When the temperature drops, I love spending time in a warm, cozy kitchen baking something sweet and comforting, like banana bread or chocolate chip cookies. While I love combining and tweaking recipes when I’m cooking, you just can’t do that with baking—you HAVE to measure ingredients, for example. Baking is a science and the more you know about the rules, the better you’ll be.
This got me to thinking about what makes a good baker and realized I have my own arsenal of “baking secrets” that I thought I’d share.
Baking secrets, tips + tricks
1. Use the best ingredients
It’s simple, but things like good butter, farm-fresh eggs, and quality chocolate chips can make ALL the difference in the world.
2. Bake from scratch
Boxed mixes are fine now and then, but you’ll have a much better handle on the final product if you control what goes into it at the start.
3. Use the correct-temperature butter
Room temperature (or “softened”) butter and melted butter are VERY different when you’re baking. And when cold butter is called for, make sure you pay attention. I like to chop mine up quickly then pop it back in the fridge to chill again before using.
TIP: How to soften butter to room temperature quickly
With the wrapper on, microwave the whole stick for 5 seconds, then flip to the next side. Continue until all sides have been softened.
4. Use room temperature eggs
A quick way to do this is to cover eggs with warm (not hot!) water for 5 minutes.
5. Sift or whisk dry ingredients thoroughly
If a recipe calls for me to sift, I sift! Always. It’s a pain and it’s messy (for me, the messy baker) but sifting aerates the ingredients which results in an airier finished product. Whisking dry ingredients really well is my other tip. You want to evenly distribute the particles of salt, flour, our baking powder with one another and a quick stir with a spoon doesn’t do this.
6. Don’t overmix
When you add flour to wet ingredients and begin to stir, the gluten in the flour starts to develop. You want this to happen to hold the dough together, but when you overmix, it toughens up the dough too.
7. Let cookie dough chill overnight
My rule (when I can) is 36-hours in the fridge to give the flavors a chance to meld together. Chocolate chip cookies develop this incredible caramel richness you just can’t get with even 24-hours in the fridge. Trust me on this one.
8. Cookie sheets should be ungreased
Although I know better, I was curious so recently I tried using cooking spray just to see what would happen and ended up with a pan-seared, crisped-look to the bottom of my cookies. You can imagine the flavor. If you must, use parchment paper or a silpat mat.
9. Use minimum baking times as a guide
I always set my kitchen timer for 5 minutes before the minimum suggested baking time since oven temperatures can vary. As a general rule, I always underbake my cookies slightly then let them firm up on the baking sheet for a few minutes after I’ve pulled them out of the oven. This ensures a soft, chewy center and slightly crisped bottom.
And last but not least…
10. Find the best recipes
It’s not as simple as it sounds. For me this means discovering recipes that have been vetted by bakers and cooks like me. As much as I drool over recipes in Bon Appetite and Saveur, let’s face it, (as Anna Kendrick tweeted), “Fuck you, recipes that list something chopped, covered in olive oil and baked for 20 minutes as an “ingredient.” I am not Wonder Woman.”
Life is just too short to fuss with excessively intensive recipe requirements and I just know there is a macaron master out there selling those bad boys for a totally justifiable $3/each. This is why you’ll never catch me taking a chocolate-making class, making macarons (again!) or attempting petite-fours, all of which I adore. But the special skills needed to make them just aren’t in my wheelhouse and I’m fine with that.
… Family + Friends
So my most prized recipes often come from family and friends. I’m sentimental about food too so I prefer it this way. I’d rather make Nana’s meatballs than Giada’s, you know? For example, my friend Shawna’s sweet potato casserole blew me away when she brought it to our “Friends-giving” in 2012, so I made it for Thanksgiving this past year and my family loved it. I LOVE that that dish has a story now beyond, “I Googled it…” or something.
… Local church, library or community cookbooks
These are a total goldmine because you will usually get a collection of the best (or second best!) recipes from a group of experienced cooks with a vested interest in the final product: a cookbook for their peers. The drama! No one wants to share a dud recipe (usually). So unlike a cookbook you’ve bought at Barnes and Nobles by a celebrity chef you’ve never met, buying one of these is like getting the favorite, best and often secret recipes from multiple families all at once. I buy these whenever I see them and always keep an eye out at yard sales for the dog-eared copies. Those are a BIG score.
The truth is, the web is a fantastic resource for recipes now, from celebs and bloggers alike. But you have to be careful. The key is to make sure the recipes have been vetted. Some of my go-to sites include Allrecipes and Smittenkitchen. Pinterest and Foodgawker are fun too, and have turned me onto some incredible fellow food bloggers, but I’ve had the best luck sticking to recipe-specific sites. I think I benefit most from their large communities of vocal commenters who share their recipe tweaks, preparation tips, and special techniques. Usually when I print these recipes out, I mark them up immediately with commenter’s suggestions. My favorite chocolate cream pie recipe for example, called for 3 egg yolks, but thanks to dozens of comments, before I even started I knew to use four yolks plus a little extra pinch of corn starch and even picked up a few tips for fun crust flavorings using different types of crushed cookies.
So those are my baking “secrets.” A lot are just tips and tricks I’ve picked up over time and by reading up but some, like how to quickly soften butter to room temperature, I learned just last week.
What are some of your baking secrets, tip, or tricks. I’d love to hear!photo credits: Joey Armstrong (check her out! gorgeous food + lifestyle photography)