I often hear a lot of people saying they’re bad at baking. They may be a whiz in the kitchen with savoury foods, but the second desserts come onto the scene it’s a disaster. Baking is often referred to as a science, meaning you can’t just throw in ingredients to taste and hope for the best. But if you learn and follow some important baking rules, you are well on your way to more successes in the kitchen!
♥ Ensure your ingredients are at the right temperature
The right temperature for you ingredients can sometimes make or break a recipe. For most cake and cookie recipes, ingredients such as butter, eggs and milk need to be at room temperature. Using room temperature ingredients ensures the batter comes together smoothly and the components are incorporated evenly. Using cold ingredients in your batter often results in clumpy mixtures and dense results. I also take my ingredients out of the fridge 30-60 minutes before starting to cook.
If I forget, or want to do some impromptu baking, I put my eggs in a cup of warm water to speed up the process and cut my butter into small chunks to expedite the warming process.
HOWEVER sometimes using cold ingredients produces far better results. For example, cream whips far more easily when straight out of the fridge. In fact I even pop my mixing bowl and whisk attachment in the fridge for 10-20 minutes before starting. Conversely, eggs whites whip better when at room temperature.
And when making pastry, once again you want to keep your ingredients cold. Not only does this slow the development of gluten when making your dough (overdeveloped gluten = a tough result), the little bits of cold butter in your dough create pockets of air and a beautifully light and flaky pastry when cooked.
Any good recipe should specify if an ingredient needs to be room temperature or chilled, but these examples are a good rule of thumb to keep in mind next time you bake. It really makes a difference.
♥ Don’t overmix… or undermix
Gluten plays an important role in baking, and understanding how it reacts is vital to ensuring the best possible result. When making cakes or pastries, you want as little gluten as possible. Gluten doesn’t form until flour becomes wet, which is why adding the dry ingredients last and carefully stirring everything together is your best chance of your cake being light and airy.
A lot of my recipes state to mix ingredients “until just combined”. This is because mixing your batter too much over develops the gluten and results in dense baked goods. On the flip side, if you don’t mix the batter enough, your cake may bake unevenly or have clumps of flour or eggs throughout. Yuck.
The only time when developing the gluten works in your favour is when you’re baking bread or making pizza dough. You want as much gluten as possible to give the end result good structure and texture, which is why bread making involves so much mixing, stirring, kneading… you name it!
♥ Accurately measure, always
And last but certainly not least, consider investing in a set of digital scales. A lot of pastry chefs list their ingredients in grams (it’s more accurate than cups) and having a set of digital scales where you can place you empty bowl on your scale and “zero out” you weight is such a huge help.
♥ Be careful when substituting ingredients
Sometimes I get emails along the lines of “Hey! I made your peanut butter cookies and I substituted the butter for yoghurt and replaced the eggs with chia seeds and they tasted terrible”. Well, derr.
I’ve seen a lot of recipes suggest you can replace the fat in baking with apple sauce or greek yoghurt, the eggs with a mixture of a blend of ground flax seeds and water and so forth. The first thing to note is that you really have to know the science behind each ingredient and what action it performs before you replace it. For example, butter acts as moisture and flavour, and apple sauce has similar properties. But apple sauce can’t create flakiness and richness like butter. So always weigh up the pros and cons before substituting ingredients.
Secondly, substitutions are not always like for like. For example you would replace 1 cup butter with 3/4 cup vegetable oil. I would always suggest you select a tested recipe, or be prepared with some varied results, when making your own substitutions. I have found this page to be immensely helpful with substitutions.
And remember, if you’re replacing the butter and chocolate in a recipe with the likes of greek yoghurt and carob, you have to prepare yourself for the fact it will probably never taste as good as the real deal.
♥ Know your oven.. and don’t annoy it
When a recipe says “bake at 180°C for 40 minutes”, that doesn’t mean your cake will be perfectly cooked at 40 minutes. It could be overdone, still raw in the middle or cooked at the front and burnt in the left back corner. Why? Because all ovens are different. If you’ve just moved into a new house, pay careful attention to and learn the quirks of your oven. I have a hot spot in the top back left of my oven, meaning whenever I bake cakes/cookies/cupcakes I always rotate the trays 180 degrees and swap the positions halfway through the cooking time. I generally set my timer for 5-10 minutes less than the suggesting cooking time and keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn’t overcook.
And how do you avoid annoying your oven? Don’t repeatedly open and close the oven door. This drops the temperature of the oven causing your baked goods to cook unevenly. And always remember to preheat your oven so it’s at the correct temperature when you place your pan in!
I hope these tips have been useful and you put them to good use next time you’re baking up a storm!
Do you have any more baking tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!