10 Baking Basics to Make You a Pastry Pro

Great baked goods rely on the right tools, techniques and ingredients. Use this list of essential facts and easy-to-learn skills to make your baking better.

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Photo By: Heather Baird

Egg-ucation

Use grade A large eggs for most baking recipes unless otherwise specified. USDA eggs of this grade are about 2 ounces each. Be sure to note if a recipe requires eggs to be brought to room temperature before using. In general, eggs should be brought to room temperature before adding to cake batter to achieve maximum volume, prevent butter from seizing (that means re-solidifying) and create a smooth even batter. It takes 15-20 minutes for eggs to reach room temperature, or they can be placed in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water for 5-10 minutes.

Weigh In

Attitudes are shifting as American home bakers are discovering the ease and efficiency of using a scale. If given a choice between volume measures (cups) or weighing flour, the latter is the most accurate way to measure. Depending on how tightly a measuring cup is packed, you could end up with more flour than needed. Most modern cookbooks will have gram and ounce measures listed in their instructions, but on average one cup of flour weighs 120 grams. If you don’t have a scale or aren’t keen to buy one, the best way to measure flour is to spoon it into a measuring cup until overflowing, then sweep the excess off with a butter knife until level. This ensures that the flour isn’t packed too tightly in the cup and your end result will be light and fluffy.

Pour and Measure

Wet ingredients such as milk, water and oil should be poured into a clear measuring cup made for liquids. These cups usually have a handle and a pour spout, and come in 1, 2, 4 and 8 cup capacities. The 4-cup measure is a good all-purpose size and suits most baking needs. Choose a heatproof glass variety. When measuring, pour the wet ingredient in and judge the measurement at eye level on the counter top, not from above.

Butter Up!

Use the highest quality butter possible when you bake. Unsalted butter is used in most baking recipes unless otherwise noted. Many recipes call for butter to be softened. This can be done by letting butter stand at room temperature for 15-25 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, take a stick of butter directly from the refrigerator and place it unwrapped in a microwave-safe dish; heat for 10-20 seconds. The butter should still be slightly cold and hold an indention when a finger is pressed into its surface.

Know Your Oven

When you set the oven temperature and expect it to heat to the temperature requested - cross your fingers. It’s common for ovens to be inaccurate. Some have hot spots and some heat slowly. Oven thermometers are the remedy to this problem. They hang right inside the oven and gauge the surrounding temperature, so you can adjust your oven dial to compensate and have a more accurate bake time. If you notice your oven heating unevenly, you can check for hot spots by using a baking tray of bread slices. Bake the bread at 350°F for a few minutes and see which slices brown more than others. If you find a hot spot with our bread test, avoid putting pans in that area or rotate them accordingly.

Leaven Check

Checking the strength of your baking powder and baking soda is essential to the rise and texture of baked goods. Leavens can begin to lose their effectiveness after 6 months. To check the strength of baking powder, add 2 tablespoons to one cup of hot (not boiling) water. If it fizzes and bubbles immediately, then it is working and you can proceed with your recipe. To check the strength of baking powder, stir 1 teaspoon into 1/4 cup of vinegar. If it fizzes, you’re good to go. If the leavens simply dissolve without bubbling, throw them away and begin with new stock. When you’re at the grocery store, be sure to check dates on the containers.

Portion Control

Levered ice cream scoops are wonderful tools for portioning cupcakes, muffins and cookies. For cupcakes, simply scrape level scoops of batter straight from the bowl and place the batter in cupcake liners. Squeeze the lever as you portion so the batter releases cleanly (no messy drips!). Use the same practice for muffins of all kinds, such as blueberry and cornbread muffins. Thick cookie dough that isn’t very sticky will work best with ice cream scoops. Expect jumbo cookies with a standard ice cream scoop, or you can find scoops with smaller diameter bowls made for use with cookie dough. These can be found at kitchen supply shops and online.

Cool Down

Cooling baked goods is an important step that should never be skipped. Most cakes should be completely cool before frosting goes on. Certain types of cookies will fall apart if removed too soon from the baking sheet. Muffins and quick breads should be removed from their pan soon after baking and transferred to cooling racks or they will sweat on the bottom, producing a soggy texture.

Cold Storage

To preserve the quality and freshness of nuts and seeds, store them long-term in the refrigerator. Shelled nuts will keep at room temperature for 3 months; refrigerated nuts will keep for six. If you’re buying bulk and need to store them for longer than 6 months, they can be stored in the freezer for up to 1 year. The nuts and seeds will need to be placed in air-tight containers because they tend to absorb odors from other foods such as onions and garlic. Keep high-odor foods in a different area in the refrigerator away from nuts.

Get Equipped

It’s important to have the right tools and equipment for successful baking projects. Seasoned home bakers will already have most essentials, but beginner bakers should use this guide to grow their baking arsenal. Choose trustworthy tools such as aluminum 9x13 sheet pans, 9-inch cake pans with straight sides, muffin tins and loaf pans. Aluminum pans will bake evenly and prevent overbrowning. Also stock offset spatulas, balloon whisks, rubber spatulas and cooling racks. A stand mixer will help with high quantity dough and batter, but a hand-held mixer will handle most kitchen tasks. A set of round nesting cookie cutters will store easily and come in handy for holiday baking.

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