Successful baking starts here
Cooking is an art, baking is a science
In cooking, it's completely acceptable to throw a handful of herbs or a little more butter into the pan. You can make changes as you wish with no major catastrophe. In baking... it's a very different story, everything matters. Think of baking as a science. One small adjustment could be your undoing, but you won't know it until you take your cake out of the oven. When making something for the first time, read the recipe thoroughly and read it again. Follow every step to the letter. Remember the recipe author thought each step was important enough to document, so there must be a valid reason for it. Do not alter the recipe until you have made it successfully at least once!
Always use quality ingredients at the right temperature
Different brands of butter and flour have varied levels of moisture, fat, and protein. These little variations can greatly affect the outcome of the final bake. Use brands that suit your baking needs and use them exclusively so you know how they will react in your recipe.
If a recipe calls for cold butter, melted butter, or room-temperature eggs, remember that any adjustment you make will affect the outcome. The difference between putting a dough with cold butter and one with warm melted butter in the oven is HUGE. It results in a completely different chemical reaction.
Unless otherwise stated in the recipe, use ingredients at room temperature. Always start a baked recipe with room temperature eggs and room temperature butter. To bring eggs to room temperature quickly, crack them into several small bowls before starting the recipe. If you are in a huge hurry, run them under warm tap water for 5 minutes before cracking.
Butter loses moisture the longer it sits in the fridge, which can cause your baked goods to be dry. Buy and use the freshest butter you can find. Check dates on the packing and always select unsalted butter, because salt is a preservative… Meaning salted butter has probably been in cold storage longer than unsalted. Baking with unsalted butter, also means you have full control of the sodium level in your baked goods. If you must substitute salted butter in a baked recipe, reduce the additional salt by half.
Bake at the right temperature
Don’t doctor the oven temperature and cooking time for faster baking. Cakes especially lose moisture when cooked hard and fast, and you also run the risk of burning delicate ingredients. I would always recommend baking cooler for longer! Ensure that your oven temperature is accurate? It's fairly common for ovens to lean to the hot or cool side of a specified temperature over time. Invest in an oven-safe thermometer that can attach to an oven rack, so you can adjust your oven if needed. Preheat like your life depends on it. It’s so tempting to throw a pan of brownies into the oven before your oven reaches the specified temperature… BUT DON’T DO IT! Baking is a science, remember? The temperature will highly effect the outcome.
Position the pans and baking sheets as close to the centre of the oven as possible, unless otherwise stated in the instructions. Pans and sheets should not touch each other or the sides of the oven walls. If your oven is not wide enough to put pans side by side, place them on different racks and slightly offset to allow for air circulation.
Resist opening the oven door until the minimum baking time has passed, or you will release the oven heat and upset the baking time.
Standard “room temperature” is around 70 degrees F. If you bake when it’s really hot outside or bitter cold, and the outside temperature is affecting the inside temperature, your results will be different. If the humidity is higher or lower than normal, your results will be different. That’s why the nations Nana's used to tell us never to bake on a rainy day. The heavy moisture in the air affects the ability of the dough/batter to rise and dry. See... baking is an absolute science!
Don't over-beat or over-bake
Don’t over-beat or under-beat the batter. Under-beating or over-beating will affect the texture and volume of the cake. Most recipes are tested using an electric mixer, which produces the highest volume. Read the recipe to be sure which method to use, electric or hand mixing. One minute of medium beating time with a mixer equals, usually about 150-180 strokes by hand.
Creaming butter and sugar. This is a highly important baking step that people like to skimp on. Creaming butter and sugar means beating it at high speed with an electric mixer until the butter is fluffy and the sugar breaks down. Skipping this step effects the light airy quality of baked goods. I recommend creaming for 3-5 minutes. If you don’t normally do this, you will notice a difference in your bakes and cakes immediately.
When to sieve. When a recipe calls for sieving, always measure first, then sieve.
Gentle folding. When a recipe asks you to “fold” something into the batter, always start at the bottom of the bowl and sweep the spatula over the top to incorporate the new ingredient gently into the batter. Rotate the bowl to ensure even folding.
Don’t over-bake. This may seem obvious, but many bakers think their baked goods are not quite done, only to pull them out after they have passed their prime. Always set the time to the minimum baking temperature, then check. Cookies are usually best when you pull them out just slightly undercooked in the centre. Once they’ve cooled on the warm baking sheets the centres will set.
Measuring matters along with using the right equipment
Pastry chefs worldwide measure their ingredients by metric weight. The reason for this is that a scoop of flour can vary greatly in weight depending on the type of flour and how packed it is. In a perfect world, all home bakers would use scales and metric measurements to ensure exact amounts of wet and dry ingredients. Make sure you always pour ingredients into your measuring bowls and spoons, never scoop! Scooping packs the ingredients down, meaning you end up with more than you need! Always level measuring spoons and cups with a knife or a spatula.
Invest is a really good mixer, it a true investment. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful shiny stand mixer sitting out on their kitchen work surface? However, a good quality mixer is so much more than kitchen eye-candy. It ensures even mixing, stiff meringues, and perfectly whipped cream. If you buy a good one, it should last a lifetime.
Always line baking sheets, cake pans, and baking dishes with grease-proof paper. Always! Grease-proof paper helps cake batter and dough bake evenly. It also makes it possible to get brownies and cakes clean out of the baking tin, and stops cookies from spreading out on baking sheets.
Invest in quality bakeware. Always buy metal straight edged pans that are thick and sturdy and always use the recommended pan size for the recipe you are following. If you alter the pan size, you can expect your baked goods to cook much faster or slower than stated - disaster in the making, remember, baking is a science! Don’t over fill. Fill cake, muffin, and baking pans only about 2/3 of the way up leaving enough room for the batter to expand and rise as it bakes. There’s nothing worse than burnt cake batter stuck to the bottom of your oven.