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Become a Better Baker

You want to become a better baker, but haven’t had much luck. No worries! You’ve come to the right place! In this post I’m going to give you a dozen of my favorite baking hacks!

Become a Better Baker

These tips and tricks will help you develop your baking skills and will make you feel more confident about your culinary creations.

You Can Learn to Bake!

No, I promise! If I can do it, anyone can.

No one ever said baking was easy. If it was, everyone would do it. And if you’re addicted to shows on The Food Network, no doubt you’ve convinced yourself that only gifted people can bake.

Not true! Baking definitely has its challenges. But trust me when I say that if I could conquer cakes, cookies, cupcakes and other sweet treats, you can, too!

Practice makes perfect. Well, sort of.

A Little Backstory.

I’m a terrible cook. Well, not terrible, maybe. . .but not great. That said, I love sweets. I’ve always loved the “idea” of baked goods as much as the actual creation.

Before I ever baked that first cake, I dreamed of fun and pretty things I could bake and decorate. In my imagination I could see lovely cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and other sweet treats.

Unfortunately, I was a terrible baker

But that didn’t stop me from dreaming. And trying.

Sadly, my very first baby shower cake was such a big flop that I had to place a last-minute call to a bakery for a “real” cake.

Ugh.

Your Baking Skills Will Improve

You will get better in time if you don’t give up. I’m still on a tremendous learning curve, (not a professional baker by any stretch), but I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since that baby shower cake flop! (Hey, I’ll paste in a few baby shower cake photos to show you that I’ve learned a few things since then!)

You have to think of yourself like a pianist. No one (short of a prodigy) becomes skilled on the piano overnight. It takes practice, and lots of it. The same is true with your baking journey. Don’t give up, no matter how many cookies you’ve burned. No matter how many cakes have fallen. No matter how many pies you’ve botched.

And think about this: all world-class bakers had to start somewhere!

You can do this!

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of my top tricks and tips to help you develop your skills.

I want you to know that this post did not come together quickly. I worked on it methodically over a matter of days, tweaking and re-tweaking, covering a variety of important topics that I hope you will find useful.

I really want to encourage you to keep going, no matter how many times you try and fail. So, take good notes! These tips will help you become the baker you want to be.

TIP ONE: Have everything you need in a clean space

out of the box baking

This might sound silly, but start with everything you need. Read the recipe entirely and have your ingredients ready! And start with a clean kitchen. I often take a picture of my workspace at the beginning on a long baking day so that I can look back at it later to remind myself that I started clean.

When I say “start with everything you need” this includes more than just ingredients! Have your pans handy, and make sure they’re the right size for the recipe. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught off-guard with the wrong sized pans.

Speaking of pans, make sure they are prepped in advance. If you’re baking a cake, have your pans greased and floured before you begin. If you’re baking cookies, have all of the cookie sheets ready to go with parchment paper. If you’re doing cut-out cookies, have your rolling pin, waxed paper, and so on close by. Make sure you actually have (on hand) everything you could possibly need to complete this project.

And speaking of all of that “stuff”. . .

Here’s another tip to go along with what I said above: clean as you go. I usually do pretty well with this until I reach the exhaustion point. When that happens, dishes start piling up. But if I start with an empty dishwasher, a couple of clean hand-towels, an empty counter space, and all of the tools I need (clean and ready to go), then my chances of ending the day without a huge mess are much greater.

TIP TWO: Know your oven

This is key to becoming better at what you do. Maybe your recipe calls for cookies to be baked at 375° for ten minutes. You follow the recipe exactly but your cookies are raw inside. Or maybe they’re over-done. You assume you messed something up.

Maybe not. Could be, your oven isn’t properly calibrated. Oven temperatures can vary by several degrees. Some ovens have hot spots and one rack bakes better than another.

The simplest solution is to purchase an oven thermometer. Knowing your oven’s true temperature will help you make the necessary adjustments. (Hey, don’t fight it! Learn from it!)

I happen to work with a convection oven. I use it for (literally) everything. My go-to temp for cakes is 350° but if I’m baking a large (or deep) cake I’ll lower the temperature and cook it longer.

My go-to temp for cookies is 375°. If the recipe says 10 minutes, I often have to give them an additional minute or two. That’s just how my oven rolls. (Note: I still set the timer for 10 minutes to check them.)

