Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lessons Learned as a Baker

Back in the late 90's while I was going to college, I had my first real experience cooking when I worked as a baker in a coffee shop.  The daily menu included lots of breakfast items like scones and muffins, plus desserts such as cookies, cakes, cheesecakes, and pies.  Oh, and yummy quiches, like green chile chicken quiche.

While I was developing my latest cookie recipe a few weeks ago, I was musing that many of the techniques I use today for baking were taught to me back in the coffee shop.  And then I thought that some of you readers might benefit from learning some of these techniques in case your own cooking education has been limited.

  • Measure carefully for baking - When cooking on the stovetop, I rarely measure ingredients (unless I am developing a recipe for the blog). However, for baking, it is very important to carefully measure ingredients.  The proportions of the ingredients in baked goods can make a big difference in the end result.  When measuring ingredients, make sure to flatten them out so that they are nice and level with the top of the measuring cup or spoon. I love to use a Measure All Cup for measuring thick ingredients like honey and nut butter.
  • After mixing ingredients, don't clean utensils by banging them on the rim of the bowl - The process of mixing allows air to be incorporated into baked goods, which can make them more light and fluffy.  If you try to clean the batter off of your utensils by banging them on the rim of the bowl, you may force some of the air back out of the baked goods and end up with a more dense item.
  • Don't open the oven door very often - As they heat up, many baked goods rise to create a more fluffy result.  Opening the oven door can jiggle the baked goods and cause them to "fall" (where they lose all of that nice rise they achieved while being heated). It is especially critical to make sure you don't open the oven door much when cooking items with runny batter, such as cakes and cheesecakes.
  • Watch cookies carefully - Cookies can very quickly go from nice and chewy to crunchy and overdone if they are cooked just a tad longer.  There is about a 2 minute window when they will be perfect, so watch them closely and check them frequently towards the end of their cook-time. If I am using a new cookie recipe, I will start checking them about 3-5 minutes before the time listed in the recipe.  And if you start another batch of cookies immediately on an already-warmed cookie sheet, they will cook a few minutes quicker than the first batch.
  • Salt is key to enhancing flavor of sweet baked goods - One of the best ways to make desserts taste better is to add an extra pinch of salt.  Salt really does bring out the sweet flavors.  And anytime I use a sweet recipe that does not call for any salt, I make sure to add some anyway.
  • When using a stand mixer, make sure to scrape the sides and bottom occasionally - Stand mixers are great, especially for mixing cookies and cheesecakes.  However, any time you use a stand mixer, make sure you occasionally stop the machine and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula.  Otherwise, you may end up with some little unmixed clumps in the final baked goods.  
  • Feel free to experiment with different fruits and spices, but be very careful about adjusting amounts of flour/sweetener/liquids/leavening agents (such as baking soda and baking powder) - You can very easily experiment with the flavor of baked goods by changing the fruit or spices used.  In some recipes, you can even use widely varying amounts of fruit and still end up with a good product (for instance, zucchini bread cooks well whether I use two small zucchinis or one HUGE one).  But be very careful about experimenting with the amounts of flour, sweetener, liquids, and leavening agents.
  • Break eggs into a separate cup - Occasionally, you may end up with a bit of egg shell in in with your eggs.  If you make sure to break the eggs into a separate cup, you'll be able to easily remove any shell that has fallen in without losing it into the recipe. I like to use a glass measuring cup for my eggs so they can be easily poured into the recipe.
  • Use a stand mixer for granola, whipped cream, cookies and cheesecakes - A stand mixer works especially well for mixing thick batters (such as cookies and granola) as well as batters that require lots of mixing (like cheesecakes, whipped cream, and macaroons).  A stand mixer also makes it easy to add ingredients while the mixer is running, and you can mix as long as necessary without your wrist getting tired from holding a mixer or whisk.
  • Make every drop count with a spatula - A fairly large amount of ingredients can be left clinging to the side of a bowl as you scoop or pour the batter out.  Use a silicone spatula to scrape the bowl and you will be amazed at how much batter comes out! But then the trick is to still leave a little for the kids to lick off :)
 What are some of your tips and tricks for baking?


Amanda Suzanne said...

Best baking tip ever in regards to getting an accurate measure: Make the jump and switch to using a scale for truly accurate measurements. Find recipes in grams or ounces and use a scale!

Meghan @ Whole Natural Life said...

Thank you for sharing these! I don't have a ton of baking experience and while I've certainly picked up some of what you listed, I hadn't heard some of the others before. It's always nice to be able to learn from someone else's experience.