I believe our pandemic baking frenzy is about more than just comfort food. It’s about being given a specific set of rules that might initially challenge us (you crazy sourdough warriors!) but once mastered will ensure results that turn out exactly as expected—when literally nothing else is.
Below are some tips—things that are rote for experienced bakers but might not be for a newbie.
1.Read the recipe through before you start
I understand why this instruction might beget an eyeroll (“I have the ingredients, can’t I just follow the steps?”) but please, do it. Realizing too late that the sugar was supposed to be split between two steps or discovering that your cookie dough requires two hours of refrigeration (and said cookies were supposed to be dinner—hey, these are unprecedented times) or that the beans need to be soaked overnight. Or that you’ll need a spice grinder. You get the idea.
2. Use a trusted recipe source
Yes, a thousand recipe sites will tell you how to make anything you want. But when it comes to baking, like with advice, you want to trust the source. If I’ve never made something before I look to experts like Martha Stewart, Tara O’Brady, Ina Garten, Smitten Kitchen or a publication with a test kitchen, like Chatelaine. Because I know that not only do they test their recipes, they know how to write a recipe that works as a teacher to me, the student. And as I’ve discovered with distance learning, teaching is a finely-honed skill.
A good recipe will list the ingredients in the order they are used. It will be clear if an ingredient is optional or essential, and it will list the oven temperature at the top so you remember to preheat. It will give baking indicators as well as time, (’til golden, ‘til glossy, ‘til doubled) since not all ovens heat the same and people mix, whip and stir differently.
And when I read reviews online I’m not looking for praise: those are good signs, but I want to know if multiple people experience the same problem (the muffins didn’t bake through, the cake collapsed, the brownies were too runny to slice), which will usually indicate I should pass on it.
3. Trust the baking indicators
Back to the baking indicators! Please don’t just set your timer for the exact time the recipe tells you and walk away (or like my son, walk away and never return). Your oven, the size/material of a pan, small whisk or big whisk, the humidity in the air, can all affect an outcome. You may have to beat egg whites for more than 3 minutes to get soft peaks or bake a pie less than 50 minutes to get a golden (vs burnt) crust. For anything in the oven, I always set my timer for 5-10 minutes less than the recipe instructions, so I can check in before it’s too late.
The beauty of these visual cues is they teach you to use your senses and recognize when something is sufficiently baked, ready to serve or risen enough for next steps. You’ll become sure of yourself and won’t take the strawberry-rhubarb pie out of the oven until the filling is bubbling—even if it takes an extra 10 minutes. Baking will start to become second nature.
4. Using ingredients at room temperature is not just a suggestion
Many baking recipes will ask for butter and eggs at room temperature. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to make something and realized my butter is fridge-hard (but there are hacks!). Ignoring these instructions can mess with your results. Cold eggs from the fridge will separate easier, but a room-temperature egg will gain way more volume than a cold one. Room-temperature butter will trap more air pockets when being creamed with sugar, so your cake is fluffier and your cookies don’t spread too thin on the sheet. And when it comes to adding yeast, if your liquid isn’t warm the yeast won’t bloom—but very hot water can kill it.
5. Avoid substitutions (seriously)
Each ingredient in your recipe has a purpose, the egg to hold a batter together or the flour, which provides structure.
There is a certain spontaneity allowed in cooking—switching out chicken for pork, adding extra jalapeños or leaving out the fresh herbs you forgot to buy—that just doesn’t fly with baking. As an exact science, in baking, the combination of ingredients work together in specific ways. Adding fresh blueberries to a batter may taste great, but it adds moisture. Baking powder and baking soda are not the same thing and different grades of chocolate act differently when heated. Like math, the sum of a recipe’s ingredients add up to success. So don’t sabotage yourself by winging it.
6. Bake on the centre rack of the oven
If you’ve just started baking, or haven’t baked in a while, check your oven to make sure the rack you’re using is in the middle. This is standard for most baking, as it generally provides the most even heat. Unless a recipe specifically asks you to change it, assume this is the norm. For pizza crust, you might be asked to use the bottom rack (the heat for baking generates from the bottom element of your oven), which will help the crust brown nicely, but cookies baked on the low rack are much more likely to burn.
7. Avoid doubling (or halving) recipes when baking
If you like to freeze home-baked goodies for future use, or you’re baking for your neighbours and family, you might be tempted to double your recipe. This will work for dishes such as soups, stews or spaghetti sauce, but it can mess up your baking. In any recipe using baking soda or baking powder the ratios for these ingredients don’t scale up exactly by 2. Since both ingredients are vital to leavening, things could go awry. Using larger dishes can also alter baking times—but don’t necessarily double them.
Plus, even when careful, it’s very easy to forget to double every ingredient if you’re only keeping track in your head. When doubling my cooking, I usually note the revised amounts on a pad of paper and then start measuring, scratching off each ingredient as it’s added.
8. Learn how to measure correctly
If you have a scale (see tool tips below) it will go far in helping your baking succeed every time. Here’s a fun quarantine activity: have two people both measure 1 cup of flour using dry measures, then you weigh each person’s scoop (or just dump them out side by side). You might be surprised at how different the volumes are.
Too much flour can result in cakes or cookies that are dry and crumbly or a pie crust that won’t hold together—or is too tough. Basically, simply measuring your flour incorrectly can ruin every other effort you’ve made.
Even without a scale here’s how to properly measure flour:
Always use the dry measures—the ones that look like scoops— vs a wet measuring cup (think, the Pyrex measuring cup we all grew up with). Each dry measure holds a specific amount, and they are created to allow you to fill them to the brim and then level off the top.