Bake in the center of your oven

Again, this comes down to knowing your own oven and how it bakes, but most products do best in the center of the oven, not directly under (or over) the heating element.

One more note about your oven: make sure it’s properly pre-heated before you begin. You will end up with a fiasco, otherwise!

TIP THREE : Remember, baking is a science.

“Cooking is an art, but baking is a science!”

cookie ingredients

This is where so many of us go wrong. We throw a bunch of ingredients together and hope for the best. Then we wonder why our cookies spread (or harden into lumps). We can’t figure out why our cake texture is off. We’re perplexed about why our cupcakes overflowed and made a mess in the oven.

A scientist wouldn’t combine ingredients and hope for the best. He would study the various components and then combine them in the correct amounts to get a consistent outcome. You should do the same. (Side note: invest in a good kitchen scale!)

Be Methodical and Careful!

Following a recipe is critical in baking because even the slightest deviation from those well-thought-out instructions will result in a completely different outcome. And let’s face it–baking ingredients aren’t cheap! You don’t want to waste those precious products!

Perhaps the greatest way to perfect the science of baking is to get to know your ingredients. When you fully understand the role of your sugars, flours, leavenings, eggs, oil, milk, and so on, it will save you a lot of headaches later on!

TIP THREE: Understand Your Sugars

White or brown. . .sugars break down.

And, as they do, they bind to amino acids and browning occurs. No doubt you love the “nutty” caramelization that takes place as sugar oxidizes. (We all love our sweets, after all.)

I’m going to spend a minute talking about the four sugars that I use most often: white, brown, powdered, and sanding. Then I’ll share about a few other sweet options.

The Sugar Association has a quick crash course tutorial on their website, but here are my top four:

White sugar: This is the “typical” sugar that most of us keep in the pantry (or stir into our tea). Like the other sugars, it is formulated from sugar juice, which is extracted from the sugar beet or sugar cane plant. It’s fine and easy to handle. Recipes will often call this granulated sugar. It’s easy to measure and pour and dissolves quickly.

Brown sugar: Light or dark, these brown sugars are made by either boiling brown sugar syrup or combining white sugar with molasses. Brown sugar has a nutty flavor and it tends to “clump” due to the added moisture. You’ll often find brown sugar in cookie recipes like my Brown Butter Pecan cookies. Unlike granulated sugar, brown sugars have to be “packed” into the measuring cup.

Brown butter pecan cookies

Powdered sugar: Also known as confectioner’s sugar, this sugar is ground to a fine powder. (Side note: I’ve actually made my own powdered sugar in the Ninja, starting with granulated sugar!) Packaged confectioners sugar is mixed with a bit of cornstarch to prevent caking. It’s light, easy to use, and delicious! I love to coat my Mexican Wedding Cookies in powdered sugar.

Sanding sugar: Sanding sugar can be super-fine or crystallized, but it’s meant to go on top of things. I use sanding sugar in many of my cut-out sugar cookies, like the one below.

wedding cookies

Other “sugars” would include honey, maple syrup, agave, monk fruit, corn syrup, and so on. I rarely use these in baking, though many people who can’t have traditional sugars have learned to substitute. A liquid sugar (such as honey) will affect the texture and taste, so learning to use it will be key.

TIP FOUR: Get to know your flours

lemon cookie ingredients

Flour is both a protein and a starch. When you mix flour with water, the proteins combine to form gluten, which allows your dough to rise and hold its shape.

The starch will either break down to make sugars that feed on the yeast (if you’re making bread) or it gives your baked good structure, due to its gelatinous form.

Let’s look at the various types of flour:

Cake flour doesn’t have as much protein, which means it doesn’t have the capacity to form gluten as well. This makes it perfect for cake-baking. Because it’s often bleached, it can absorb more moisture and sweetness, resulting in a moist finished product. If you’re out of cake flour you can make your own, easy-breezy! Just combine a cup of all-purpose flour with two tablespoons of cornstarch.

Bread flour is made of hard wheat. It has a high protein count and is incredibly stable. If you don’t happen to have any on hand you can make your own using a cup of all-purpose flour and a teaspoon of wheat gluten.

Self-rising flour has baking soda and salt added. You can make your own self-rising flour by combining 1 cup of all-purpose flour with 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

One more thought about flour: Add exactly the right amount, but don’t pack it tight into the measuring cup. Add too much and your cookies will be dense and hard. Don’t add enough and they will fall flat.

