With one of the heaviest baking seasons looming, or already in full swing for some of us, this month I decided to include a helpful list of general baking tips sure to help you become the envy of your family gatherings. Some of these tips will help you churn out sheet trays of sweets as gifts, or refine some aspects of a dessert to make a story-worthy evening. Most are simple, and some you may already be well aware of, but with any luck you’ll still find something new to implement.
I personally hate tools or gadgets that can be used for one thing and one thing only. They take up valuable counter top and cabinet space. However, there are some things that really do make the baking process much easier and faster, most notably, mixers. A decent hand mixer, or better yet, a stand mixer, can slash your total baking time in half, freeing you to move on to your next project, or to clean up your current one faster.
A word to the wise however: be careful with modern Kitchenaid stand mixers. They are fine for essentially all sweet applications, but they cannot be adequately used to mix bread dough, despite the dough hook attachment. A change in management at Kitchenaid in the 1990s resulted in plastic gears being used in the cheaper models (the home models rather than the professional restaurant models), replacing the classic metal ones. Mixing hard doughs will strip the gears and, according to anecdotes from some unfortunate bakers, Kitchenaid will not replace them.
Other simpler equipment that you may not have are cooling racks, a zester, a candy thermometer, a scale, an offset spatula, a good wire mesh strainer, a “bench scraper” for icing cakes, plain dental floss for cutting cheesecake, parchment paper, disposable plastic gloves, ice cream scoops for portioning cookies, and at least one sturdy half-sheet tray from a restaurant supply company (don’t trust those thin, cheap ones at most department stores). There are a myriad of specialty baking tools (such as a rotating cake stand for preparing cakes easily) and pans out there which may prove helpful for specific projects, but those purchases can be made as needed.
Most of these equipment suggestions can be found at Scranton Restaurant Supply, located at 1008 North Washington Avenue in Scranton. Proprietor John Tulaney will be happy to point you in the right direction.
Mise en place and procedure
Mise en place is a french term meaning “everything in its place,” and is the cornerstone of any professional kitchen. It’s what allows chefs and cooks in restaurants to pump out a meal in fifteen minutes which would take anyone else an hour in their home. Before starting a recipe, read it entirely and have all your necessary ingredients on hand. This will cut down on time, as well as help guard against omitting anything.
Furthermore, by reading the recipe thoroughly and preparing ingredients beforehand, you won’t have to stand around waiting for water to boil to make something in a double boiler, or for butter to come up to room temperature.
As far as proper procedure is concerned, many recipes recommend sifting with a sifter. This is done to break up any clumps and allow for even distribution of salt, leaveners, and any other dry, powdery ingredient. Although sifters work, I find that shaking the dry ingredients through a wire mesh strainer is more than enough, and, in a pinch, a thorough whisking works just as well.
Also procedurally, the moment your oven reaches its preheat temperature does not necessarily mean that it is ready to be loaded. For the most even cooking, let your oven remain closed for at least half an hour after preheating to prevent its temperature from drastically falling when you open it to bake.
Some recipes will call for you to roll out dough to a certain thickness. Obviously, rolling and checking with a ruler is tedious, so I have something easier. Get yourself a large assortment of thick rubber bands and layer them on top of one another around your rolling pin towards the handles until they reach your desired thickness. I also like to lightly wrap plastic wrap around the pin over the bands to keep them in place and clean. As you roll out the dough, you will only be able to roll it down to its perfect thickness, as the bands will prevent you from pressing it any lower. Now you can roll with confidence, knowing that all of your dough will be consistent.
Recognizing the right cookie recipe for you—chewy, puffy, or crisp
In my humble opinion, the chocolate chip cookie is possibly the perfect dessert. I like mine very chewy and moist, but not everyone does, and not many people know exactly what to expect from their cookies before they finally come out of the oven. Surprisingly, there are some easy-to-spot ingredients in a recipe to clue you in on just how those cookies (almost any kind of cookie, in fact) will actually turn out in the end.
For a more moist and chewy cookie, look in the ingredients list for melted butter, bread flour, and dark brown sugar. Brown sugar is sugar mixed with a little molasses, and dark brown sugar just has more molasses than light, so it will attract and retain more moisture.
For a puffier cookie, search the ingredients for vegetable shortening or cake flour, and make sure the recipe uses baking powder as the sole or primary leavener. These ingredients will cause the cookie to rise instead of spreading out by creating an environment ideal for steam production, thus lifting the batter.
For a thin, crisp cookie with a bit of a crunch, seek out a recipe that uses milk (instead of eggs), baking soda, non-melted butter, and a higher ratio of white sugar to brown sugar. Eggs provide structure to batters, and replacing some or all of them with milk will allow the cookies to spread more before setting.
Flaky pie dough
Most people prefer a flaky, shatteringly delicate crust for their pies, but at times that can seem as unpredictable as the lottery. However, there are some easy tips to ensure a delicate structure to send you on your way to pie nirvana. It’s important to know why pie dough will become chewy: gluten. Two proteins, in the presence of water, join to form gluten. So, the easiest way to prevent this is to not use water in your dough—but then how will you moisten it? Alcohol. The higher the proof, the better. Alcohol will moisten the dough and allow it to bind, but won’t cause gluten to form. Furthermore, it will evaporate in the baking process and not impact the taste of the pie whatsoever.
So now you have a delicate dough, but not yet a flaky one. The other half of the equation calls for solid fats, specifically shortening. Shortening actually gets its name from the fact that it inhibits long strands of gluten from forming throughout a dough, keeping it tender. Although this will help with a less chewy crust, we actually add the solid shortening in this case to cause steam to form in the dough and puff it up as it bakes. This is why all the best pie dough recipes will specify to not mix the flour and butter (or vegetable shortening) completely. By leaving little streaks and pockets of fat (if we were folding the dough rather than mixing it, it would be called “laminating”), the fat will melt into the dough to flavor it, while the moisture will steam and inflate it, leaving little flaky air pockets ideal for shattering with a fork.
Homemade caramel is a delicious and easy treat that may leave you and your family eating spoonfuls of the stuff, but there is a way to make it even better. Two simple additions can make it sinful, and it’s likely that you already have them in your home. Basic caramel is made with only two ingredients: sugar and a fatty dairy product (butter, heavy cream, or half and half), but the addition of salt and lemon juice makes caramel unstoppable. Now, salt is well-known, but lemon juice? Trust me, one lemon’s juice per three cups of sugar will remove any doubts.
Concerning safety with caramel, always have a bowl of ice water in your immediate vicinity. Sugar does not begin to caramelize until 320 degrees F, a full 108 degrees hotter than boiling water. For reference, it only takes 5 seconds to receive a third-degree burn from 140 degree F water. Please have a safe holiday season.