How to Get Better at Baking
I’ve met many cooks — including chefs — who are exceptional in the kitchen but who say they’re terrible bakers. Conversely, I know great bakers who have no interest in cooking, who grow wide-eyed in terror at the idea of cutting loose from a recipe, like a kid on the raft he really thought was going to stay tethered to the dock.
How is baking different than cooking, and why do the required skills for each craft seem so different? And how can you use the skill you have in cooking to become a better baker?
First, let’s talk about recipes. Remember that elementary school teacher who WOULD NOT let you go to the bathroom unless it was during the fifteen minute period specified in the Teacher And Student Interrelational Handbook? (You know who you are, Ms _________.) Baking has a similar notorious reputation for promising disaster if you try to do anything that isn’t allowed. The Almighty Recipe, that wondrous and omniscient guide: all you need to do is do exactly what it says, and you’ll be cranking out unimpeachably perfect cobbler in no time.
The problem with this, as you may have seen me touch on in my previous work, is that while a recipe can list the ingredients and order, structure, concept, and even theory behind what you’re hoping to bake, it cannot teach you the skills you need to bake. A recipe is really just like a map. The ingredients are the streets and topography — it’s a pretty good idea to assume those things are where they are for a reason. And however good your map, it is still you who must do the traveling.
An interesting paradox of perception exists — a myth, if you will — between baking and cooking: baking is precise, cooking is more about feel. I’d argue that the exact opposite is true. What do you do if you want a medium rare steak? Well, cook it to 140°F. Want to make a perfect duck confit? Simple, use 2.5% salt by weight. How many cloves of garlic, exactly, should I use for Chicken With Forty Cloves? These things all seem what I would call extremely precise. Now, go make some cookies… bake them for 10–12 minutes. Whip those egg whites to… medium peaks. Stir lemon curd over low heat until it’s… bubbling thickly. All these directions are bizarrely nebulous, super imprecise. Each craft in the kitchen involves both instinct and structure, they’re just on opposite sides of the mirror.
To start with the last step, but the most common uncertainty: How do you know when your baked goods are baked? Forget your toothpicks, right now. Why? First of all, even if you have the time or tenacity to hover by the oven with a toothpick waiting for that perfect moment when it “comes out clean,” if you keep opening the oven to check, your whatever-it-is won’t bake right anyway. Second, do a little test with me. Bake a batch of blueberry muffins. Leave them in the oven for twice as long as the recipe says. Now, when you can be pretty positive they’re so far overdone even the dog won’t eat them, stick a toothpick in. Does it come out clean? I’ll bet you it does.
For your second batch (or first batch, if you correctly realized that the above suggestion was supposed to be imaginary), when you’re about two-thirds of the way through the suggested baking time, open up your oven, pull the rack forward, and take a look at your muffins. If you gently shimmy the pan, are they pretty clearly still liquid? Or do they seem a little browned and set already? If they do, what will happen if you gently poke one?
I can hear you saying, “That’s great, Jules, I can learn by doing — but why can’t recipes just walk me through all this?” Well, a recipe cannot account for all the variables involved. What was the temperature of the buttermilk you used? What do you mean you didn’t check? What do you mean the recipe didn’t specify? Precision like that is for labs, not for kitchens. You can do one of two things, then: 1. Learn to judge by trusting your instincts and building your skills, or 2. Create a lab and record every imaginable variable, and make sure they’re completely consistent each time you bake, for consistent results, all the while praying to your God of choice that your market didn’t accidentally run out of the brand of butter you tested with. I vote option 1.
Like we’ve discussed elsewhere, you already have these skills. How do you know if your salad needs more acid? You taste it, and if it needs more, you add it. Pretty simple use of your basic sense of taste. Here’s a question: Which do you use more, in your daily life, your sense of taste or your sense of touch? I’m guessing, if you stop to think about it (don’t stop too long or think too hard, or it’ll become maddening), that it’s your sense of touch. How do you know, then, if your muffin needs more time in the oven? Use your sense of touch — and sight — to observe and inform you. You know all those baking recipes that tell you to “rotate pans halfway through baking”? When you do that, use your eyes. Don’t just rotate them and slam the oven shut again, but see them. How far along are your muffins? Are they still just pools of liquid? Are they already browning? What should you do, in one of these cases? I guarantee you the answer is as close as your instincts. Listen to that voice in your head — what is the most obvious thing it’s telling you? Just because the recipe said 35 minutes total doesn’t mean that’s going to be correct today. The recipe is not there with you. You are there. Judge. Listen to yourself.
I further guarantee you, if your muffins are already browning halfway through the expected baking time, that the answer is definitely not “Oh, well the recipe said 35 minutes so I’d better just close the oven and trust that 17 more minutes is right and that everything will be perfectly fine.” NOW, maybe, get that toothpick handy. Things are moving quickly. Check your muffins again after 5 more minutes. Press one. Does it feel just barely set? NOW, maybe, insert a toothpick (pro tip: do it through a crack so you’re not putting a new hole in your muffin), and see what happens. If it seems done 6 minutes before the recipe told you it would be, shouldn’t you trust that? You are there. You know more. Get that muffin out of the oven right now.
