My mom put herself through college working part-time as a baker until one of the bakery’s cake decorators unexpectedly quit. My mom passed her boss’s decorating test, spelling Congratulations correctly in piped frosting, and took over the position. She continued decorating cakes for family weddings and birthday parties all throughout my childhood. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her, cooking holiday meals and watching her assemble raspberry-filled wedding cakes. My mom instilled a love of cooking (and sweets!) in me from a young age. She taught me basically everything I know about baking. I know some people are not lucky enough to have this kind of influence so I’ve compiled a list of baking tips and tricks below. I hope they act as a quick cheat sheet for inexperienced bakers.
After reading these tips, you’ll be well on your way to baking mastery! Be sure to check out SweetJ’s Recipe Box for some yummy dishes to test your skills on. Good luck!
- That stuff expires?
Check the expiration dates on your leavening ingredients if your cakes, cookies and breads are coming out flat. Baking soda, baking powder and yeast generally expire within a year or two after the purchase date.
Cornstarch and dried spices also expire. Toss opened spice containers after about a year to avoid loss of flavor.
- Warm me up!
Unless otherwise specified, bring all refrigerated ingredients to room temperature before use. This includes butter, eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt. My mom always suggests setting out the refrigerated ingredients in the morning on the day you plan to use them.
Also be sure to use the form of butter called for in the recipe, chilled, softened or melted. It will alter your final product.
- Sift it good!
Always sift your dry ingredients, flour, leaveners and spices, through a wire sieve to remove lumps and chunks. While some sources say sifting is only necessary for finer cake flour, made from soft wheat, I find it helpful for anything powdery. It also helps evenly distribute your ingredients. If you don’t have a sieve, you can also whisk your dry ingredients together to break up some of the lumps.
Sifting powdered sugar is also good for removing lumps.
- Alone time.
Mix dry and wet ingredients separately and then combine. This ensures the leavening ingredients will be evenly distributed throughout the flour.
Creaming sugars and butters first adds air and will make for fluffier cookies and cakes.
- Cool it down.
Putting cookie dough in the refrigerator for a while before baking will save you some trouble. For drop cookies, chilling the dough before rolling into balls can make the dough easier to handle. Plus you know every cookie will be at the same starting temperature and will bake at the same rate.
Chilling dough is especially helpful for shaped or cutout cookies, like sugar cookies. I usually make the dough ahead of time and pop in the fridge overnight. When I’m ready to bake, I roll out the dough and cut it into shapes. I then chill the cutouts on cookie sheets for another hour before baking. This keeps the cookies from spreading and losing their shape while they bake.
- Switch it up.
I have a very finicky, dinosaur-era oven so this tip is extra important for me. If you are just baking with a single pan, bake on the center rack and rotate the pan front to back halfway through baking. Ideally, you should just bake one pan at a time on the center rack. However, if you are baking with two pans, switch the pans from top to bottom racks and rotate them front to back halfway through baking. This can prevent burning by helping to distribute the heat more evenly.
- Celebrate diversity!
Remember that no two ovens are alike! This is why most recipes give a range of baking times. Be sure to check your goodies ten minutes or so before the baking time noted in the recipe. It could be done a little early.
Also keep in mind that your baked goods will continue cooking for some time in the hot pan once they’ve been removed from the oven.
- Frost it!
Always wait until the cake is completely cool before frosting or glazing, otherwise the topping may melt off.
It is easiest to frost cakes on an elevated, rotating cake stand. If you don’t have one, fake it with an upside-down bowl and a dinner plate.
Chilling the cake in the fridge before frosting can help keep crumbs out of your frosting. Another trick is to wet and wipe your spatula while frosting. My mom hates cake crumbs more than anything. She literally loses her mind and my siblings and I always tease her about it! We love you, Mom!
- Math and science, oh my!
Baking is a science so proper measurements are very important! Use the appropriate measuring cup, liquid measuring cup for wet ingredients and dry for dry.
Use a liquid measuring cup for ingredients like applesauce or canned pumpkins. Always set it on a flat surface and look at the measuring cup at eye level when measuring liquid ingredients.
When measuring flour, spoon it gently into the measuring cup and level with a butter knife.
Unless otherwise specified, always pack brown sugar into the measuring cup. When measuring liquid sweeteners, like honey or corn syrup, greasing the measuring cup helps it pour out more easily.
- Come to the Dark Side.
Light and dark brown sugar, molasses and corn syrup can typically be used interchangeably. The choice depends on your taste. Dark brown sugar has a stronger molasses flavor. Dark molasses is less sweet than light. Light corn syrup has a delicate sweetness while dark has a stronger flavor.
- Chocolate, need I say more?
