Friday, November 11, 2011

Baking 101- 3 Tips to Becoming a Better Baker

I have been reading this great baking book that was given to me last year for my birthday from my foodie friend, Ashley. It is from Sur La Table, and it's called The Art & Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet. The reason I love it so much is because it has complex recipes that are geared for the baking novice. It explains every step in detail and has lots of pictures. Baking is a science and anyone that has made bakery goods from scratch knows that one mistake can ruin the entire thing. It can be so discouraging and frustrating to work on something for hours and have it turn out badly (especially if you don't know why). This book has some simple steps that you can implement before you begin baking, that will make you a better baker. 

Step 1- Organize your work area
Keeping all your baking equipment and ingredients in an organized and efficient manner not only saves you time, but can make your food taste better. 
Here are some tips...
  • Keep your flour and sugar in airtight containers on the counter where you mix and measure your ingredients.
  • Keep obscure ingredients tucked away, together, in sturdy airtight containers (away from heat sources). 
  • Keep all baking tools together so you don't have to run around looking from them every time you bake. 
  • Don't use baking utensils for regular cooking because many baking ingredients such as butter, eggs, cream and chocolate can easily absorb flavors. 

    Step 2 -Make sure your oven is accurate
    Most people assume that they have an accurate oven but in reality, they can vary 25 to 50 degrees F, sometimes up to 100 degrees F. Even if you are doing everything exactly as the recipe calls for, if the oven temp is off, your hard work can be for nothing. The best thing to do is buy an alcohol based thermometer and test your oven. 

    To test your oven: 
    Adjust an oven rack to the center position and set your thermometer in the center of the rack. Set oven to 350 degrees F. Let the oven heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Check the temperature on the thermometer.  If your oven is off, make a note of it and adjust cooking temperature for all subsequent baking ventures. 

    Step 3- Make sure you all measure ingredients accurately 
    Aside from your oven temperature, nothing can influence the outcome of your baking more than measuring. Baking is chemistry and chemistry depends on ratios. Once ingredients are mixed and poured into a pan, there is often no way to fix any mistakes.  There are two ways you can measure; by volume and by weight.

    Measuring by volume: Liquids
    Liquid measuring cups are either glass or plastic and have a pour spout. They usually have plenty of room above the highest measurement  to avoid spilling. The reason it is important to use a liquid measuring cup to measure your liquids instead of dry measuring cups is because of the meniscus. You may have heard this word in a science class you have taken. It's a curved surface line occurs when you measure liquids. If you use dry measuring cups, the liquid would overflow, leaving less than the recipe calls for. To properly measure liquids, place the liquid measuring cup on an even surface, pour in the liquid, and lean over to check the accuracy at eye level. 

    Measuring by volume: Flour and other dry ingredients
    Dry measuring cups are usually plastic or metal. To properly measure dry ingredients it is important to watch the wording used in your recipes. Look for words like sifted, packed, loosely, dip & sweep and lightly spooned. The order in which these words appear is also important. Here is an example;

    1 cup flour, sifted
    1 cup sifted flour

    The first line refers to the flour being scooped into a cup and leveled flush with the rim, then sifted after it is measured. The resulting weight is 5 ounces. The second lines refers to sifting before measuring, which results in a weight of 3 3/4 ounces per cup. 

    To measure a sifted ingredient, place measuring cup on a piece of parchment paper and sift flour until it fills the cup and is slightly mounded over the rim. Use a knife to scrape off the excess until the cup is level. 
    To measure by lightly spooning and leveling, spoon the flour into a cup, mounding and leveling as described above.
    To measure by dip and sweep, first loosen the flour by gently stirring it. Dip the measuring cup in and use the same mounding and leveling described above. 

    If the recipe doesn't indicate which method to use, use the dip and sweep method (unless the recipe is older than 1960's, in which case, assume it should be sifted).

    Measuring by weight
    Measuring by weight is highly recommended in baking. The Cindy Mushet suggests that it is the single most important thing you can do to become a better baker. The reason it is highly recommended is because it eliminate any inaccuracies. Professional bakers always weigh their ingredients, both for precision and to ensure consistency (and because they are making huge portions). A digital scale is recommended. If you plan on doing some serious baking, you should invest in one. 

    Other ways to become a better baker are to know your baking equipment and your ingredients. I will post detailed information about this over the next few weeks
     (there is a lot to research!).


    1. Wow, this is lots of good info! I have been suspicious of my oven being inaccurate for a while now, so now I know how to test it! Also, I just recently bought a sifter when I made a red velvet cake from scratch back in August, so it's good to know that one little comma can change how to measure the flour!

    2. Whoa! Good work man. Real useful info. Thanks :)
      Bakery Equipment