Monday, November 23, 2009

Baking tips

I've been baking for so long that I forget it's sometimes not as easy as it looks. I'm only reminded of it when people tell me their mishaps in the kitchen or say that baking is almost impossible for them. In which case I'm always baffled because I think baking is so easy. Then I think about how hard cooking is for me and there are people (who are likely excellent chefs on the hot side) who can't understand that either. So we all have different strengths and talents. I find most people who are good at or enjoy cooking on the hot side aren't as good at baking and vice versa. There are probably some who are equally good at both or enjoy doing both but I haven't met that many.

But still, I don't think baking has to be hard. Yes, it helps to have a certain aptitude for it. If you're the type of cook who likes to throw a dash of this and a pinch of that and don't like to be hampered by a recipe or directions, preferring your taste buds to guide you, then baking might not be for you and you're probably more of an inspired cook than I will ever be. On the other hand, if you like to bake but sometimes feel a bit intimidated by it, here are some simple tips that might help.

1. Read through a recipe first and decide if that's what you really want to make. If you've never baked before, you might want to try making chocolate chip cookies before you take on a chocolate souffle or a seven layer cake. Walk before you run.
2. Make sure you have all your ingredients, including the baking pans and tools you need. No point in making cupcakes if you don't own a muffin tin. In culinary school, our chef instructors had us lay out our ingredients, utensils, pans, etc before we began. This was known as "mise en place" - sounds more uppity in French, doesn't it? But it's helpful to have everything out before you begin. You don't want to get halfway into mixing a recipe only to discover you're out of eggs or don't have anymore baking soda or salt. I've been baking long enough that I don't line everything up since I know exactly what I have in my pantry and refrigerator but if you're starting up, it's a good habit to have until you get more used to baking.
3. As you use an ingredient, put it away. This'll keep you from adding twice the amount of baking powder or salt (or whatever) that a recipe calls for if you get interrupted in the mixing process and you can't remember if you already put some in. If your recipe calls for eggs, set out the exact number of eggs you need and put the egg carton back in the fridge before you begin. Then you also don't have to wonder how many eggs you put in already.
4. Clean as you go. I don't mean wash every measuring cup or teaspoon as you use it but if something spills as you mix, wipe it up. Wash your utensils and mixing bowls as soon as your baking pan goes into the oven. This will make baking seem less like a chore if you're cleaning as you go. Otherwise you're faced with a stack of dirty mixing bowls and such in the sink when what you want to be doing is enjoying your baked goods. If you wash everything right away, all you have left to clean up once you're finished baking is likely the baking pan.
5. Prep your pans first before you even start mixing anything, meaning line the pans with foil or parchment paper and/or coat them with nonstick cooking spray if that's what the recipe calls for. This way once your dough or batter is mixed, you're good to go. Depending on what you're making, you typically want your creation going into the preheated oven as soon as it's fully mixed, especially if you're using chemical leaveners like baking soda or baking powder.
6. Don't forget to preheat your oven! Most recipes will list that as the first step unless you're making something that has to chill before baking. Don't cheat this step because an oven at the right temperature is critical for success. My oven takes 10 minutes before it signals it's at the right temperature I set it for and I hate to waste energy so I usually time it that I turn it on to preheat when I have about 8-10 minutes left of mixing to do.

Shortcuts, aka "how I cheat"
While the baking side is known for being exact to ensure success, as opposed to the hot side, which has far more leeway, I confess I don't always follow the directions to the letter. When you get enough experience, you just know how much you can get away with. For example, many recipes call for ingredients to be at room temperature, especially butter. Since I have a KitchenAid stand mixer, I get around that by beating cold butter until it's soft and creamy. Saves time in case I don't plan ahead enough to take the butter out well enough ahead of time. My niece Lauren said she microwaves the butter for a few seconds at a time until it's soft but I don't like to do that since it's so easy to overheat butter and even a little melting of the butter could change the texture of what you're trying to make.

Many recipes that call for melting butter and chocolate together also call for the mixture to be cooled until tepid before adding other ingredients. Caroline, my college friend, told me she once read that the cooler the chocolate-butter mixture is, the more fudgy the end result of whatever you're making, especially brownies. Well, fudgy's good but do you think I'd listen? Not when I bake after work and only have a limited amount of time at night to get brownies baked, cooled and packaged up to take into work the next day. So I often cheated this one, especially since I also cheated the call for having eggs at room temperature since I would take eggs straight out of the refrigerator and use them (no time to let them come to room temp when I walk in the door after work and get to baking right away). Fortunately for me, at a baking class I once attended at Sur La Table where Alice Medrich (founder of Cocolat in Berkeley and author of several cookbooks) was the chef instructor, she said she added cold-from-the-fridge eggs to the chocolate-butter mixture to bring the temp down and it worked just as well as letting the mixture cool and using room temperature eggs. Rock on, Alice.

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