Saturday, October 2, 2010

Baking School - Tips to help your baking

I'm definitely not a pro when it comes to baking, but I've been doing it since I was a kid (thanks Mum for letting us mess up your kitchen - even though we were always supposed to clean up I bet we didn't!) and I've picked up a few tricks along the way - things I don't even think about when I'm making something, but which can make the difference between something average and something awesome. I thought I'd share some of these with you guys - and please add your own in the comments - I'll bet you can teach me as much if not more than I can teach you!

Don't overmix
If you are just combining ingredients, try not to stir more than you have to. Once you've added flour to a recipe the more you stir the more the gluten will develop - which means cakes can end up chewy and dense if you stir too much. Likewise, if you've beaten air into an early stage of a recipe (e.g. egg whites or creamed butter and sugar), each turn of your spoon will remove some of the air, and air acts as a raising agent so you want it in there! Recipes should tell you if more than just combining ingredients is required (and in some cases this doesn't matter so much) - but otherwise try to minimise your mixing.

Don't overcook
I think this is probably the easiest mistake to make with baking - naturally people are afraid of not cooking their treats enough, but though your structure might not be great if a cake or cookies are undercooked, they'll usually taste better than if it goes in the other direction! Remember that anything that holds heat will continue to cook for a bit even after you take it out of the oven. Mostly I use springiness as a gauge for cakes - press lightly on top and when cooked it should spring back - rather than sticking a skewer in. If I do a skewer test (mud cakes, for example, will never really get springy) I'm not looking for a clean skewer, but cooked crumbs. If the skewer comes out clean it oftentimes means the cake is dry - overcooked. If you do overcook a cake drench it with a syrup before you ice it - that will often bring it back. :-)  

Use good ingredients
I'm not a disciple of the every-ingredient-must-be-of-the-highest-quality-possible school of thought - use common sense to determine where it matters. Chocolate is where I notice this most; I never use the stuff from the baking aisle (though I haven't made anything which needs to set hard since I became such a snob and haven't yet mastered tempering so there might be an exemption clause on that). Usually I go with either Whittakers or Cadbury; if the recipe is really putting the chocolate on display (e.g. chocolate mousse) I'll use Lindt or Callebaut.

Put a little extra effort into presentation
It doesn't have to take hours to make something look amazing - but piping icing instead of spreading it on (easy to self-teach - you just need a piping bag and tips) or trimming the top off your cake so that it sits flat (bonus: you can nibble on the offcuts!) can give that little bit of wow factor - the visual experience is completely intertwined with tasting, so something that looks good is far more likely to be enjoyed. It's true that I've spent hours fiddling over fussy cakes - but that's definitely not my norm!

Pretend it was supposed to be like that!
I'm actually no good at pretending - I over-analyse everything so even if something comes out well in the end I'll rabbit on for ages about how it was supposed to be and what I should try next time to fix it - but icing sugar can hide a multitude of sins; cake can be converted into cake trifle, and failed just-about-anything can be made into truffle-type balls, sometimes just by rolling into balls, sometimes with the addition of cream cheese or some other icing-type substance, or by coating in chocolate or cocoa or coconut. Same principle applies for slice - the key is confidence. ;-) No-one will ever know!

So what can you add into this list?


  1. Good tips Rosa! Especially about not overmixing and not compromising on ingredients if you can.

    I'm always nervous about undercooking my cakes! If I ever overcook a cake though, I usually try and 'save' it by skewering it and pouring over juice or a syrup of some kind - worked a treat when I accidentally left Nigella's quadruple chocolate cake in for too long. Doubled the syrup, wrapped it in tinfoil overnight and it tasted amazing! But I wouldn't want the stress of overcooking it again ;)

  2. Great post! My tip is to know (or get to know) your oven and its moods - if the temperature inside matches what's on the dial, what the fan bake setting means for your baking - it may take some experimentation (and you get to eat the results!), but if you make notes next to the recipe, next time it will be easier. I recommend an oven thermometer to check if your oven is true.

    Oh, and another one - once you've got a recipe you like, experiment! I often try to cut down on fat and sugar (which can be hard in baking, which is more of a science than an art), but have had lots of success replacing fat with applesauce in some recipes - just try stuff and make notes!

  3. Oh, Laura - quadruple chocolate cake - how could that NOT be good? I am in love with it just because of the name (quadruple = awesome). I have collapsed the odd cake by undercooking but they are always delicious - just treat it as pudding! ;-)

    mrlew1, thanks! That's a good tip, too, they can vary so much - I'm always put on the wrong food when I cook at Mum's, just because of the different oven. The experimentation is also awesome (even better if it makes it a wee bit healthier) - it's important to know that the world won't implode just because you don't follow the recipe precisely. ;-)


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