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Baking isn’t an easy endeavor – it requires patience, skill, the proper ingredients, and the right equipment. Any one part out of balance creates a final product that’s sub par at best, and inedible at worst. It’s enough to make any novice put up the apron and go to the grocery store for the best birthday cake.
That said, home baked goods are healthier, tastier, and more satisfying than their store-bought counterparts, and with the following five tips even the clumsiest kitchen novice can come out with delicious results.
Pick the Perfect Recipe
A solid personal cookbook is the novice baker’s very best friend; while it’s easy to throw together dinner based on meat and some herbs, the composition of baked goods is much more scientific and requires a bit more guidance. The Better Homes & Garden’s New Cook Book is a kitchen staple; created in the 1930s, the red plaid cover has been seen in most American homes since. This tome has hundreds of varied recipes, and it’s the perfect starting place for the newest cook.
Once the right recipe has been selected, it’s important to avoid deviations, especially on the first try.
Baking isn’t the place for culinary improvisation. If it calls for baking powder, do not try to use baking soda — they may look similar, but both do very different things. If the recipe calls for butter at room temperature, getting the butter right out of the fridge is going to be problematic. Powdered sugar isn’t necessarily interchangeable with granulated sugar, and brown sugar is different from both. Milk and water bring different things to the recipe. In a pinch Google can provide equivalents and substitutions.
The best way to avoid confusion and to double-check the proper ingredients is to put everything out on the counter before doing anything else. If something is missing, it helps to bring the recipe with the store – it leaves no room for getting the wrong ingredients or the wrong amount thereof.
Use the Right Tools
Shopping for cooking and baking kitchen supplies can be overwhelming — there are as many different kitchen tools as there are ingredients. The easiest way to approach the kitchen overload is to ask, “Have I ever needed that before today?” If the answer is no, maybe skip the cooking torch and microwave-safe egg poacher. However, do make sure that the baking dish being used is correct; a cake will bake differently in a 9×9 square pan versus a 9×13 pan.
The most important tools for baking are for measurement. Dry measuring cups usually come in four sizes: quarter cup, third cup, half cup, and one cup. Wet measuring cups come in a variety of sizes; the standards run from one to four cup measures. As for measuring spoons, usually there are four of those as well: a quarter teaspoon, a half teaspoon, one teaspoon, and one tablespoon.
An electric mixer isn’t necessary for baking, but it definitely simplifies the process. A fancy stand mixer isn’t practical for the occasional baker; for someone who only intends to bake every so often a hand mixer is a good solution, being more compact and much cheaper.
Not only is it important to get the measurements precise, but to take them correctly. For instance, flour should never be packed into the measuring cup. Most dry ingredients, be it in a cup or spoon, are best measured by overfilling lightly, then levelling off the excess. Levelling off the dry ingredients is best done with the straight edge of a butter knife.
Tasty Brown sugar should always be tightly packed into the measuring cup. Any semi-solids, such as peanut butter or shortening, should be packed into dry ingredient cups, leaving no room for air holes. Like the dry ingredients, semi-solids should be levelled off.
Liquid ingredients should be measured in liquid measuring cups, and should be checked at eye level on a straight surface. It’s best to fill the measuring cup at eye level as well, and make sure that it’s neither above nor below the marked line.
Avoid measuring over the mixing bowl; it’s easy to overfill and end up with too much of a good thing.
Accuracy in the Oven
There are three big aspects of the oven to keep in mind: the temperature, the placement, and the timing. The oven needs to be preheated to the desired temperature — this is usually one of the first pieces of information in the recipe. Most ovens have three rack settings — top, middle, and bottom — and two racks to move. For most recipes the best location is the middle rack. By preheating and placement the food will cook evenly and at a constant temperature.
All recipes will say for how long to leave the food in the oven. Set a timer; it’s easy to say, “Check the cake in 40 minutes,” but it’s just as easy to pop in a movie and forget until the smell of burnt cake is filling the living room. Most microwaves have a timer setting which works perfectly for this function, but most baking aisles also have manual timers.
Above all, baking should be fun! Baking goods from home is a fantastic way to relieve stress, bring a family closer, create healthy foods, and save money — from one activity, it provides a lot of return. While learning the ropes it’s best to relax, try a variety of different recipes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Not everything will come out perfectly, but every mishap is a learning experience.
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