Top 10 Baking Tips & Tricks
Over the past 15 years as a student of the kitchen - about the last five quite seriously - I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that I couldn't wait to share with you. These are the tools and techniques I can't live (aka bake) without, and they’ll improve your baking experience ten-fold!
1. Reading and Writing (and hanging!) a Recipe
Always read a recipe from start to finish before you start doing anything in the kitchen. But don’t take my word for it - just get going on a recipe before you’ve read it through fully, and that first or second time you waste 30 minutes waiting for melted chocolate to cool after everything else is ready to go, or you caramelize all the sugar when you were supposed to save some for the egg whites - you’ll learn.
Personally, it helps me to actually re-write the recipe in my own notebook and shorthand. It saves me a lot of sentence-reading during my baking process, when really all I need to know is action - ingredients - amounts - time. And, for an added bonus if you’ve got a smaller or lightweight notebook, hang it up somewhere so you’ve got extra counter space and don’t splatter it with all sorts of things!
2. Use a Scale
If you want to be a great baker, you must weigh your ingredients. Scoop a cup of flour or pour a cup of sugar three times in a row, and their weights will be different every time due to the amount of air that’s incorporated itself into your measurement. Using a scale makes it a no brainer! Your goodies will come out more perfect every time, AND you dirty far fewer measuring cups and spoons. Why measure four different ingredients in four different measuring cups and then combine them, when you can just grab the mixer bowl, throw it on the scale, add the four (tare is your friend!) and throw it back on the mixer stand? I’ll usually still use measuring spoons for weights under 10g just because I don’t trust that level of sensitivity in almost any scale, but once you get used to it you’ll be in heaven.
A few resources:
King Arthur’s master weight chart - I visit this 3-4 times every baking session, although at this point I’ve memorized the weights of flour, sugar, corn syrup, eggs, and a few other random ingredients.
Cook’s Illustrated recommended scales:
Best Buy - Soehnle Digital Kitchen Scale
Also Recommended - Polder KSC-310-28 Easy Read Digital Glass Top Scale
Also Recommended - Salter 3003 Aquatronic Glass Kitchen Scale
For what it’s worth, I bought this scale by Kitrics (pictured above) a long time ago and I absolutely love it.
And lastly this one by Joseph Joseph is super cute (green!), compact, and seems to work well. I’ve only used it for baking a couple of times (it usually live in my bag), but I like that the read-out is highly unlikely to be obscured by a large bowl. It is slightly unstable, however, as there’s no support under the read-out section.
3. Get an Oven Thermometer
I don’t care if your oven is a turn-knob or a digital setting, the actual temperature in your oven is NOT what you’ve set it at. And did you know your oven temperature will drop 5 degrees for every SECOND the door is open? All those times you pulled underbaked brownies or almost-burnt cookies out of the oven, I guarantee you it’s because your oven is off. Spend $5 on an oven thermometer like this one and you’ll be on your way to more perfect deliciousness.
4. Invest in Ice Cream Scoops
I actually keep mistyping this phrase as "Cookie Scoops" because, really, that's what they are in my house. I’ve got three different sizes, and since the first day I used one to scoop cookie dough, I knew I’d never go back. This is how bakeries get all their cookies to look exactly the same and be the perfect size and texture - when they’re all a uniform size, they’ll bake more evenly. It also saves an immense amount of time, and keeps your hands super clean. And don’t forget the cupcakes! It always sucks when your cupcakes finish baking and you realize they’re all different heights. Using scoops is an easy way to control the amount of batter you’re putting in each cup, and to ensure you’re using the same amount for each!
5. Cake Goop
See the Cake Goop post. Make it. Love it. Never buy parchment rounds or tap out wasted flour into your sink again.
6. Baking Cookies - cookie sheets, cooling them, and parchment
If you want to be an expert cookie baker, learn early on that you can’t crowd the sheet, and you can’t crowd the oven. I ONLY bake cookies one sheet at a time, and never bake more than 8 on one oversized (about 20”x14”) cookie sheet. For anything smaller I’d max out at 6.
What this means is that baking two dozen cookies can take a loooooong time, because you can’t use the sheet again until it’s cooled to the touch, and unless you have four or five oversized cookie sheets hanging around (which, to be honest, I probably should), you’re probably going to be reusing every other sheet. BUT WAIT! There’s a very handy solution. If it’s cool outside, open the window a bit and lean your cookie sheet on the windowsill - 3 minutes later, it’ll be ready to go! And if it’s the heat of summer, I’ll bet you have an AC unit on somewhere - grab your potholder and hold your cookie sheet in front of it for a minute or two, and you’ll get the same result (although you might need to rotate it a bit).