“Spoon and scoop”: Start by fluffing up the flour in the bag or container you’re measuring from—use a fork and stir the flour up so it’s not compacted. Then spoon flour into your dry measure (do not pack it) and with the flat end of a knife, level off the top by sweeping the knife over the edges of the cup.
Note for brown sugar: Unlike flour, when you see a measurement for brown sugar in a recipe, it assumes you are packing the sugar into the measuring spoon.
9. Test your yeast
Yeast has a shelf life of three to six months. If you just started baking like a maniac in the last few months, you want to make sure your stock of yeast is actually capable of doing its job and delivering fluffy, airy carbs ASAP.
Add a single pack of yeast (or 2 1/4 teaspoons) and 1 tsp sugar to 1/2 cup warm water. (The water should be about 115F, or very warm but not so hot that you can’t hold your fingers in it). Stir and let sit. The mixture should bubble and have a yeasty aroma in 5-10 minutes. If it doesn’t, you need a fresh batch.
To extend a yeast’s shelf life, store it in the fridge or even in the freezer. (Don’t worry—you can use it straight away when baking.)
10. Three tools worth investing in
Some recipes will only give measurements in cups and teaspoons, but many will also provide weights (or look for a recipe or cookbook that does). Using a scale (prices start at about $20) has two advantages, the first being accuracy, since your ingredients will be exact down to the gram. (It will also take the guessing out of what “loosely packed” really means.)
Second, using a scale saves on clean-up. You aren’t using several measuring spoons or cups, and everything can be measured into the same bowl (aside from separating dry and wet ingredients as per the recipe).
Ovens vary in temperature and your built-in sensor may not be totally accurate. Using an oven thermometer (available for about $10) will tell you exactly what your oven is heated to. A temperature difference of 25 degrees can affect your baking outcome (read more on how to use an oven thermometer here). For some ovens, to actually get to 350F, you might have to set the oven to 360F. You may also realize it takes your oven longer to heat up than you thought—for example—one Chatelaine editor’s oven only reaches 350F 20 minutes after it beeps “ready.”
A non-stick cooling rack (under $10) takes you across the finish line. Whether it’s cookies, a bundt cake or your banana loaf, using a cooling rack allows steam and heat to escape from underneath, as well as the sides and top. Trapped heat or steam can cause moisture and could soften any crispness or create sogginess.
Also, leaving cookies to cool on the baking sheet can overcook them, as they will continue to bake on the hot metal.
11. If a recipe says “allow to cool,” there’s good reason for it
Many baking recipes will ask you to wait til your creation is cooled either before removing from the pan or before slicing it (and always before icing anything). As hard as it is to resist this seemingly annoying step when so close to double chocolate brownie heaven, remember that your baking is still doing its thing while cooling down—removing it too early can result in tearing or leaving a 1-inch layer on the bottom of the pan or dish. Once cool, you’ll get a cleaner cut from your brownie, zucchini loaf or chocolate cake recipe. And bread or rolls are still releasing steam and completing the baking process as they cool down. So, delightful as warm bread is, the structure and flavour improves as it cools and it will become easier to slice when it’s room temperature.
12. Make sure your baking dish is the size specified in the recipe
So you’ve read through your recipe and realize your trusted loaf pan is bigger than the one the recipe specifies. This will affect cooking time as the batter volume will be spread over a larger area, so it will bake faster (or vice versa if using a smaller dish). If you decide to go for it, I usually take 10 minutes off the cooking time (in either scenario) and check the loaf or cake to see if it’s done, and/or cooking evenly.
For beginners, it’s best to look for recipes that fit the equipment. Find a Nanaimo bar recipe that uses the 8” pan you have versus trying to adapt to a 9” size. It may not seem like a big difference, but it can very much affect your outcome—especially on a first try when you don’t know what to expect.
13. “1 cup chopped walnuts” is not the same as “1 cup walnuts, chopped”
Be mindful of reading ingredient measurements correctly. In the first example, you chop enough walnuts to measure to 1 cup. In the second example, you measure one cup whole walnuts, and then chop them. (In the first example, the recipe uses more nuts.) Anything after the comma is done AFTER the ingredient is measured.
14. Can I freeze my baking?
If you’re finding comfort (and volume!) in baking, keep in mind that many baked goods can be frozen (good news if you’re a household of one or two).
If you’ve been practising your sourdough skills, bread, buns and focaccia freeze very well once cooled. When defrosted they will maintain their freshness. I usually wrap the frozen bread in foil—which I reuse—and warm the bread in a 300F oven til soft. Or, slice your bread before freezing, then pull out slices as needed.
Quick breads (banana, pumpkin, carrot) can be frozen as loafs or sliced and then frozen for individual snacks. Make an extra batch of pancakes, crepes or waffles and freeze the second half once baked. (Make sure anything you’re freezing has completely cooled.)
Freeze before baking:
Scones, muffin batter, biscuits, cookie dough (the dough itself or pre-shaped balls) and pie dough can all be frozen raw. Most individually portioned can be baked from frozen—just add a few extra minutes to bake. Cinnamon rolls often need to be thawed and allowed to rise before baking (or some recipes suggest you pre-bake them lightly before freezing). Look for a recipe that includes freezing instructions if that is your goal.
Tip: Freezing Individual portions
If freezing individual portions (such as scones) place them on a cookie sheet and into the freezer til solid, then you can gather them into a freezer bag or container and store (otherwise they will all freeze together in a chunk).
14. Please don’t measure over the bowl
I can’t be the only one to have cursed (and maybe cried) after ruining a batter by measuring vanilla extract or oil over a bowl and pouring waaaaaayyyy too fast.