Editor’s note: We’ve just launched our latest newsletter series — Voraciously’s Baking Basics, written by Joy Wilson (better known as Joy the Baker). To prep for this eight-week journey through baking fundamentals and classic recipes, Joy is sharing her rules of engagement for baking. These guidelines will help you digest all the great knowledge from the series and apply it to your future baking endeavors. Read more about the series here.
Joy the Baker’s Rules of Engagement
How to read a recipe
- Read the recipe (seriously, read the recipe), from start to finish, before baking. Review the ingredients list and read through the instructions, which may have some hidden ingredients (such as water) or split the ingredients in an expected way (using one egg for a batter and one for an egg wash). A recipe is part scripture and part pep talk.
- Ingredients are usually listed in the order you’ll use them. Start at the top of the list and follow the procedure to incorporate every ingredient, step by step. This helps ensure that nothing gets lost in the shuffle.
- Take note of the commas. The comma is everything in baking measurements. Every cut, chop and dice instruction after a comma in an ingredient list is to be done after the ingredient is measured. For example: 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped. This means to weigh out four ounces of chocolate and coarsely chop it. Not every recipe includes weight measurements, so it’s key to understand the comma (or its absence), because “1 cup walnuts, chopped” is different from “1 cup chopped walnuts.”
- Pack, soften and preheat. Recipes often request that brown sugar be “packed.” Take the back of a spoon and firmly (but not totally Hulk-style) press the sugar into the measuring cup, then add more sugar and pack until it’s flush with the top of the cup. Soften butter by allowing it to rest at room temperature until softened through. Don’t cheat yourself or the butter by not allowing it to soften completely. I think the best way to achieve this is to leave the butter out on the counter overnight. Preheat the oven to the stated temperature before baking. Every oven is different, but I like to give mine at least 20 minutes to come to temperature before I bake. Temperature is key to properly activating ingredients.
- Is it done yet? Doneness is usually described with both a time range and visual characteristics. I usually set a timer to two-thirds of the stated time, then check and rotate my baked treat to determine how much longer it needs to meet those visual characteristics described in the recipe. This will help you get to know your ingredients and your oven.
Weight over volume
Not all beginner bakers own a kitchen scale, though most at least have a trusty set of cup measures. A scale might seem overly fussy, too professional or just plain extravagant. But for this series, I want you to give weighing a chance, because it is much more accurate than measuring by volume. Everyone can measure 1 cup of all-purpose flour differently by packing more flour into a cup measure than a recipe intends, but 125 grams of flour is always 125 grams of flour.
Freshen your leavening agents and test your oven
If you don’t find yourself baking a few times a week, chances are your baking soda and baking powder are past their prime. These are essential (and very affordable) ingredients, so take a look in your pantry and add them to the grocery list if you think yours could use some freshness.
Use an oven thermometer to test the heat of your oven, because what reads as 250 on the dial may be different inside the oven. You want to know the actual temperature, for better or worse, before you place your batter in the oven.
Always consider time and temperature
Successful baking comes down to these two things. Recipes call for particular times of rest, time to preheat and time to bake for a reason. In the same vein, ingredients must be at a particular temperature (often cold or at room temp) to best incorporate and spark chains of reactions once the batter or dough reaches the oven. Respect the time. Respect the temperature. It’s all part of a successful bake.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a lot of rules!” Sure, but there’s real intention here, and we’re building know-how from the ground up.
If you haven’t already, sign up for Baking Basics here for eight weeks of classic recipes and tips and techniques to help you bake with more confidence.
More baking from Voraciously