I'm a decent cook, but baking has always been a bit tricky for me. Mostly, this is because baking is not for the impatient or impulsive. When cooking, I can sub ingredients, add a little more of this and a little less of that, and my meal usually still turns out alright. But baking is scientific. The ratios of dry-to-wet ingredients must be precise. If you're a true culinary renegade, you may want to stick to stir-frying and sautéing. While following recipes is not something that comes naturally to me, what does come naturally is being ridiculously stubborn. Six months ago, I stubbornly decided I would get better at baking, so I have been practicing, and - surprise! - my muffins are no longer cracking teeth. Here are a few tricks I have picked up along the way.
Note, these are not tips for any of you already piping ornate tiers of frosting on Pinterestable pieces of edible art. But if your baked goods turn out more Picasso than da Vinci (you know, drooping a little toward the left), these may help you out.
Read the whole recipe. Don't just scan the ingredient list and go. Having a good idea of what you need to do, before you begin to do it, will help avoid mid-mixing disasters.
Follow the whole recipe. I used to skip steps. If a recipe required chilling my cookie dough for an hour, I would just push forward without doing it. I would sometimes even omit whole ingredients. Not simple add-ins like deciding not to add walnuts, or subbing in cranberries for raisins. I mean I would not add baking soda because I was out.
Preheat your damned oven. I dislike waiting for things. Lines at the bank (yes, I still actually go to the bank) drive me mad, and so does waiting for an oven to preheat. I used to set the oven to the required heat and stick my pan in right away. This caused my baked goods to be wildly inconsistent. Half would be raw in the middle while the other half would be just right. Let your oven get nice and hot before you start sliding the goods on in. (There's a sex joke to be had there, I know...)
Mis en place your ingredients. That's just a fancy French way to say, get your shit ready first. That way, you don't run out of milk halfway through or realize you forgot to add the nutmeg. Pull out all your ingredients, measure them up, and then go.
Bring refrigerated ingredients to room temp. Unless a recipe specificies cold butter (biscuits often call for this), bring your ingredients to room temp before you use them. Avoiding extreme temperatures will help your ingredients emulsify and fluff up your batter to a nice height. Cold ingredients tend to seperate and do the opposite. Obviously, don't let your whole carton of dairy milk curdle on the counter. Measure out what you need and let it sit out for 30 minutes before you begin your recipe.
Measure your flour correctly. I always used to take my measuring cup, scoop it into my bag of flour, eyeball it, and go. Fail! While it may look like you have the right amount, compacting your flour will pack in more than you need. Instead, spoon flour into your measuring cup and then use a butter knife to level it off.
Sift your dry ingredients. My first 20 dozen muffins had chunks of baking soda lurking in them. Sift your dry ingredients before you add your wet to remove clumps and improve the overall texture of your final product.
Checking? Don't open your oven mid bake. Use that handy oven light or--here's a novel thought--just be patient. However, if you have to test out the done-ness of something, pull the tray out of the oven, close the door behind you, and then test. I used to do that thing where I crack the oven door, pull out my tray a little bit, and stick a toothpick in to test out, but a baker buddy of mine gave me a good scolding when she saw me doing that. The forty-five seconds it takes you to fiddle around in there really lets the heat out and screws with your final product.
Prep your pan right. I used to ignore the “grease your pan” directions and just plop cookies directly onto an ungreased pan like a total rebel. Obviously this resulted in burnt cookies and muffins that would bottom out when I tried to remove them from the tin. If the recipe calls for parchment paper, add parchment paper. The author didn't write extra directions just to be fancy, I promise.
Set a timer. This one seems so obvious, but I used to just eyeball the clock when I baked. Thirty mintues and 15 Zite articles later, and all of a sudden I'm scrambling to the oven, the room quickly filling with the scent of charred chocolate chips. Set a timer.
Cool on a rack. Transferring cookies and muffins to a cooling rack is not just a frivolous step, it keeps your cookies from continuing to bake on the hot pan, and helps them cool faster. Cooling faster = eating faster, and that's all that matters to me.
Okay, do any of you like to bake? Give me your best tips!