Milk chocolate contains dry milk for creaminess and can’t be substituted for other types of chocolate in a recipe. Semisweet, bittersweet and sweet or German’s chocolate contain different ratios of chocolate liquor to sugar but can usually be used interchangeably. Unsweetened baking chocolate contains no sugar so be wary of subbing or replacing it. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, not chocolate liquor. It is different from white baking pieces and white candy coating which don’t have any cocoa butter.
Cocoa powder comes in two varieties, natural and Dutch-process. They are not interchangeable because they react differently when combined with leaveners. As a general rule of thumb for American recipes, use natural cocoa powder unless the recipe specifically calls for Dutch-process.
- What’s a peak?
Magical things happen to egg whites when you beat them long enough. An electric stand mixer is best. Mom and experts agree, you should always chill the bowl and beaters first. Add egg whites and beat. Soft peaks will have tips that curl slightly when beaters are lifted. Stiff peaks will stand straight up when beaters are lifted. Do not overbeat! They’ll get dry, flaky and just generally yucky. For a visual guide, head to the kitchn.com.
- Skip the store-bought pie crust.
There’s nothing wrong with using a frozen piecrust if you’re in a hurry but it’s easy to make your own! Plus it’s cheaper and fully customizable. You can get really fancy with your top crust by weaving strips together for a lattice top or using cookie cutters to make shaped pieces of dough to put on top. People will think you’re a baking master!
Start with cold ingredients. Cut cold butter into dough quickly so it doesn’t warm up too much. Don’t overwork the dough which will make it tough. The butter doesn’t need to be fully mixed in. Crumb-size pieces of flour and butter are what you want! Wrap the finished dough in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes, making it easier to roll.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface, rolling from the center out to form an even circle. If the dough tears, moisten the tear with water and seal it back together. Gently place the dough into a heatproof glass, porcelain or matte metal pie plate and press out any air pockets. Do not stretch the dough to fit the pan. Prick the pie crust with a fork to allow air to escape, preventing any bubbles.
- The Amazing Cracking Cheesecake!
To avoid cracks in the top of your cheesecake try the following Mom-tested tricks.
Be gentle with your batter throughout the process. After beating the cream cheese and sugar, gently fold in the eggs by hand one at a time. Gently fold in the remaining ingredients by hand. Do not turn your mixer back on! Overbeating the batter will incorporate too much air which can cause your cheesecake to puff up and fall while baking.
Bake your cheesecake in a water bath. This helps you control the temperature of the cheesecake while it bakes. Wrap the bottom of the spring form pan with a double layer of foil. Mold the foil tightly around your pan so water can’t get through. Place the pan into a larger glass baking pan and fill with very hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the spring form pan.
Don’t overbake your cheesecake. Place a tented piece of foil over top of the cheesecake to prevent browning. When done, the cake will jiggle slightly in just the center when moved. The rest of the cake will not jiggle.
When the cake is done, leave it in the oven. Turn off the heat and crack the oven door slightly. Let the cheesecake cool in the oven for a few hours before moving to the fridge for another couple of hours.
- Bread machining.
Always read the instruction booklet for your specific bread machine. Recipes may need to be modified depending on the capacity of your machine, 1 ½ lb or 2 lb. Understand the different cycles and proper assembly and maintenance for your machine. Treat it like your baby! Or, at the very least, like your car.
Assemble the necessary ingredients on your counter ahead of time in the order they will be added to the bread pan. Always add ingredients to the pan in the order listed in the recipe.
Use bread flour or sub 1 cup of all-purpose flour plus 1 teaspoon vital gluten per cup of bread flour. Bread flour is made from hard wheat and has a higher protein content, making it better for yeast recipes. If you must use all-purpose flour, understand it will affect the texture and volume of your loaf.
Use bread machine or quick active dry yeast. If you only have regular active dry yeast, do not substitute in equal amounts. Use 1 teaspoon of regular yeast for each ¾ teaspoon of quick yeast.
Check your dough a few minutes into the kneading process; it should form a smooth ball of dough. If the dough looks dry and the machine is having trouble kneading, with the machine running, add water 1 teaspoon at a time until a smooth ball of dough forms. If the dough is too wet to form a ball, with the machine running, add bread flour 1 tablespoon at a time until a smooth ball forms.
- Healthify it!
While everyone loves a decadent, horrible-for-you dessert, sometimes you may be in the mood for a guiltless dessert. The following are several easy ways to reduce fat and up nutritional value.
Replace some or all of the fats, oil or butter, in your recipe with pureed fruits or vegetables, including applesauce, canned pumpkin or banana. This works bests with quick breads and cakes.
Replace eggs with an equal number of egg whites.
Replace some or all of the flour with equal amounts whole wheat flour. Other types of flour, oat, coconut, spelt, etc, may be substituted for some or all of the all-purpose flour but it will affect the texture of your final product so do so in small increments at first.
Replace full fat milk with equal amounts of lesser fat milk, such as skim or soy.
Replace 1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate with 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon canola oil.
Replace some of the butter or shortening with equal amounts canola or olive oil.