To sift or not to sift

Sifting changes the texture and amount of flour you’re using, so only sift if the recipe calls for it.

TIP FOUR: Utilize proper egg use

Eggs add moisture to your finished product but they also add necessary structure to a recipe. Don’t believe me? Try leaving them out. You’ll see that the cookies and cakes you’re attempting simply won’t work.

Knowing how many eggs to use is important. If a cookie recipe, for example, calls for two large eggs, you’d better add two large eggs. . .not two small (the dough won’t be wet enough) and not two jumbo (it will be too wet).

When it comes to cakes, though? As I covered in my “How to Doctor a Boxed Cake Mix” post, adding an extra egg or two to a boxed cake mix is a terrific idea! Doing so adds richness and depth.

how to doctor a boxed cake mix

I was taught that older eggs are better for baking, but I’m pretty sure I’ve proven this wrong over the years.

Old or New. . .it’s up to You!

Here’s the deal: the whites of the eggs tend to thin out as eggs age, so if you’re making something like a meringue (or macaroons, which are meringue-based) you probably should use eggs that are a couple of weeks old. But for everyday baking, where the whole egg is used? You can whip out those brand new eggs and toss them in.

But not straight from the fridge.

For many products (especially those that are egg-white heavy), room-temperature eggs are better. I often let my eggs sit out for a while before using. If I’m really in a hurry I’ll put them in a bowl of room temperature water for a few minutes. The eggs you see on the mat below have just come out of the water and are ready for use.

eggs

One more thought about eggs: always crack them into a separate bowl. There are two reasons for this: First, you might have a spoiled egg in the bunch. You don’t want to inadvertently add it to your batter or dough. Second, if you accidentally get shell into the bowl you’ll be able to see it and scoop it out.

(Note: Use shell to remove shell! No kidding. Hold a larger piece of shell to scoop up the broken bit of shell from the bowl.)

TIP FIVE : Leavening is important

Most baked goods require leavening, (a rising agent). I do make a handful of cookies and other goodies that do not. One example would be my Mexican Wedding Cookies.

Leavening agents produce a gas that forms bubbles (zillions of ’em!) in your dough. Your batter (or dough) will expand in the oven and cause the product to rise. (Whoosh!) This is why the cake that comes out of the oven is a lot taller than the batter that went in. If your cookies fall flat, you’ll need to make sure you haven’t accidentally left out the leavening.

Examples of leavening agents:

Baking soda: Also known as bicarbonate of soda, this powder produces a chemical reaction when mixed with an acidic ingredient. It reacts immediately when activated, producing carbon dioxide gas. This causes the food product (like cookies) to g-r-o-w. I use baking soda in nearly all of my cookies, including my S’Mores Kiss Cookies and my Perfect Peanut Butter Cookies.

s'more cookies

Baking powder: This white powder is a combination of baking soda and another acidic component like cream of tartar. Unlike baking soda, it doesn’t require the use of an acid to activate. (This is because it already has acid in it.)

Baking powder doesn’t react as quickly as baking soda (and shouldn’t be used in place of baking soda) but because it’s double-acting it reacts a second time when heated. I use baking powder in my cut-out sugar cookies, which need to rise differently than non cut-out cookies.

cut out sugar cookies

If you’re out of baking powder, don’t fret! Just blend equal parts baking soda and cream of tartar.

Yeast: This single-cell fungi is responsible for fermentation of sugars in products like bread, and alcoholic beverages like wine and beer. Unlike baking soda and/or baking powder, yeast works slowly. It takes time for bread to rise.

Make sure your leavening ingredients are always fresh. (They can go bad or lose their effectiveness.)

TIP SIX: Use real butter and only real butter.

salted butter

When a recipe calls for butter, use it. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that margarine is the same thing. Sure, it’s a fraction of the cost but it was never meant to be used in baking and has no place there. (Sorry, that’s a personal opinion!) Go with real butter every time.

Should I Use Salted or Unsalted Butter?

Since I love controversy, I’ll just throw this out there: I only use salted butter, even in my Dreamy Buttercream (which contains cream cheese). In that particular case, the salt and cream cheese work together to form the perfect flavor combination.

Not everyone likes salted butter, but I’ve found salt to be a flavor enhancer. No matter what you’re making, it will add further depth to the recipe.

