I don’t claim to be a professional baker, but I’ve learned a thing or two over the years through my persistence and mostly trial and error. I’ve made my share of mistakes as has any good baker. I’ve read enough cookbooks to know which steps are recommended and those that are a must. Before you whip up your next batch of cookies or make an attempt at your first summer pie, consider these five tips:
1. Use the best ingredients – but only where it counts
When it comes to the basics, there isn’t going to be a big difference between your generic and name brand flour and sugar. Don’t try to opt in for reduced fat cream cheese vs. regular, or any similar substitution.Where I have found a big difference is when it comes to chocolate. Hershey’s just doesn’t cut it for me. If you’re in Chicago, I’d actually recommend Treasure Island. They have the largest variety of more quality chocolate for baking (Ghirardelli, Guittard, etc.), and it’s worth seeking out.
2. Ensure your ingredients are at the right temperature
I can’t emphasize this one enough, and it’s the hardest to stick to. The temperature of your butter is make it or break it for most recipes, especially cookies and pie crust. If the butter needs to be at room temperature, then it shouldn’t be any colder or warmer than that.
If I’m tight for time, I will microwave butter on the defrost setting, but not for very long to avoid melting. I have also heard a great trick of grating cold butter so you can incorporate it into your recipe more easily.You’ll also notice that most cake recipes indicate eggs should be at room temperature. This is to make a lighter and more airy cake, and it really is true. One trick for this – place the eggs in a bowl of warm, not hot, water for 5-10 minutes. This will bring their temperature down if you don’t have 30 minutes to let them sit. Oh, and get an oven thermometer. Just do it.
3. Don’t skimp on the silicone baking mats or parchment paper
When I first started using a Silpat, the name brand silicone baking mat, my life was changed. If you suffer from burnt cookies and hate scraping them off the pan, this product is for you. Note that Silpats shouldn’t be used in an over about 400 degrees. If you like ultra-crispy cookies, opt for parchment paper instead.Parchment is also great if you’re doing a cake to ensure the bottom of the cake doesn’t come off when you remove it from the pan. Cut the parchment the exact size of the pan and place it at the bottom so that it doesn’t ruin the rest of your cake.
4. Chill before baking
This step is key for both pies and cookies. I can’t repeat this enough for pies. If you want to make pretty crimped edges, those will completely bake off if you don’t thoroughly chill your crust. Overnight is even great, too!Many cookie recipes don’t call for chilling, but this step is key, especially if your kitchen gets hot in the summer. You want the butter to be as cold as possible when the cookies go in the oven so you get that crunchy outside and tender inside. Even if it’s just 10 minutes in the freezer while the oven is preheating, this trick works wonders.
5. Go with your gut instinct
Gut instincts come with a lot of practice, but you can develop this as a novice as well. Not sure if something looks right? Try your batter. Chances are you forgot a major ingredient.Over time, you’ll know the ideal consistency for cookies, cakes, brownies and more. Until then, make sure you really read a recipe. Sometimes I’ll pick two recipes and compare them to make sure I’m following the correct proportions and have a backup if I want to change the recipe. It’ll take practice, but once you have the basics down you can change up recipes, too.