I can’t tell you how often I have people say to me, “Oh, I don’t like to bake. It’s too precise and you have to follow a recipe to the T.”
Well, that’s kind of true and kind of not true. If you understand the terminology & techniques used in baking recipes, and the reason for them, you’ll quickly realize that baking is really not that scary.
There is often quite a bit of leeway in how you put together a recipe, if you know the basic techniques and terms.
Here’s a list of classic baking techniques and how to master them.
- Practice Mise en place: “everything in place”. This is a system employed in every professional kitchen and is the first lesson I learned in pastry school. For easy and efficient baking, always read through your recipe, then gather your ingredients and tools before you begin. This helps ensure you have everything you need to complete the dish. Practice mise-en-place and you won’t find yourself looking for the sugar while your egg whites are over-whipping.
- How to prep a cake pan: I never butter and flour my basic round and square cake pans. I use a parchment round on the the bottom of the pan. Run a small knife or spatula around the baked cake and it will come right out. Leaving the sides of the pan ungreased allows the cake batter to grip the sides of the pan and you get a better rise on the cake. If you don’t have parchment butter and flour only the bottom of the pan.
- Creaming butter & sugar: Start by beating together room temperature butter and granulated sugar. The sharp edges of the sugar crystals cut through the butter to create lots of little air bubbles. The eggs are added one at a time and the flour is added last. I prefer to use the reverse creaming method.
- Folding the ingredients: To fold ingredients use a spatula or balloon whisk. Go straight down the middle of the batter and along the bottom of the bowl and up the side of the bowl. Lift the batter up from the side and over itself back to the middle. Turn the bowl as you repeat this movement. The goal of “folding” is to combine ingredients without deflating the mixture.
- How to tell if your cake is baked: The easiest and fastest way to check if your cake is baked is to simply press lightly in the middle. If it springs back, it’s ready. You can also insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean, the cake is baked.
- How to whip egg whites: Start the egg whites on medium speed and allow them to come to a “soft peak”. Soft peak means the whites will hold their shape, but loosely. Slowly add the sugar on low speed and then increase the speed to medium high. Whip to full peak, which means the whites will hold a peak without drooping.
- How to temper or “liason” eggs for a custard: Pour some of the hot milk into the eggs and whisk to combine. Then add the tempered eggs back to the pan. This will prevent the eggs from scrambling in the hot milk. Use the same “liason” process for adding gelatin to creams or melted chocolate to whipped cream or buttercream.
- How to tell if your yeast dough is proofed: Most recipes will tell how long to proof your dough, but that’s just an estimate. If you think the dough is ready, gently press your finger into the dough. If the dimple quickly springs back the dough is not proofed enough. If it leaves a dimple that slowly fills in, the dough is ready for the oven. If the dimple stays and the dough deflates a little it’s probably over-proofed. Depending the the type of dough, you may be able to re-shape and re-proof the dough.
- How to tell if bread is baked: Tap the bottom of the loaf of bread and it should have a hollow sound, meaning most of the moisture is absorbed into the bread. The internal temperature of the loaf should be about 200°F.
- How to blind bake a pie crust: Line the chilled unbaked pie shell with foil. Fill the foil with pie weights or dried beans that you keep just for this purpose. Bake at 375°F until very lightly brown.
- How to blind bake a tart shell: (For a tart pan with fluted edges) Prick the chilled tart shell several times with a fork. No need to line the pan with foil and pie weights since the fluted edges will hold the dough in place. Bake at 375°F until baked and barely beginning to brown.
- Melting Chocolate: The microwave is the fastest and easiest way to melt chocolate. Make sure the chocolate is chopped into small, evenly sized bits for fast melting. Microwave in short increments and stir to avoid burning the chocolate. If you don’t have a microwave, place the bowl of chocolate over a pot of simmering water to melt. Don’t allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water.
- How to Temper Chocolate: Visit this post to see how to temper chocolate and to watch a video.
- How to bloom gelatin: Always use cold water. Use 4 times the amount of water to powdered gelatin. Place the water in a bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin in an even layer over the water. After about 5 minutes the gelatin should be “bloomed”.
Additional Baking Tips to get the best results from your recipes:
I love to say that “baking is an art and a science, but it’s not rocket science”. If you follow these simple guidelines each time you bake, you’ll be setting yourself up for baking success.
- Weigh your ingredients for the most consistent results.
- If you don’t weigh your ingredients, use the “dip and sweep” method to measure dry ingredients. “Dip” the cup into the bin to fill it up. Then “sweep” away the excess. (This is how the dry ingredients are measured for my recipes.)
- The eggs are always Grade A large.
- The butter is always unsalted.
- Room temperature butter is pliable, but not melting. The ideal temperature is between 65°-70° F.
- Cake flour, all-purpose flour and bread flour are not interchangeable. Use the type of flour specified in the recipe.
- For cake batters, the eggs and all dairy products should be at room temperature.
- Don’t rely on the times listed in a recipe, they are just a guideline. Always check the oven a few minutes before the time listed. Go by how the baked item looks, not by the time.
- If you have a convection setting on your oven, use it unless you are making a sponge cake, custard or souffle.
- Always preheat the oven as instructed and use the cake pan indicated in the recipe.