Do or Don’t: Everyday Genius Baking Tips
Don’t buy expensive vanilla extract. It is a waste of money. As long as it is real vanilla extract and not imitation (which is a by-product of coal tar, yum), find the cheapest one there is. Baked goods are all about nostalgia. You want the comforting, sweetness-enhancing flavor of classic vanilla, the one from your childhood: buy the McCormick’s or the store brand. The exotic vanillas can taste aggressively bitter, boozy, or so un-vanilla like you might not even recognize them as vanilla. Besides, year after year taste tests prove, even by professional chefs, that testers can’t even tell the difference between different quality vanilla extracts.
Do buy vanilla beans. But only use them where they’ll be noticed: whipped cream, plain shortbread, vanilla frosting, vanilla fudge. Low or no heat recipes are best, as heat tends to dull the flavor. Adding vanilla beans to something full of other rich flavors, like your peanut butter chocolate chip cookies is a total waste, since no one will even notice.
Don’t buy those plastic cans of frosting. They all taste like tortured chemicals and grief. Making your own buttercream frosting is one of the few miracles of baking for a non-baker: it’s super easy and tastes incredible. Just whip some room-temp butter with a mixer, add powdered sugar until it is sweet enough for you, a little vanilla, a touch of milk and a pinch of salt. Add cocoa powder if you want. Cinnamon, mini chocolate chips, whatever. Live your lief. Keep it in the fridge for forever, a packet of honest love there whenever you need it.
|Figure 1. It’s someone’s birthday, give butter roses, not hydrogenated oil roses|
but Do buy cake mixes if you’re not a great measurer or you feel overwhelmed by finding a good cake recipe. They’ve done a good job of creating a light, tender basic cake (I recommend Duncan Hines). It’s not cheaper than measuring out your dry ingredients yourself, but it can be a great help in a pinch. If you want a richer, dense cake like a pound cake or devil’s food you are better off making one from scratch.
Don’t buy a sea salt grinder. Yeah, pepper grinders are great—fresh pepper is miles away from the flavorless pre-ground dust, but salt? Salt is a rock. A freshly ground rock does not taste different from a rock ground in the distant past. These things are for suckers.
Do bake with very old bananas. I mean, push your boundaries on your concept of what constitutes a ripe banana. For banana bread, banana cake, banana cream pie, banana pudding, all of it: the bananas should be utterly black. Mushed inside. With a frightening, nasty leathery peel. A spotted banana, even mostly spotted, is not done converting its starches into sugars, and doesn’t have enough density of banana flavor. But, this banana…it seems rotten, you think. It’s not safe, you think. Do not be afraid. This is how you get real banana flavor. Be brave. You’ll see.
Do start over. Swallow your dumb pride and irritation and start measuring again. Being a good baker, or a good anything, doesn’t mean you just inherently do things perfectly. It means you are willing to face what you’ve learned and start again, because you don’t want to settle for something that falls short of your vision. You’ll never get better at what you do unless you throw away that mediocre cheesecake. I mean, throw it away. Don’t polish your turds. Don’t frost the lava-rock brownies or add oil to your scorched chocolate hoping to gussy up your errors. Your errors are your greatest allies in teaching you how to be good at something: don’t ignore them.
Don’t trust recipes that call for “butter or margarine.”
Do leave your butter and eggs out overnight before baking. 15 minutes out of the fridge just won’t cut it. The room temperature factor on those is not negotiable, sorry. Your batter just won’t emulsify right, and it will all be lumpy and defiant. The butter, you know, but the eggs too. The eggs will be fine, I promise. If you are in need of immediate baking and haven’t prepared in advance, just look for a recipe that uses melted butter instead of creamed and use a warm water bath to bring your eggs up to room temperature.
