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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Top 10 Baking Tips

Baking is both an art and science. So many people I talk to tell me they can't bake. What they really mean is that they've never taken the time to learn properly how to do it. Baking is different from cooking because it's more precise and relies on combinations of ingredients to achieve a result. Unlike sauteeing a piece of chicken where you're working with one ingredient, baking requires juggling several ingredients at once and then applying some catalyst to change the structure of those ingredients into a new dish.

But really, baking doesn't have to be hard. The major requirements are patience, precision, and perseverance. Not everything is going to work the first time you try it and it might take a couple tries for advanced techniques before you get the hang of it. Sometimes even old tried and true recipes can fail if you're having an off day. That's happened to me before with my favorite Lemon Meringue Tart. I've turned out gorgeous versions and then on days when I've hurried or been distracted turned out messes.

Regardless, here are some tips that will help you in the kitchen. Most of these I've learned the hard way.

Derek believes in the mise en placeMise en Place photo © 2008 Ann Larie Valentine | more info (via: Wylio)

1. Mise en Place - that's a fancy chef term for getting all your ingredients together at one time before beginning your dish. I ignored this for years and invariably would find myself one key ingredient short at times. So, now I gather all my ingredients beforehand and measure everything out in prep bowls before beginning. I also measure my dry ingredients onto a piece of parchment paper. This makes it very easy to pick them up and get them into the mixer without spilling them all over the counter!

2. Weight instead of eyeballs. Oftentimes a recipe will tell you to divide a dough in halves quarters or even smaller parts. You can try eyeballing the divisions but often you'll find that your parts are different sizes. If you're doing something where various layers are flavored and then reassembled this can lead to a messy end result as your layers will not match up properly. An easy fix is to simply weigh your dough on the kitchen scale (a must have tool) and then do the math and make sure each piece measures out exactly the same. Then you won't end up with one or two pieces that just don't fit with the others. My First Ever Digital Kitchen Scalephoto © 2010 jamieanne | more info (via: Wylio)

3. Buy Cookie Scoops! For years I measured cookie dough just like my Mama. If it called for a teaspoon measure I pulled out a teaspoon and tried to make it work. If it called for a tablespoon then out came a tablespoon. The problem was, no two sets of silverware are exactly the same. In addition getting the dough off the spoon was always a hassle. Invariably, it ended up involving a couple spoons and cookies that varied in both size and shape. Finally, I decided to buy several cookie scoops in different sizes. Now, I have no problem getting the right amount of dough and all the cookies come out the same size and proper shape.

4. Separate bowl for eggs. This is one that took me a long, long time to learn. Mama never believed in dirtying more dishes than were necessary when cooking so she cracked her eggs on the side of the bowl and in they went. Of course, sometimes she'd have to stop and try to fish out egg shell that fell into the batter as well. That's always a pain. Finally, I learned that it's much easier to crack the eggs into a separate bowl first. Then if some shell falls in you aren't fishing around in a big bowl of batter trying to get it out. Worse, you aren't missing it entirely in a big bowl of batter and serving someone a slice of cake that's "extra crunchy!"

5. Buy an oven thermometer. You will be surprised at how far off your oven really is. I thought my oven was fine but found that things browned weirdly. When I finally got a thermometer and stuck it in the oven, I discovered that my oven was pretty accurate up to about 350° after that it went haywire. So, with the oven thermometer I can adjust the temperature more accurately for even baking.

Biscuits on Parchmentphoto © 2010 Dan | more info (via: Wylio)
6. Line your baking sheets. Many people swear by the expensive Sil-Pat liners. Personally, I prefer plain old parchment paper because it is more versatile. I use it in my Mise-en-Place (see tip #1), I use it to line my baking sheets, I use it to keep my counter clean, I use it to wrap things, I've even used it to jot quick notes when working with a recipe! Regardless of what you choose, lining your baking sheets will help you tremendously. Cookies and other treats won't stick and it'll make clean up much easier. Many older recipes call for a "greased cookie sheet" but you can skip the mess by simply using a piece of parchment paper instead. The only times parchment isn't handy is when doing pressed cookies where you need a little "sticking power" to get the cookie out of the press. Otherwise, line those sheets!

7. Half-Sheet Catch-All. When baking pies it's annoying to have one spill over the edges and get all over the oven. Placing the pie plate on a half sheet pan helps eliminate this problem. If the pie bubbles over the baking sheet catches the excess and keeps it from burning on the bottom of the oven. I also find this is helpful when using muffin tins or Madeleine pans. It's not that things overflow in that case, but it makes taking the pans out of the oven much easier. It also helps keep them level in the oven. I usually put a wire rack on the baking sheet then place my pan on top of that. It allows for air circulation around the pan while making it much easier to take it out of the oven without inadvertently crushing whatever I'm baking with a potholder.

8. Wooden Skewers. I always keep a package of wooden skewers handy in the kitchen. They're very useful for everything from testing whether a cake is done to giving a quick beat to eggs to stirring chocolate. You can reuse them or if you're a more disposable type, toss them in the trash when you're done. Regardless, they're a great tool to have around.

IMG_6009.jpgphoto © 2010 Michael | more info (via: Wylio)
9. Copy your recipe. Most of us have multi-function printers these days. Putting a big cookbook on the counter while trying to mix up a recipe can be pretty messy (especially if you're like me and don't have a lot of counter space). Sure, you can invest in all sorts of gadgets designed to keep your cookbook clean, but there's an easier way. Go to your multi-function printer and copy your recipe onto plain paper. That way, it doesn't take up much space and if it gets covered in batter, you can toss it when you're done. Your book stays nice and clean.

10. Read your recipe. Before you begin, read your recipe several times. This is especially true if you are working with a new recipe or technique. Read it over so that you can have a general idea of what steps are involved before you begin. The more familiar you are with the steps and ingredients, the less likely you will be to leave something out or mix up a step. Never, start on a recipe before you have read it thoroughly and have a grasp of what it entails.

So, there you have my Top 10 Baking Tips. I hope they help you out and if you have tips you particularly like to use in the kitchen please let us know about it in the comments!

Happy Baking!

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