Saturday, January 01, 2011

A piece of cake

I recently spotted an ad that proclaimed, "Show off Your Baking Skills. Shop Brand Name Bakeware Online Now!"

Baking skills and baking equipment are two entirely separate things. Baking can be done in or on just about anything: cookie sheets, clean terra cotta flower pots, mason jars. Baking can occur in brick ovens, on barbecue grills, in toaster ovens, in a pan on the stove (tortillas, pancakes), in a crock pot, and even in the microwave.

Given a functional heat source, everything else in baking matters more than the equipment. If you don't bake often or don't have much experience, here are a few pointers that I promise will make more difference to your baking than all the "Brand Name Bakeware" in the world.

  • Use fresh ingredients. Stuff like flour and baking powder will keep for a good long time in the pantry, but not indefinitely. Using up your baking ingredients regularly is the best way to keep them fresh.
  • Follow a recipe and measure exactly. There are tons of recipes online, and many have ratings or comments that will guide you in choosing a good one.
  • Do not over-mix quick breads (anything with baking powder or baking soda in it). Mix only enough to blend the dry ingredients with the wet. Ignore the lumps, unless they're huge.
  • Fat and salt are in baked recipes for a reason. Don't omit them because they might be Bad For You. Besides adding flavor and (in the case of fats) improving texture, they are often necessary for the chemistry that makes baking work.
  • Preheat the oven. Place what you are baking inside (don't crowd too many things), and then keep the oven door closed until the end of the cooking time.
  • Practice. Even with a recipe, there is such a thing as a "feel" for baking. This feel is how you will eventually judge if your batter is a bit too wet or dry, how long to knead yeasted breads, and when your bread has risen enough. It is also what will eventually let you adjust and experiment.

Happy baking, with whatever equipment you prefer.

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