Do line cookie sheets, loaf pans, brownie pans, jelly roll sheets, really pan ever with nonstick foil. It is the best thing to ever happen to pans. You can just lift those suckers out and peel the foil off for fancy perfection in bar cookies, toffee, fudge, etc. Flip the pan over and wrap the bottom of the pan, then pop that form inside to reduce the risk of tearing inner corners. For cakes, trace the pan & cut a parchment circle to line the bottom. I know, I know, annoying extra step, but the time and energy is totally worth it in the face of the dark despair of a broken cake.
|Figure 2. This slab of caramel pecan blondies brought to you by nonstick foil|
Do shear the crown off of your cakes. Use a large serrated knife or this hacksaw type thing I use to make sure they are level so your cake looks pro. Plus, you get to stuff your face with the crown as reward for all of your hard work. Win-win.
Don’t use shortening for buttercream frosting. Gross. Mean.
Don’t buy scented candles that smell like baked goods. Also mean.
Do take the cakes/brownies/cookies/breads out of the oven before they look all the way done. Remember things will continue to cook a little while cooling. If they look done in the oven, they’re actually overdone. Don’t get cocky. Don’t think you can leave your things alone in there, baking, without your constant attention, just trusting those baking times listed in the recipe. There is a window of a few minutes of perfect doneness you must diligently honor by abiding your treats while they transform in the hell of your oven. Proper rescue is up to you and you alone.
Figure 3. Just-barely underbaked (i.e., perfectly rescued) brownies topped with orange creamsicle fudge.
Do put your tray of just scooped or cut cookies into the freezer before you bake them. The number one reason for the sad flatness or blobbed up shape of your cookies is that they spread too fast in the oven because you didn’t equip them with some defenses before you sent them to hell. Ten minutes or so in the freezer beforehand and they’ll be so different, I promise. Drop cookies will have integrity and density, and cut cookies will have sharp edges.
Don’t skimp on your fat-whipping time. Cream your butter and sugar for 6-8 minutes. A long time! You’re whipping air in there and it just can’t be done any other way. If I’m using a hand mixer I will play blackjack on my phone with my other hand to pass the time. In blackjack time the fat-whip is like 12-19 hands.
Don’t use fancy high-fat European butter unless the recipe calls for it. You might think you’re being cool & mega-indulgent by using Plugra in your chocolate chip cookies, but unless the recipe is tested for that butter, the proportions will be off and they’ll be disturbingly greasy or fried—literally fried in fat—around the edges. The best place to use high-fat butter is in something like a nice shortbread, which can be adjusted for texture by simply adding more flour, and where butter is pretty much the whole point.
Don’t put plastic wrap atop your homemade pudding to prevent a chewy skin from forming. What is wrong with you? Why are you making pudding at all if you don't like the pudding's chewy skin? The chewy skin is the best part of pudding. Stop listening to recipe directions that tell you to do that or you don't even deserve pudding.
|Figure 4. Unskinned butterscotch pudding|
Don’t make cupcakes. They’re drier and actually a lot less fun than a slice of cake. The assertive blob of frosting atop the otherwise unfrosted squat barrel of cake prevents any single bite that makes any sense, doesn’t it?
Do grate your own nutmeg. It’s worth it.
Don’t grate your own cinnamon. It’s not worth it.
Do make your own fondant, if you want a fondant-covered cake. Store-bought fondant is not only super expensive, but also tastes kind of bad. But, hey, go easy on the fondant cakes already. I never really got how a cake that looks like it is covered in Play-dough is supposed to be appetizing. If you want that clean look, use an offset spatula heated by dipping in a glass of hot water (dry thoroughly) to get super-smooth buttercream frosting and sharp corners on your cake instead.
|Figure 5. A fondant cake I made. It’s like I’m a big kid and I get to eat my Play-Dough! Whee!|
Don’t forget to toast your nuts. Always, always toast your nuts, no matter what the recipe says.
Molly Brodak is the author of A Little Middle of the Night (University of Iowa Press, 2010) and three chapbooks of poetry. She lives in Atlanta and is working on a cookie cookbook.