I've taught a lot of people to bake, and one thing I always notice is how many things a baker takes for granted. If you haven't baked before, you sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land: everyone but you knows the customs and no one will explain. This page is intended to be a visitors' guide to the strange land.
There's a lot of terminology associated with baking. Verbs like "whisk", "fold", and "cream" have specific, well-defined meanings. Rather than trying to define every term, I would suggest this: when you encounter an unfamiliar term (or an ordinary word used in an unfamiliar way), do an Internet search for it. There's undoubtedly a YouTube video demonstrating exactly how to execute it.
Speaking of terminology, the terms "Cup" (abbreviated C), "Teaspoon" (abbreviated t), and "Tablespoon" (abbreviated T) refer to defined amounts. Do not use ordinary eating utensils such as cereal spoons or coffee cups to measure these. The proper measuring tools need not be fancy or expensive – but you must have them!
The Skills That Matter Most
I've met many people who were good cooks in other arenas but claimed to have no baking ability. This used to puzzle me, until I realized that baking, in fact, requires a somewhat different skill set, involving precision and attention to detail. Cooks who operate "by the seat of their pants" and rely on tasting as they go along are often lost when baking. The taste of cake batter gives you little idea of whether it will make a successful cake. At least until you have a lot of experience, it's best to use a good recipe and follow it to the letter.
When my mom taught me to make cookies, back in the Stone Age, she told me something I've never forgotten: the smaller the amount of an ingredient, the more carefully you need to measure it. In baking, it's a good idea to measure all the ingredients carefully, but especially important to include the exact amounts of things like baking powder and salt. Until you have some experience to fall back on, try to stick exactly to the recipe, with no deletions or substitutions.
I start every baking project, no matter how routine, by clearing off a working space. This means removing all the stray dishes, books, and snacks from the kitchen counter area, and washing down the counter itself. Then I get out everything I need for the recipe: all the ingredients, all the utensils, all the bowls and pots and baking dishes. I do this because if someone has snitched all the white chocolate, or scrambled all the eggs, it's better to know now than when I'm in the middle of putting the cake together. Assembling everything means less stress and more fun when I'm baking.
The next step is (usually) to preheat the oven. I usually turn the oven on and then remember to check that the oven rack is in the right position, but a smart person would do it the other way around.
Unless the instructions explicitly state otherwise, you should always preheat the oven when baking. This means you turn the oven to the desired temperature so that it can be heating up while you are putting your recipe together. Most ovens have some signal, like a beep or a light, to tell you when the oven gets to temperature. Don't put anything in the oven before this. In order to get predictable, controllable results, you usually want a very constant temperature in the oven: that is only achieved by heating the oven first, and then adding the food.
Unless instructed otherwise, you generally want to position the rack in the oven so that the middle of the pan is in the middle of the oven. This means that for a cookie sheet or layer cake, you would put the rack in the middle. For something taller, like a Bundt cake, you would move the rack down. The middle of the oven will have the most consistent temperature, so you want to locate your food there. When you put the pan in the oven, make sure the center of the pan is in the center of the oven – equally far from all oven walls. If there is more than one pan (like two layer pans), cluster them all toward the center of the oven, but with a little room between them (at least an inch apart) to allow air to circulate freely.
Modern ovens tend to bake pretty evenly, but if you have an older oven, or if you observe than one side of the cake always browns faster than the other, you should get in the habit of rotating the pans half-way through the baking time. This will give you better and more uniform results.
If you find that you get weird results (like, everything seems to burn, or take a lot longer to cook than the recipe indicates), it is possible that your oven's thermostat is off. You can test this with an inexpensive oven thermometer: put the thermometer in the oven, heat the oven, and compare the temperature setting to the thermometer reading. This is not a common problem any more, but particularly if you have an older oven, it's worth checking.
Leave Nothing Out
A common baking mistake is to forget an ingredient. If you've never baked before, you may think that omitting 1/2 t salt will hardly be noticed – but usually it will. Experienced bakers come up with strategies to make sure every ingredient is included. Here are some worth trying:
- Assemble all the ingredients on the counter. As each one is used, put it away. When you're done, you should have no ingredients left on the counter.
- Assemble all the ingredients on one end of the counter. As each one is used, move it to the other end. When you're done, all the ingredients should be at the "used" end.
- When you think you've added all the ingredients, carefully read through the ingredient list one more time. If there's something you forgot to add, chances are it will catch your eye.
The size of the baking pan makes a great difference to the final product. If you use a pan that is smaller than recommended, you'll probably find that your baked goods are underdone in the middle. If you use a pan that is too large, you'll find the bake unpleasantly dried out, and possibly burned. Again, this is different from other kinds of cooking, where having the exact size of stew pot often doesn't matter.
Baking recipes usually give a range of times for the bake to finish. A lot of small factors affect the timing: your eggs might be slightly larger than the eggs the author used; your flour might have been sitting longer on the shelf and have a slightly different moisture content; your oven might be a couple degrees warmer. For any or all these reasons, baking times vary slightly from one kitchen to the next, and from one day to the next in the same kitchen. A good rule of thumb is to set a timer for 5 minutes less than the low end of the estimated time in the recipe. (For example, if the recipe says to bake for 35 to 40 minutes, set your timer for 30 minutes.) Check on the bake when the timer goes off. It probably won't be done yet, but you'll be able to gauge how close to done it is, and avoid over-baking. Most recipes give not only a time, but also a description of how the baked item should look and/or feel when it is done.