Rose Levy Beranbaum is the author of Rose's Baking Basics and has some big-picture advice to help you become a better, more confident baker:
Follow the directions
- "If you don't want to follow directions, it's better to make savory dishes," Beranbaum says. "Baking is best for precise people," or people who give up their idea of how a recipe should be made at least the first time they attempt it.
- Do you really need to whip those egg whites separately? Does the dough really have to be kneaded that long? The answer is probably yes.
- Read the recipe - preferably multiple times - before you start doing anything. Not only do you want to make sure you have all the ingredients you need, you also want to have a good idea of what all the steps are in advance.
Be wary of substitutions
- I know it sounds like we're being sticklers here, but baking is often so much about chemistry that ingredients aren't necessarily interchangeable.
- If you are bound and determined to swap things in a recipe, "The first time, make it the way it's written," Beranbaum suggests.
- "Otherwise you'll never know what you're supposed to be getting."
- Flours and sugars are two main baking ingredients that can have a dramatic effect on your results.
- Changing flours, for example, can alter the structure and density of a baked good. Sugars differ in flavor, texture and how they interact with water, so using the wrong one can also mess up the bake.
- Have I killed your intrepid spirit yet? I hope not, because there are plenty of ways you can tweak a baking recipe.
- In fact, Beranbaum's new book is heavily sprinkled with "Make This Recipe Your Own" sidebars that provide suggestions on A-OK substitutions.
- She gets it: "People want to put their own imprint on something, and that's so often why they want to substitute," she says.
- Some of the best places to start playing around are add-ins: chocolate chips, dried fruit, nuts.
- You can experiment with different extracts and flavored simple syrups (even alcohol, where liquor is used for flavor). Spices, within reason, are ripe for personal preference.
Pay attention to temperature
- It's more than just a matter of how comfortable you feel.
- "Temperature is everything in baking," Beranbaum says. It's important to follow the directions when a recipe calls for ingredients to be at a certain temperature.
- Often, that means room temperature. Beranbaum says the sweet spot for room-temp butter is 65 to 75 degrees.
- Here's another one that goes right along with "follow the directions."
- Just as recipes can be affected by which ingredient you use, they can be impacted by how much you use.
- So, yes, as most dedicated bakers will tell you, weight is the most accurate method for measuring (not to mention easier, because everything can be measured into a single bowl where appropriate).