Basic Baking Rules I Live By

From one amateur to another, here are some easy baking tips I wish I learned sooner.

When I tried my hand at baking, I just went for it. My teeny-tiny kitchen had a functioning oven, a single measuring cup, and not much else. I dialed a nearby store to order a few ingredients for a bread recipe but, out of frugality, I only bought measuring spoons, spatula, and a small bowl. And while my first attempt wasn't a complete fail, my boyfriend waited for lunch to eat what I had promised as breakfast and I, exhausted and no longer hungry, just cleaned the big mess I made.

Fast forward to the present, I am now a cooler and calmer home baker who can make breads, tarts, cookies, blondies, and more. Even though I learned as I went, there are basic commandments I still follow. Below are tips for easy baking I share with friends who are baking for the first time, whatever they wish to make.

Bake for yourself

What is it that you're genuinely interested to make? Creating something out of nothing is rewarding, but a few tastable mishaps can dishearten budding bakers. Choosing a recipe for the bread or dessert that you like helps you set standards and adjust the recipe to your liking.

If you’ve yet to build your confidence in the kitchen, test recipes for your own consumption first. By being your only critic, you don’t face the anxiety of telling the people you’ve invited over that there's no dessert to eat.

If it’s too late, don’t feel too bad. Just swing by a convenience store and buy ice cream.

Read the recipe a day before

Imagine how much a bummer it would be when you’ve already cracked two eggs only to realize you’re almost out of flour or need a different pan. Reviewing the recipe from start to finish a day or two before you bake ensures you have everything you need—from ingredients, equipment, and even prep time.

Check how others do it

Baking is a science, and it involves countless trials and errors. By reading comments on the recipe you want to follow or comparing tutorials on Youtube, you can pick up a few techniques and troubleshoot even before a problem arises. Note their tips and be more prepared when you whip up your own version.

Test a recipe by halving

What could be more disastrous—and quite pitiful—than baking a cake good for dozen people but having to devour the entire batch because it was embarrassingly bad?

If you have a limited budget or just makeshift baking equipment, you can half the recipe, adjust the baking time (but follow the temperature), and avoid promising anything to your neighbors. If it turns out good, it makes for a sweet surprise or the perfect motivation to keep baking. No ingredient or effort wasted!

Mise en place

There are two parts to prep: measuring your ingredients and getting all the tools you need out of the cupboard.

Placing everything within your hand’s reach means you won't have to keep running back and forth or grabbing the hidden box of baking soda in the pantry with flour-covered fingers. Put each ingredient in ramekins or small bowls if you can, and arrange them according to the order the recipe calls for. That way, you won’t run the risk of dumping a heap of salt instead of sugar in your cupcake batter.

Measure properly

If you plan to bake every special occasion or weekly, invest in a scale to measure by weight, not volume. They often don’t cost much!

Professionally written recipes typically include grams for flours, sugars, and even liquids for optimum results. Over or under measuring can have serious consequences that affect the shape, color, and edibility of your creation.

If all you have are dry measuring cups and spoons, plus liquid measuring cups, don’t fret. Spoon flour from the jar, carefully pour them into the cup, and level it off using the back of a knife. Remember to pack sugars only.

Practice cleanliness as much as you can

Baking is messier than cooking: the flour flies everywhere, melted butter tends to spill in the microwave, and your bag of chocolate chips can drop open on the floor if you’re clumsy.

Wear an apron, tie your hair, and wash your hands thoroughly before beginning. You can put newspaper on the floor or wax paper on your workspace so that it’s easy to “pick up” droplets and powdered sugar dustings during clean-up time.

That being said, clean as you go; put away the ingredients after weighing and wash the cups, spatula, or bowls you’ll no longer need during the proofing time or after you place the dough in the oven.

Be in tune with your oven

Some bakers burn the muffins they worked hard for even if they follow the recipe to a T. It’s not you, it’s your oven. Not all units are created equal, and yours can be a few degrees hotter or cooler than that of your friend's from whom you got the recipe.

Buy an oven thermometer from a baking supplies store and preheat your oven for 10-15 minutes. You’ll discover the true temperature of your oven and not have to worry about uneven baking ever again. Be mindful of hotspots too and rotate the pans halfway through for an evenly baked treat.

Trust your senses

Just like in cooking, another set of tools that come handy in baking is your senses. Does your flour smell weird? Check the expiration date and store it properly next time. Is your dough stretchy enough? If not, knead more. Does your pie look like it’s about to burn? If yes, tent it with a foil to deflect the heat and allow the filling to continue baking.

You can’t exactly taste extracts since they’re concentrated, so think twice before doubling the amount in the recipe even if you love, love, love vanilla. The last thing you want is for your banana cake to taste nothing like a banana cake.

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