It’s pretty well known these days that using parchment will get you the best cookies, make cleanup a breeze, and keep your cookie sheets looking new for a very long while. But did you know that you can reuse parchment?! It’s fantastic. Every time you alternate cookie sheets, transfer the cookies off the parchment too and re-use that sucker. And if they’re super clean when you’re done baking and there really isn’t much fat residue on them, give them a quick wipe with a paper towel, fold them up, and reuse them for the next cookie-baking session.
7. Room-Temperature Butter
You know how every recipe’s ingredients list says “butter, room temperature” or “butter, softened”? Well, you can’t ignore that. It’s important. But sometimes the urge to bake just grabs you, and your butter is sitting there in the fridge, all pretty and cozy in its happy hard-as-a-rock homey habitat. Frustration, meet the microwave*. Keep your butter in its wrapper, throw it on a plate seam side down, and zap it for 5 seconds. Flip it 180, and zap 5 more seconds. Put it on its side - 5 more. Flip it 180 again - final 5. So, in total 20 seconds. Never ever do more than that. In fact, sometimes I do 4 seconds on each side. It’s okay if when you dump it out of the wrapper - because, really, it will just fall out if you give it a little coax - it’s a little bit melty, especially for recipes that don’t involve a lot of creaming. If the first step of your recipe is to cream the butter with another ingredient, or by itself, err on the side of less microwave time because the creaming process will warm up the butter that last little bit.
*If you don’t have a microwave I think you’re crazy, but there’s still hope. Before you prep any other ingredients cut up your butter into small pieces and spread them out on a plate that you put on your preheating oven. By the time you’re ready to start combining things it should be mostly warm enough to work with.
8. Separating Eggs
Always crack an egg on a flat surface and NOT the edge of something. You’ll get cleaner breaks and fewer tiny shell pieces in your egg.
If you’re going to use or keep both the white(s) and yolk(s), always break the whites into one bowl, and then pour them into another before you break your next egg. If you get even a tiny spec of the yolk (fat) into the egg whites you’ll have to toss the whole bowl, so separate one at a time, and then combine.
Just use your freakin' hands!! Yes, you’ll have to wash them after, but you’ll probably have to do it anyways cause the likelihood of not getting any egg on them is slim to none. I swear you’ll never break another yolk if you use your hands. And it feels pretty cool. And you can drop the yolk accidentally into the whites and if it doesn’t break you can pick it back up again with your hand and all is well.
9. Melting Chocolate
No, you don’t always need to use a double boiler. Yes, you can use your microwave. You just have to be careful and attentive! If you’re melting 1 cup or more of chocolate or chocolate chips, put it in a glass measuring cup or bowl and zap it for 60 seconds. Give it a very thorough stir with a spatula for about 60 seconds - the residual heat from the chocolate that has already melted should help to melt some of the still-solid pieces. Put it back in the microwave for 20 more seconds, and re-stir for 60 seconds. At this point it’s likely your chocolate is fully melted, but if you’re using a bunch and there are still chunks, microwave it for 10 seconds at a time, stirring thoroughly in between. PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION. Chocolate WILL burn easily in the microwave and once a little bit has burned you’ve lost the whole batch, especially if you’ve stirred it before you notice the burnt bits. When in doubt, let it sit for a few minutes on the counter and re-stir rather than microwaving more (see above re: residual heat).
10. My Freezer is my Best Friend
Okay, that’s not really true - her name is Abby. BUT - the chest freezer my boyfriend surprised me with for my birthday last year is easily the best gift i’ve ever received. At any given time it is full of:
Leftover buttercreams and caramel/fudge sauces
Frozen ice cubes of buttermilk, heavy cream, egg whites, egg yolks, lemon/lime juice, chopped herbs frozen in water, and pesto (without the cheese).
Bags and bags of un-baked cookie dough
Well-wrapped baked brownies & bars & pound cakes
Well-wrapped cake layers
Fully decorated cakes & cupcakes ready for delivery (as long as no fondant or meringue, and only for a few days)
Well-wrapped blocks of pie dough
Already-baked cookies for a couple days
The list goes on. There’s not a whole lot you can't freeze. Sour cream will separate and be gross-looking after freezing, but if you’re putting it into a cake it’s perfectly fine! Don’t freeze custard pies or fresh fruit or cheese. Here’s a pretty decent reference for things NOT to freeze.
And that’s it! My top 10. But - I can’t help squeezing in one more. Need to cut oreos in half for something? Freeze them first, and then use a serrated knife. Works like a charm.