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Baking Tips for Beginners
Baking is difficult. Even for talented chefs, baking represents a different challenge, and for good reason! Baking is very much a science. Recipes and techniques are exacting. Even one small deviation can lead to an inferior dessert.
Of course, that’s not to say that there’s no room for beginners in the baking world. Although you certainly won’t get every recipe right the first time, practice makes perfect! With enough desserts under your belt, you’ll find yourself growing more comfortable. Eventually, you’ll be able to make beautiful, mouthwatering desserts. You just need to be dedicated to working on them.
For every beginner, the most important thing is paying attention to the recipe. If an instruction is listed, that’s because it’s necessary. A lot of baking is in the finer details, so make sure you read the recipe before hand, and pay attention! Here are some things to watch out for so that you can avoid the common mistakes that a lot of beginner bakers make.
How to Avoid Common Baking Mistakes
Pay attention to the temperature of your ingredients!
A lot of recipes will call for a specific temperature for things like eggs, water, milk, and butter. It may seem like a minor difference to have the eggs fresh out of the fridge versus room temperature, but it can make a huge deal later on in the recipe.
Letting the butter get to warm when making things like croissants, will lead them to be less fluffy, if they manage to rise at all. Same thing for cookies: if your butter gets too warm, the cookies will spread out into a thin mess. When making bread, not using the right temperature water will prevent your dough from rising. (If the water is too hot, you can kill the yeast–too cold and the yeast wont’ activate.) And in pie dough, not using ice cold water will prevent your dough from coming together properly.
The temperature of your ingredients is crucial, so pay attention to what the recipe calls for.
Obviously, temperature is just as important when you go to actually bake your dessert. One common mistake is not paying attention to the temperature of the recipe in relation to what type of pan you’re using. A lot of recipes call for lower temperatures when using darker pans, so make sure you adjust accordingly.
Depending on what you’re baking, the temperature as you cook it is also key. This is probably most true when doing sugar or chocolate work. Temperature when making candy is everything. A few degrees in the wrong direction, and you’ll have a crystallized mess.
Same thing goes for custards. If you heat it up too fast or get the temperature too high, your custard will go from smooth and creamy to a grainy scrambled egg mix. Of course, don’t feel like sugar work or custards are impossible. Invest in a good candy thermometer (they tell you exactly what temperature each stage of candy forms at) and take it slow. If you mess up, just scrap it and start over. Even the pros have to start from scratch every now and then.
When mixing your batter, make sure you watch the consistency.
Check the recipe to see if your mix should be lumpy, or fully incorporated. It’s just as easy to over-mix as it is to under-mix a batter.
If you need a mixture without lumps, make sure you sift your dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, baking powder, etc) into the batter. For light, airy desserts like chiffon cakes or jiggly cheesecake, this is especially important. You can buy a proper sifter, but any simple mesh sieve will work. (I would recommend picking one up regardless, since they double as a good strainer as well.) If you don’t sift, you may end up over-mixing your batter in an effort to get all the lumps out.
If the recipe says that lumps in the batter are fine, trust the recipe and don’t over-mix. It may not be as visually appealing, but a lumpy batter will wind up tasting amazing in the right desserts. Don’t feel like you have to get every last clump out unless the recipe says so.
Another mistake that beginners can make when mixing their batter, is adding ingredients in the wrong order. When I started baking, I would just dump everything in the bowl and then stir it up, which is a huge mistake. When a recipe says to add things together at a specific time, or in a specific way, it’s for a reason.
Certain reactions may only occur if the ingredients are added correctly, like with yeast. If you’re making bread dough and leave out the sugar, the yeast may not have enough to eat to help your dough rise. Likewise, if you add the salt at the wrong time, the yeast may become inactive.
Adding things in order can also change the texture. When you bake cookies, creaming the butter and sugar together before you add the other ingredients will give the cookies a lighter texture.
Set yourself up for success.
It’s worth while to think ahead to the end result of your recipe before you get started, and no I’m not talking about the eating. If something goes in a pan, it eventually has to come out, and it’s important to think ahead about how that will happen.
There are plenty of options out there to make removal easier, but pay attention to the recipe. Some will work better in certain instances than others. Buttering the ban and then giving it a light dusting works well with most cakes, but watch out when making things like angel food cake.
The batter won’t get the same height if you use fats to make removal easier. Overall though, parchment paper is pretty standard, and works for just about any scenario.
Your environment can affect baking.
Don’t worry, when I say environmental factors, I’m not asking you to control the weather. You just have to make sure you pay attention. Even a little extra humidity can impact the outcome of your recipe, especially with things like macarons, that need a nice, dry environment.
Heat can also make it difficult to work with any recipe that requires your butter to be cold, for obvious reasons. Of course, you can’t change how humid it is, or how hot it may get in the summer. The key is to make sure you’re aware of these factors.
Refrigerate your dough or batter a little longer than required if it’s hot out. And maybe wait till the rainy season is over to make those macarons.
How to Have More Confidence in Baking
This list probably made you more intimidated than you already were. If that’s the case, remember the key points: follow the recipe, and think ahead. The majority of the mistakes I made when starting out, were just due to simple lapses in focus. Most issues you encounter when baking can be easily avoided if you think carefully about what you’re doing.
But don’t let all that caution stall you completely. Baking is and always has been trial and error. Sometimes it will be perfect, impressive, and amazing. Other times you’ll have to throw the whole dessert away because it came out inedible. Don’t let the failures set you back.
With enough practice, avoiding all these easy mistakes will become second nature. You’ll know how to prep your pans, and what consistency to stop mixing at, and whether or not your custard has reached the right temperature. Your bread dough will rise perfectly, and your cookies will be so light and delicious that everyone will be asking you for your recipe.
It’s not going to happen every single time, but don’t worry. With a little time effort, and forethought, it will happen eventually.