It is that time of year again for many of us; time to break out the cookie cutters, pie pans, rolling pins, and bread bowls. Before we get started this baking season, I wanted to offer a quick refresher course for those of us who have not baked in a while, and for those of us who are just learning how to bake. The following is some of the things that I have learned over the years and I hope these tips are helpful to you. This is part 1 of the Baking post, part 2 will cover ingredients, and will also have baking tips. Enjoy!
1. Read through the entire recipe
Before you bake anything, take the time to read through the entire recipe. Doing this will bring to your attention any key ingredient or piece of equipment you may need to buy or borrow before you start. It also helps you to become familiar with the steps involved and the time necessary to complete the recipe. Nothing is more frustrating than being in the middle of preparing a recipe and figuring out that you can’t finish because you ran out of an ingredient or do not understand how to perform a particular task.
2. Use the Proper Measuring Equipment
When cooking, some of the best meals can be derived by tossing a little of this and a little of that in the pot. Baking, however, is a more precise art and requires accurate measurements. If you are measuring by weight instead of volume, you will need a scale. If you are measuring by volume (like most of the U.S.), you will need a set of dry measuring cups, a liquid measuring cup, and measuring spoons.
Dry measuring cups should only be used for dry ingredients and solids (like peanut butter or shortening), liquid measuring cups should only be used for liquids; the two are not interchangeable. Measuring spoons, and not the tea spoon from your flatware set, should be used for accurate measurements.
3. Set a Mis en Place
Mis en Place is a French term meaning to have everything in place. When cooking, and especially baking, the concept of Mis en place helps you to avoid mistakes. By having all your ingredients measured out ahead of time and in front of you, it’s not likely that you will forget an ingredient, accidently use too much of something, or have to stop midway through, to measure something at perhaps a crucial point in the preparation of a recipe.
Items like butter and cream cheese benefit from being measured ahead of time because they typically need to soften, plus eggs need to warm up so that they can create more volume. Embracing this philosophy helps to keep things organized in a confined space, which takes some of the anxiety out of baking and makes it more fun.
4. Use Fresh Ingredients
If it has been a while since you last baked, check the dates on your baking powder, baking soda, eggs, yeast, etc. If your flour has been sitting in the cupboard since the last time you baked Christmas cookies, or if your brown sugar is beyond saving with a sugar bear, it’s time to pitch it and start fresh.
5. Use an Oven Thermometer
After going to all the trouble of studying a recipe, buying fresh ingredients, setting a mis en place, and then preparing your dough, the last thing you want is burned cookies. Check the actual temperature of your oven with a thermometer, against whatever temperature you have set. Make adjustments accordingly. For instance, if you set the dial for 350°F., but your thermometer reads 400°F., then you know that you must make a mental note to decrease the temperature for the recipe by 50°F., and then re-check the thermometer for accuracy.
The Basic Equipment
These are the items that I use the most often;
The workhorse in your kitchen is the mixing bowl, and the most practical mixing bowls are made of stainless steel; they will not chip like stoneware or glass, nor will they hold a scent like plastic bowls will. They will not break if you drop them on the floor, they are light-weight, heat-proof, and can be placed in the freezer, refrigerator, and dishwasher. If they happen to come with lids, even better. A set containing 3-5 bowls will be the most useful.
Buy a couple of good quality bamboo or olive wood spoons, treat them right, and they will last you forever. Do not soak wooden spoons in water, and do not wash them in the dishwasher because doing so will cause the wood to split, and split wood can harbor bacteria. Immediately after use, rinse a wooden spoon to remove food product. Hand wash and dry the spoon, it just takes a minute. I’ve had mine for over 15 years and they get daily use. They are a little darker than they used to be, but other than that they look great.
One mid-sized whisk can handle most light mixing chores. However, a big, heavy whisk is great for beating egg whites and mixing stiff batters. A small whisk is useful for blending dry ingredients and whisking eggs in a bowl.
A stand mixer is a dream machine for many people, but a good hand mixer will have dough hooks (for bread baking), a whisk (for whipping cream) and the standard beaters (for everything else) for a fraction of the cost of a stand mixer.
You may have to try different styles until you find what you are most comfortable using. I started out with a basic pin and used it for many years. It worked perfectly for rolling out bread dough, pie crusts, and cookie dough. Rolling pins are also great for crushing crumbs, crackers, Corn Flakes, cookies, candy, or chips that have been placed in a plastic zip bag. After I tried a straight pin, there was no going back for me. I prefer the control and feel for the dough that I have with the straight pin. Some people like to use a marble rolling pin, and then there’s also a French pin; it truly is a personal preference.
In my humble opinion, the funnest part of baking is using cookie cutters. I have lots of them in various sizes. I like to use small ones to cut out bite-sized cookies, pastry for the edges of a pie, to make decorative croutons out of day-old bread, and to cut decorative shapes out of cheese (I have a moose that I use for my husband’s salads).
These machines do more than just chop nuts and grate cheese; they take most of the work out of prepping veggies (carrots for carrot cake, zucchini for cake and bread), can make your pie crust in about 4 pulses, can blend together smooth, lump-free frostings and glazes, and will juice citrus fruits.
