More than any other type of cooking, it’s baking that can dish out as much heartbreak as it can joy. Fallen cakes, soupy pies, cookies that crumble. If you’ve been burned by baking, or just burned your baked goods, you may wonder whether it’s just you.
It probably is.
I’m just joking, but actually, you may in fact be doing something wrong. You probably are doing something wrong. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fix it.
And who better to learn from than Rose Levy Beranbaum? She’s been writing authoritative, comprehensive baking cookbooks for almost 40 years. Her latest, though, “Rose’s Baking Basics,” is especially aimed at beginning bakers, complete with step-by-step photos, concise and clear directions and a wealth of “baking pearls” that share tips, hows and whys.
Here is some big-picture advice from Beranbaum to help you be a better, more confident baker.
Follow the directions. Real talk: “If you don’t want to follow directions, it’s better to make savory dishes,” Beranbaum says. “Baking is best for precise people,” or people who give up their idea of how a recipe should be made at least the first time they attempt it. Do you really need to whip those egg whites separately? Does the dough really have to be kneaded that long? The answer is probably yes.
Corollary: Read the recipe before you start doing anything, preferably multiple times. Not only do you want to make sure you have all the ingredients you need, but you also want to have a good idea of what all the steps are in advance, so you don’t run into any surprises, especially if something is time-sensitive.
Be wary of substitutions. Sorry, I know it sounds like we’re being sticklers here. But baking is often so much about chemistry that ingredients aren’t necessarily interchangeable. If you are bound and determined to swap things in a recipe, “The first time, make it the way it’s written,” Beranbaum suggests. “Otherwise you’ll never know what you’re supposed to be getting.” Flours and sugars are two main baking ingredients that can have a dramatic effect on your results. Changing flours, for example, can alter the structure and density of a baked good. Sugars differ in flavor, texture and how they interact with water, so using the wrong one can also mess up the bake.
When you’re contemplating substitutions, Beranbaum says, it helps to at least know the composition of the ingredients, such as the fat and moisture content. So, sour cream and regular full-fat yogurt? Proceed. Agave instead of honey? Go for it. Turbinado sugar instead of granulated sugar? Probably fine.
Beranbaum also warns against thinking that fancy, higher-fat butter is always better. The higher fat and lower moisture can cause problems when a recipe hasn’t been designed to take advantage of those characteristics.
But don’t be afraid to make a recipe your own. Have I killed your intrepid spirit yet? I hope not, because there are plenty of ways you can tweak a baking recipe. In fact, Beranbaum’s new book is heavily sprinkled with “Make This Recipe Your Own” sidebars that provide suggestions on A-okay substitutions. She gets it: “People want to put their own imprint on something, and that’s so often why they want to substitute,” she says. Some of the best places to start playing around are add-ins: chocolate chips, dried fruit, nuts. You can experiment with different extracts and flavored simple syrups, even alcohol, where liquor is used for flavor. Spices, within reason, are ripe for personal preference.
One more substantial change that Beranbaum endorses is pan size or shape. Just be sure to think it through. You want to try to keep the volume of the pans about the same (fill them with water if you don’t know off the top of your head, or consult a chart). But don’t go from a shallow pan to a deep pan that’s not filled very much, because the batter won’t bake right. You can, however, scale a recipe accordingly if you need to make a dramatic change. A recipe that is designed for a Bundt pan when halved will work in a loaf pan, for example.
Pay attention to temperature. It is more than just a matter of how comfortable you feel. “Temperature is everything in baking,” Beranbaum says. It is important to follow the directions when a recipe calls for ingredients to be at a certain temperature. Often, that means room temperature. Beranbaum says the sweet spot for room-temp butter is 65 to 75 degrees. Eggs are another ingredient frequently brought to room temperature (if you forget or are in a rush, you can place the eggs in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes). Beranbaum: “If the ingredients are off when you’re mixing, there’s no hope,” in, say, a batter. Ingredients at the wrong temperature won’t blend together as well, and you might not incorporate the right amount of air for proper lift.
There are plenty of other situations where temperature matters. Unless you’re doing a slow rise in the refrigerator, you need a warmish spot for rising bread dough. The water used in the dough shouldn’t be too hot, though, because that can kill the yeast. Pie crusts do best with cold butter and a relatively cool environment (chill the counter with a tray full of ice if you have to) to bake up flaky. Chilled dough that’s been cut for cookies holds its shape better in the oven. And so on.
Measure carefully. Here’s another one that goes right along with “follow the directions.” Just as recipes can be affected by what ingredient you use, they can be impacted by how much you use. So, yes, as most dedicated bakers will tell you, weight is the most accurate method for measuring, not to mention easier because everything can be measured into a single bowl where appropriate. There’s often a lot of variation when it comes to measuring by volume, thanks to cups of differing sizes. Flour can be especially problematic, Beranbaum says, because people measure it in different ways, such as spooning into the measuring cup, scooping and shaking it to settle and the method most endorsed by pros if weight isn’t an option, the scoop and sweep. (Cook’s Illustrated had dozens of people measure a cup of flour by volume and found as much as a 20 percent difference in how much that “cup” weighed.)
As to why more home cooks — and the recipe developers writing for them — don’t rely on weight, Beranbaum suspects it feels too scientific. But as we’ve established, science and precision are good, even crucial, in baking! So consider investing in a kitchen scale and using weight measures where provided (many baking books will include what the author thinks a cup of flour weighs, because even they can’t agree), or at least testing how much a cup of flour you measure weighs so you know whether you’re in the ballpark. Whether you get as fiddly to go down the rabbit hole of weighing teaspoons and tablespoons is up to you (I don’t).
Ready to put some of this wisdom to good use? Then check out Beranbaum’s recipe for whoopie pies, one of the many great possibilities in her new book.
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