comfortable in the kitchen.
1. Reading a recipe
It’s so easy to skip, but the first and most important thing that every baker knows to do is read the recipe before starting. This means you read it from beginning to end, until you understand all the steps, so you don’t forget to separate your eggs before you dump them into the mixer only to find out that your cake won’t be fluffy because you have no more egg whites to beat and fold in (more on this later). Then, get all of your ducks in a row and prep before you start baking. This way, you won’t be stuck with rock-solid butter when it should be softened (more on this later, too) or frantically filling a bowl with ice water while your ice cream custard scrambles on the stove.
There’s some skill in reading a recipe correctly, though. Joy the Baker writes about this with a poignant example: What’s the difference between the following?
- 1 cup walnuts, chopped
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
The difference ends up being how many walnuts go into your recipe. There’s much less lost space in a cup of chopped walnuts, so you get many more walnuts in the second option. If a recipe says “1 cup walnuts, chopped,” measure out a cup of walnuts and then chop them. If you’re supposed to have “1 cup chopped walnuts,” start chopping and then measure what you have until you’ve reached a cup.
Why is it important? Well, in this case, you end up with too many or too few walnuts. Too few is sad, and while too many sounds great, it could actually dry out what you’re baking — nuts absorb moisture from the batter. It’s even worse than too few!
2. Knowing your oven
Ovens are snowflakes. Every single one is different and will do different things to your food at different times. Two of the most common quirks are that they’ll distribute heat unevenly, or the temperature gauge will be inaccurate. Hot spots are real, and ovens sometimes lie.
Hot spots: If your cookies come out of the oven with the back-left looking burnt and the front-right looking doughy, you’re going to have to start rotating your pan halfway through. Cooking Light describes a great technique for getting to know your oven: lay sliced bread out on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for a few minutes, or until your start seeing color develop. Pull the pan out of the oven and inspect the color variance. The pieces that get dark are hot spots, and the light pieces show areas of your oven that will cook more slowly. Take a photo if you have to, but remember where these spots are for even cooking.
Temperature variance: Most ovens don’t have accurate temperature gauges. The only way to know for sure is to put an oven thermometer in your oven and follow that. Many baking recipes rely on the right amount of heat at the right time. If you don’t get a blast of heat at the beginning, breads, cakes, and cream puffs won’t rise. If the heat is too low for too long, they could dry out. Follow the visual cues described in the recipe (you can bet that the oven used to develop the recipe will cook differently than yours does), and get an oven thermometer.
Rack placement: Rack placement is also important. Depending on how your oven circulates heat and where the heating element is, there’s a big difference between baking on the top, middle, or bottom rack. A batch of muffins on the bottom rack can end up with burnt bottoms. Biscuits too close to the top can burn on top while the middle is still raw. Toast on the middle rack could stale instead of toast. Everything has a proper placement. If a recipe describes rack placement, follow the directions!
3. Baking powder versus baking soda
Baking works because of a series of chemical reactions. It’s some of the most delicious science out there. It also means that you need the right chemicals to make the right things happen at the right time. Phys.org helps explain the difference between two leavening agents, baking powder and baking soda, to keep your muffins light and airy and help your cookies puff up.
Baking soda is a single ingredient: sodium bicarbonate. Its main property is that when it encounters acid, it releases CO2. It’s the CO2 bubbles that make the air bubbles in batter that create a fluffy texture. Acids in baking are things like lemon juice, vinegar, and buttermilk. This is why you can’t just substitute regular milk in the place of buttermilk — the baking soda won’t activate and your cupcakes won’t rise. To make buttermilk, add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to every cup of milk the recipe calls for.
Baking powder is a compound ingredient made from baking soda and two or three things that react with it during cooking. Because it includes a powdered acid, any liquid to dissolve the powders will do. To keep the CO2 bubbles from escaping before the batter starts to set in the oven, the ingredients activate with heat. Baking powder is usually a double-acting ingredient, allowing it to continuously release gas throughout cooking. It’s generally a more reliable leavener.
4. A bunch of flours
A well-stocked baking aisle can have an overwhelming number of flours, ranging from whole-wheat to pastry to corn to almond and back to all-purpose. We’re going to deal primarily with the spectrum of wheat flours here. The Wheat Foods Council has a great PDF talking about the intricacies of flour.
Flour is ground wheat berries, which is what comes right off the stalk. Whole-wheat flour is the whole-wheat berry, whereas white flours are made from just the inside of the berry, called the endosperm. The two proteins in flour, gliadin and glutenin, are what make gluten when made wet. Gluten is a protein! It’s what forms structures inside of bread to trap CO2 released from your leavaners, and manipulating this will give you airier or denser end products.
Bread flour is so named because it has higher protein levels giving you more lift, structure, and air pockets in your bread. Cake flour is a much softer, lower-protein flour and gives your delicate baked goods a tender crumb. All-purpose flour, as the name suggests, is somewhere in the middle and very versatile. Self-rising flour has baking powder and salt already mixed in; it’s a favorite of Southern bakers in particular because it makes biscuits and dumplings a quicker process.
Like tomatoes, not all wheat is the same. Different wheats will make different flours, and different brands will have different properties. King Arthur and Gold Medal all-purpose flours will be different.
5. Egg whites versus egg yolks
Eggs are a wonder ingredient; a must-have, versatile weapon in a baker’s arsenal; and essential to many baking processes. Few novice bakers, though, understand eggs. The egg white is made up almost exclusively of protein and water, whereas the yolk is made up of different proteins, fat, and vitamins.
The contents of an egg white allow it to whip up into a foam, using the protein to build structures. When baked, these structures set in place and hold their shape. This is how meringues are made, why soufflés rise, and why egg whites are used in many recipes to aerate and lighten batter.
An egg yolk, on the other hand, is a creamy emulsifier that adds richness and thickness. An egg yolk is used to stabilize one liquid in another — water and oil, for example — to add a smooth, creamy texture to baked goods. The fat content adds richness, and they can be used to thicken. All of these together make a rich, smooth, creamy custard, for example.
Together, they’re a top-notch binding agent, holding your baked goods together. For a more comprehensive tome of egg information, check out Chasing Delicious.
6. Using butter and oils
One thing you’ll notice when reading a recipe is that it will always define the temperature your butter should be: cold, soft (room temperature), or melted. This is incredibly important to the success of your baking adventures, because each temperature will produce different results.
Cold butter, like in pie crust, is used to create flaky layers. As the butter melts in the oven, it keeps the dough from binding together, which creates flakiness. It’s how you keep croissants from just being biscuits.
Room-temperature butter is almost always creamed with sugar, which creates little air pockets. These air pockets then expand with steam and leaveners like baking powder in the oven, making your cookies fluffy and not little hard disks.
Melted butter combines the ingredients and provides richness without creating flaky layers or extra air pockets. As a rule of thumb, anywhere you see melted butter in a recipe, you can substitute oil; if you see cold or room temperature, the final product won’t come out right if you try to use oil instead of butter.
For even more about butter — like why you should use unsalted butter when you bake — Web Exhibits has some great information.