Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Simple Tips for Better Baking

From the time my sister and I were teenagers making
cookie dough after school, I have loved to bake.
On my list of "things to put together someday" is a family cookbook. I want to document some family recipes, and also want to include some helpful tips in the back of the book {or maybe in the front…}. So today's post will have a double purpose: to share some tips with my readers, and also to document them for use in the family cookbook that’s going to happen. Someday.

Obviously, I am not a professional baker, but in my 30+ years of doing it I’ve learned a thing or two. Take some tips from me, or follow a baking blog to pick up a few pointers and then go practice. Because, really, having baked goods turn out like they're supposed to is so much more fun than a cake that flops.

Here are some things I do in the kitchen that have helped to make my baked goods a success:
Use fresh ingredients.
Stuff goes stale. Stuff like baking powder, flour, powdered sugar, and more obvious things like eggs. So if you don’t bake very often but you want that once-a-year recipe to turn out really great, buy some fresh ingredients!

Read your recipe first.
Depending on who wrote it, the order of things can be different than you might expect, or maybe the ingredients list calls for a cup of milk but you’re only supposed to add part of it in the beginning and reserve the remainder for later. Read the recipe and know your stuff before you begin.

Splurge on good quality ingredients.
Like, use real vanilla instead of imitation. Living a life of frugality, my mother could never make herself buy real vanilla. It wasn’t until I was grown and out on my own that a friend brought me some awesome vanilla back from Mexico and I realized what a difference it made. I usually watch for vanilla to go on sale and then stock up. Splurge for the good stuff!

Assemble your ingredients before you begin.
There’s nothing worse than having half of the recipe measured and mixed and then realizing you don’t have enough flour. Or something.

And here’s a little trick I created for myself because I am notorious for getting distracted and coming back to my mixing wondering if I already added baking powder or not. I pull all of my ingredients out and gather them on the left side of my mixing bowl(s). As I measure and add, I move the ingredients I’ve already used to the right side of my bowl. Done.

Don’t over mix.
Again, read the recipe for this one and follow the directions! When making cookies, I cream the butter and sugar and eggs for as long as I want, but when it comes to the final step of adding dry ingredients, I mix just until the flour disappears. In fact, when I make chocolate chip cookies, I’ll add the chocolate chips while there’s still quite a bit of flour still visible, then complete the mixing once the chips are added. Over mixing ingredients changes the texture of your finished baked good.

Butter at room temperature means just that.
I figured this out through trial and error. Ok, pretty much every tip here was figured out that way, but anyway... I have a tendency to pull the butter out of the refrigerator and then I get busy and don’t come back to it until later in the day. When you unwrap the cube of butter you want it to have a little bit of body – like, still hold its shape rather than oozing all over the place. And maybe this is only an issue for me because I live where it is stinking hot most of the time. I’ve found that if my butter is too soft (close to melted) my cookie dough loses some of its body too. Cookie dough mixed with melt-y butter tends to flatten more in the oven instead of holding a cake-y shape. And I do chill my cookie dough for a bit before actually putting it in the oven.

Carrie told me the other day that she heard that cookie dough refrigerated for a couple of days actually tastes better because all of the ingredients have had a chance to mingle and combine properly. I've tried that, and I believe it. I think it's the vanilla that does that...

Know your oven.
The first time I used the oven in our current house I waited until I heard the beeping sound indicating that it was preheated, then I popped my cupcakes in there and set the timer. When the timer went off my cakes were far from being cooked through. Solution: I bought an oven thermometer {for less than $15 at Target} and learned that my oven takes for.ever. to actually heat to the desired temp - and the preheated signal beeps way earlier than it should. In order to get it to 350° I actually have to set the dial to 375°. Wow, that made a big a difference for my baking.

Setting the timer.
If your recipe says “bake 9 to 11 minutes” always set your timer for the lesser number first. Maybe your oven will do its thing in nine minutes and everything will be wonderful. You can always add more minutes if you need to, but you can never take those extras away once you’re past the point.

Mind your recipe for what to do once it's out of the oven.
Cookies left on a hot cookie sheet continue to bake. This is a good thing if that's what the recipe calls for. Otherwise, get 'em off of there as soon as possible, and allow them to cool on a rack before storing them.

I'm sure I'll add more tips when it comes time to work on my family cookbook, but this is what I have for the baking section at this time. And now, it's your turn. Do you have any other tips to share for successful baking? Were any of my tips new to you?
PS: The muffin photos in this post were made with my most favorite banana bread recipe, plus I always add chocolate chips. :o)


Susi said...

Love this tip: Moving ingredients from left to right...Thank you! I get distracted easily when baking! Well, really when doing anything :0 About getting the family cookbook together, while baking with my Grandson last week I thought I might gather some of my favorite recipes and start recipe boxes for him and my Grand-daughter.

Irene said...

Great tips Deb. I use a small ice-cream scooper to get my cookies all the same size. Now I know why my cookies go flat, it's the butter.

Sian said...

I'm sure all your UK readers will say how timely this is..last night was the tv final of a favourite programme here Great British Bake Off..and now everyone is all fired up to bake!

I think room temp butter is a great tip. I usually fail at this one!

Maria Ontiveros said...

Have I ever mentioned what a bad baker I am? It's probably because I don't have the patience to do most of these things!
I'm a decent cook because cooking is so much more forgiving.
When I used to do Christmas baking with friends or family, they kept me on the straight and narrow and things turned out much better. LOL!

alexa said...

Great summary and I do think you are spot on about good ingredients. I smiled about the butter - ours is NEVER going to be too soft at room temperature! It's usually as hard as a brick ...

Cheri said...

room temperature butter here varies by the time of year - for winter baking I have to soften it in the microwave as room temperature is SOLID! And... ummmm... will those muffins still be around when I arrive? (Total cheat on the diet, but banana muffins with chocolate chips??? who could resist?)

scrappyjacky said...

Interesting what you said about your oven....mine is the opposite and needs to be set lower than the recipe specifies!!
I smiled about the butter would never get too soft here!!

Amy said...

Oh I completely agree re the tip on vanilla ... worth every extra cent!

Karen said...

Good tips Deb and like Amy I so agree about the vanilla. It's only in the past couple of years that I started using the good stuff and what a difference it makes.

Jimjams said...

Great tips - from a master baker I'm sure - your bakes always look delicious.

Lisa-Jane said...

Darn you with your baking posts! Now I want chocolate chip muffins...

Jo said...

Great tips, thanks for sharing. This post has made me want to bake :)

Stephanie @ La Dolce Vita said...

Great tips! I want to bake so badly right now. I'll be back in there soon though!

Anonymous said...

They're all great tips. I like the one about moving the ingredients to the other side once they've been used - sort of what I do with my meds in the morning. :) Sad to say I really don't bake anymore - John can't have butter (he's lactose intolerant) and I really haven't come up with a good substitute for baking.

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