So, I had planned to do a tutorial on getting more use from your punches and diecuts today but unfortunately, life got in the way. Instead I thought I'd post my top tips for better baking - my first non-craft related Edumicate Me Thursday!
I need to qualify these tips by telling you that I'm not a professional baker or an expert of any kind. These are just some things I've picked up over many, many years of baking (I first started baking with my Grandma when I was about six...). Each of these "rules for better baking" will have exceptions, so my best advice is trust yourself and your own experience and be willing to make a few mistakes - you will never get better without a few sunken cakes and burnt cookies. Believe me, I know!
Tops Tips for Scrumptious Baking
- When it comes to ingredients, buy the best quality you can afford. Now I'm not saying that your cookies and cakes won't turn out beautifully with no name brand chocolate chips, but when it comes to baking ingredients, quality often does count. This is especially true when you are making recipes with very few ingredients. A classic example of this is a ganache - which has only two ingredients - chocolate and cream. You can make a lovely ganache with the chocolate chips hiding in the back of your pantry but you will find that a quality chocolate (like Callebaut or Ghiradelli) will make a ganache to die for.
- Always, always, always use real butter unless the recipe specifically calls for another fat (such as vegetable shortening, lard or oil). There is no substitute for butter in baking - margarine just does not cut it. There is a quality in butter that makes for melt in your mouth cookies and tender cakes that no other fat can provide.
- Use unsalted butter unless the recipe specifies otherwise. I found this out a bit late in my "baking career" myself and I tell you its made a world of difference to many of the recipes I bake most often. Sometimes the combination of salted butter, plus salt, plus baking soda (common ingredients in many recipes), can make for a sweet treat that is a little too much on the salty side. Use unsalted butter and you will find the flavour is more balanced. If you've previously used salted butter in all your baking you might find this a bit of an adjustment but try it out - I'm sure you'll like it.
- Unless you are a very experienced baker, follow the recipe. This may seem obvious but its important to note that baking is a science whereas cooking is more of an art. Baking is kind of like chemistry with all the ingredients working together to raise your cake or crisp your cookies. Fiddling with the ratio or ingredients can have disastrous results. Go ahead and exchange your chocolate chips for peanut butter chips, or walnuts for pecans, but be careful about exchanging one flour for another or using canola oil in the place of butter. Even substituting whole wheat flour for white can have a significant impact on the final product.
- Test the temperature of your oven. No two ovens bake at the exact same temperature no matter what the dial or digital read out says. Its important to know if your oven bakes hot or cold so you can adjust temperature and cooking time to compensate. I know that my oven bakes hot so I drop my temperature and/or reduce cooking time to make sure that my baked goods come out brown and not black around the edges.
- If you invest in one baking item in your lifetime - make it a standing mixer. Although pricey, this is one of the best things a frequent baker can own. There are many recipes that call for 5-10 minutes of constant mixing at a high speed - something that is difficult with a hand mixer. Try making royal icing with a hand mixer...be prepared for a sore hand afterwards. I got mine as a wedding gift and I don't know how I lived without it. They come in a range of colours, sizes and prices but buy the biggest one you can afford - you will not regret it.
- Use liquid measuring cups for liquids and dry measuring cups for dry ingredients. It may seem a small thing but it will make your baking easier - believe me. I have several sets of dry measuring cups and three different size liquid cups. It keeps me from having to wash and dry them if I'm using many ingredients or baking more than one recipe at a time.
- Use a scale for measuring dry ingredients. Sometimes a recipe will call for 1 pound of icing sugar. You might think great - that's four cups - but often the measured dry weight of an ingredient will be different from its cup measurement. This can have a significant impact on certain recipes. I find that particularly with frosting, I prefer to weigh my ingredients rather than measure them in cups. In English cookbooks you will often find the ingredients listed by weight rather than in cups and tablespoons.
- Baking is not diet food. I know a lot of people will disagree with me on this one and I do not want to discount the wonderful low fat/low sugar recipes that are out there - I've had a number of tasty ones myself. However, if you are really craving a piece of rich chocolate cake, a moist and creamy cheesecake or a crisp and delicate chocolate chip cookie - indulge yourself and your family and make one with real, non-diet food ingredients. You will not be satisfied with the low fat versions of your favourites and they are often more difficult to bake successfully because of ingredient substitutions. Instead, have your favourite baked goods as a once in a while treat - which is what they should be anyway. Everything in moderation!
- Bake with love. This probably sounds stupid but I really, honestly believe that this is the key to successful baking. If you don't really like to bake - buy or exchange it with someone who does. I had a unique experience once that really brought this home for me. One Christmas a girlfriend who really hated baking, asked me to help her make 12-dozen lemon bars for a cookie exchange she was participating in. Why a person who hates to bake would join a cookie exchange is beyond me...but that's where we found ourselves. She came to my kitchen, armed with the ingredients from a list that I had given her, used my baking utensils, my oven and my recipe. We both made six batches of the same recipe. Despite everything, hers turned out terrible. They were tasteless, or burnt or something else went terribly wrong with them. It was the weirdest thing and I couldn't quite figure out what she was doing differently from me. In the end I think it was just that she really didn't enjoy doing it.
Anyway - those are my top ten tips. I hope you find some of them useful. I would love to hear about your favourite baking recipe!