A Silpat is a French baking mat made of silicone. I bought my first one when our kids were in elementary school. It seems that I was constantly baking cookies or bread for school functions, Scout functions, or church functions. They are supposed to last for 2,000 bakes, mine lasted a little longer though. I have since replaced them and am getting ready to replace them again, not bad for a twenty year run of baking. The beauty of a Silpat is that nothing sticks to them, you do not have to spray your pan or chisel caramelized brown sugar off of your pan. Cookies, pastry, and bread lift off effortlessly, and sticky stuff just peels right off the silicone. They are not terribly expensive considering that they last such a long time. You will need one for each cookie sheet pan.
Metal cookie scoops come in various sizes and make quick work of dropping a batch of uniformly shaped cookies onto a baking sheet , or evenly filling muffin cups. I have them in three sizes and use them all the time.
Pastry Bag and Tips
To make the pretty details on a cake, decorative cream on a pie, or even kinda fancy sugar cookies, you will need to learn how to use a pastry bag and icing tips. I use a plastic Ziploc bag for a pastry bag. You just have to snip the corner off of the bag, place the coupler inside the bag, and the tip on top of the coupler. Clean up is a breeze.
This is a nice little toy for combining flour and fats and making a crumb mixture. You can also use 2 knives, or two forks to make a crumb mixture.
I love my Microplane zester. It is very sharp and efficiently removes the zest from citrus fruit, but if I’m not careful, it will also remove the skin from my knuckles.
Cake Tester– A nice little tool for checking the doneness of cakes, cookies, and breads. You can also use a toothpick to check for doneness.
Pastry Brushes-For quickly brushing melted butter on a loaf of hot bread, honey glaze on Phyllo dough, or syrup on fruit in a tart, a pastry brush is handy to have around. Go to the hardware store and buy some natural bristle paint brushes in a few different sizes. They are a lot less expensive than a pastry brush, and I find that they work better because they are flatter and wider than pastry brushes. Take care to wash brushes thoroughly with warm soapy water after each use, smooth and reshape bristles, then allow brushes to dry while laying horizontal before you put them away.
Fine Mesh Sieve-A small sieve is perfect for dusting cocoa or powdered sugar over baked goods. I also use mine to drain raisins after I have rehydrated them. A slightly larger fine mesh sieve can be used in place of a sifter.
Thin Metal Spatula–This is the best thing for lifting cookies off of a baking sheet and dough off of the counter. I like them better than the silicone coated spatulas, which always seem so thick. If I’m concerned about a baked good sticking to the spatula, I just spray the spatula with Pam.
Box Grater-This type of grater has four sides and is useful for grating cheese, citrus peels, vegetables, and chocolate. The tiniest side of the grater can also be used for grating fresh nutmeg.
Citrus Juicer-This is the exact juicer I have used for the last 14 years. It very efficiently gets every bit of juice from limes, lemons, and oranges (with some elbow grease). It also has a strainer that prevents the seeds and pulp from getting in the juice which is collected in the container on the bottom. The bottom container has clear markings (in case you are measuring the juice), it is dishwasher safe, and has a silicone ring on the bottom so that it doesn’t slip when you are using it.
Basic Baking Pans and their Uses
To bake the best cookies, I have read over and over that a shiny silver pan is what you should use, not a dark metal pan. I wish that I could advise on this subject, but I do not honestly know if that is true. For the last 20 years I have used dark metal baking pans from Chicago Metallic with a Silpat baking mat. Everything has always come out the way it was supposed to, with exception of the times when I’ve made a mistake, and I have chalked that up to operator error, not baking pan error.
My round cake pans are at least 25 years old and look very similar to these, albeit mine are much scruffier now. This is the one basic pan that I would suggest that you make sure has a non-stick coating. You will still need to use Pam, Baker’s Joy, or butter and parchment paper to keep the cake from sticking to the pan, but at least with a non-stick coating, you will have a fighting chance of turning out a perfect cake layer.
There are many beautiful specialty Bundt pans on the market (and I want all of them). As with the layer cake pans, I would suggest that you buy a Bundt pan with non-stick coating. You will still need to spray the pan with Baker’s Joy or Pam.
11×17 inch baking sheets (you need 2)- drop cookies, shaped cookies, artisan bread loaves, calzones, bread sticks, biscotti, crostatas,
8 or 9 inch round cake pans (you need 2)- layer cakes, cornbread, biscuits, scones
muffin tin– muffins, cupcakes, individual cheesecakes
9×5 inch bread pans (you need 2)– bread loaves, pound cake
8×8 inch or 9×9 inch square baking pan– bar cookies, cornbread, Focaccia
Deep-dish glass pie pans (you need 2)- pies, fruit crisps, fruit crumbles, frittatas
9×13 inch baking pan– sheet cakes, cinnamon rolls, pizza, buns
Specialty Pans and their Uses
Bundt Pan– Bundt cake, Monkey bread
Springform Pan- cheesecake, Chocolate Guinness Cake
Tube Pan– angel food and chiffon cakes
Mini Muffin Pan– mini muffins, pecan tassies, mini cheesecakes