Another fun paradox in baking is the old adage (or new adage, if that can even be a thing): In cooking, you can adjust as you go or even when you’re finished. In baking, everything has to be perfect up front, before you bake. There’s some truth to this. Baking is the Great Trust Fall of the kitchen — you need to do everything correctly before you take that leap of faith and put something in the oven. Now, ask yourself this: when you do a trust fall, do you first like to make sure there are some people (presumably ones you trust) to catch you? Once you’ve put a baking recipe together, how do you tell if a recipe needs adjustment before you bake it?
Here’s a new, frightening thought: taste it first. Sourdough starter, muffin batter, cookie dough… taste it. Why are we afraid of this? I’ve told every cook that’s ever worked for me to taste their “raw” doughs before baking. If you’ve forgotten salt or baking soda or some other thing — you WILL be able to taste this in your dough. Would you rather bake four dozen cookies without baking soda in the dough? Or take a little taste of cookie dough (which you’ll love doing anyway) and correct it, while you still have the opportunity? (I realize the FDA recommends you not ingest raw egg. I’m not recommending you do. I am only telling you that the only reason I’ve ever gotten sick from the probably three hundred pounds of cookie dough I’ve eaten in the last fifteen years was the one time I ate two pounds of it all at once, which, FDA aside, I definitely do not recommend.) In the real life of a home baker, not tasting first to correct a small error might mean your cookies don’t come out as you wished or you need to make another batch. In the real life of a pastry chef, I’ve seen skipping this step cost hundreds of dollars in ingredients and labor in a single morning.
Another very easy quick step, which I have trained all my cooks to do and which I do myself, is to review the ingredient list once I’ve finished my dough. Just glance back over it. Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, buttermilk, sour cream, egg, vanilla, blueberries… check, check, check. Oh wait, I forgot to add that butter I melted. Wouldn’t you rather take the four seconds now, and do a quick mental review? The cool part is, if it’s a less obvious ingredient, like baking soda in a cookie dough, and you do this mental check, when you taste it your taste buds will be looking for it, and you will notice its absence.
Now, take a deep breath. Trust that you know what to do. Read and try to understand your recipe before you begin. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or tips — this is the way of things. Be observant, and when you fail, figure out why. When you succeed, figure out why!
Recipe #3: Blueberry Muffins
12 not-jumbo-sized muffins. Preheat oven to 375°F. Prepare a muffin pan by greasing it with softened butter, or by lining it with cupcake papers. (In re-testing this recipe I used papers and did not like it; it was cleaner but the muffins weren’t as muffin-y.)
- Butter: 6 T (3 oz)
- Flour (all-purpose): 2 c (10 oz)
- Sugar: 1 c (7.5 oz)
- Baking powder: 2 t
- Salt: 1 t
- Buttermilk (or milk): 3/4 c (6 oz)
- Sour cream (or buttermilk or milk or whole yogurt): 1/2 c (4 oz)
- Egg: 1
- Vanilla extract: 1 t
- Frozen blueberries: 1 1/2 c (7.5 oz)
- Optional: Coarse sugar, such as turbinado, demerara, “raw”
NOTE: If you are using fresh blueberries, PLEASE read notes at the end!! (You should read them anyway, they’re quite clever.)
- Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan or in your microwave; do not let it get extremely hot (if it does, just let it cool a bit before using in step 3).
- In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, BP, and salt. Just use your hand.
- In a second mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk (or milk), sour cream (or substitute), egg, and vanilla. Whisk in the butter.
- Pour the wet ingredients over the dry, and use a spatula to toss until the dry ingredients are just combined. Try to avoid any “stirring” or “mashing” action.
- Add the blueberries, still frozen, and fold in with the spatula. You may get some streaks of purple in your batter. (I personally love this.)
- Portion your batter into each of the 12 cavities in your pan — you’ll use about 4 tablespoons in each one and they’ll be 2/3 or so full. Gently pat them down (a damp spoon works well here) but do not obsess about making them level and even; it will not matter.
- If you’d like, sprinkle a little coarse sugar (or regular sugar, if that’s what you’ve got) over each one.
- Bake in your fully preheated oven for 30–35 minutes, until… baked. (See article, above.)
- If you’re using fresh blueberries — expect a MUCH shorter baking time. The difference is that all that beautiful cold surface area on frozen berries will essentially freeze your batter — you will feel it seize up — so when you’re using frozen berries the oven has a lot more work to do to get them baked all the way.
- Also, if using fresh berries, fold VERY gently at step 5.
- For some real jazz on top, try zesting a lemon and rubbing this zest with a small pile of your topping sugar. Yum.
- For some real jazz inside, try zesting a lemon and adding this zest somewhere in the recipe.
- Certainly vary this recipe with whatever makes sense for you — cranberry orange (zest an orange and add that somewhere in the recipe), peach bourbon (make a crumb topping and drizzle bourbon-confectioner’s sugar glaze on top after baking), apple cinnamon (use apples and, well, cinnamon), etc.