How to adjust salt levels

If you’re worried about your finished product tasting salty, just remove any additional salt from the recipe. For instance, many recipes call for unsalted butter but include a half teaspoon of salt. I would use salted butter and skip the pinch of salt. (But that’s just my preference.)

What about shortening?

You’re probably asking, “Can I substitute shortening for butter?” In some recipes, perhaps. I chose to do this in my Peanut Butter Pretzel Cookies recipe to lighten them up a little. But remember–this substitution will affect both the texture and the flavor. (Hey, nothing tops the flavor of butter!)

Speaking of butter. . .

TIP SEVEN: Use room temperature ingredients

Ever wondered why your cakes end up domed? Oftentimes it’s because you used cold ingredients. When you don’t take the time to bring your ingredients to room temperature, the outside of the cake will cook quickly then the colder middle will “dome up” (taking longer to cook). You can easily remedy this by using room temperature ingredients.

Let’s break it down:

Butter: Unless the recipe specifically calls for cold butter (like in my Strawberry Lemon Creme Scones recipe) always bring your butter to room temperature before using it. You might notice in the photo above that I’ve got my butter standing up on edge. I always bring my butter to room temperature this way so that it softens uniformly.

If you’re in a huge hurry, you can run really hot water in a glass and then empty the glass and turn it upside down over a stick of butter. It will soften quickly. Don’t resort to softening butter in the microwave unless you’re able to keep a close eye on it. My microwave will melt a stick of butter so fast that it becomes unusable.

Eggs: I mentioned my method for warming eggs above. Place them in a bowl of lukewarm water to quickly come to room temperature.

Other items to bring to room temperature would include milk, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, and cream cheese. It’s especially important to soften cream cheese because you’ll end up with clumps, otherwise.

yogurt

TIP EIGHT: Don’t Over-Mix

I used to leave my cake batter in the stand mixer, whirring away for several minutes at a time. Big mistake! You don’t want a dense (or super-chewy) cake, after all!

Cakes and cookies only need to mix long enough to incorporate all of your ingredients. Go too long and you’ll end up with a glutinous mess!

For more information on this topic, check out this article titled What Happens When You Overmix Cake Batter over at Cupcake Project. It comes complete with photos and a thorough explanation.

TIP NINE: The cooling process is critical

wire cooling rack

This is one of my most important discoveries. I didn’t realize that cakes and cookies need to cool down quickly.

How to cool your baked goods

Invest in good wire cooling racks. The sooner you get your product onto the wire rack the sooner it stops baking. (Cookies and cakes will continue to bake in their pans after being removed from the oven, which is why you should never ever “cool” them on top of the stove. Heat from the oven will cause them to continue to bake.)

Wire racks are perfect because they allow air to circulate all around the cake and cool it evenly. (Compare this to turning out a cake on, say, a cookie sheet or plate. The heat from the still-baking cake will form moisture on bottom, resulting in a soggy cake.)

TIP TEN: Learn some basic decorating techniques.

This is key, whether you’re baking cakes, cupcakes, cookies, scones, or pies. A lovely product draws the eye. You’ll feel more like a pro if you buy the right piping tips, bags, cake plates, and so on. (Invest in some basic cookie cutters!)

I mentioned above that your cakes and cookies need to cool down as quickly as possible. One mistake a lot of novice bakers make is attempting to add frosting to products that are still warm. You want your cakes and cookies to be at room temperature before attempting that! In fact, if you’re icing a cake, you might want to chill it in the fridge for a bit before adding any icing.

Here’s the point: you can become a cake or cookie decorator. With a few tools, you can add some color and texture to your finished product!

painting cookies

And if you don’t have tools, you can always add something simple. . .like candy!

Here’s the point: you can become a cake or cookie decorator. With a little extra thought and effort, you can add some color and texture to your finished product!

But this leads to our next tip:

TIP ELEVEN: Don’t over-shoot.

This is a big issue. You see a picture of an elaborate cake on Pinterest and you want to make it. But you don’t have the right ingredients. You don’t have the right tools. You attempt it. . .and fail. (Hey, we’ve all done it.)

Here’s the point: You over-shot. There’s coming a day when you can make that cake. But you’ve got to build up to it. Start small and work your way up. For now, keep it simple! Keep it basic.

TIP TWELVE: Change the shape

Even if you use a boxed mix, you don’t have to use a traditional pan. Make your baking special by changing up the shape or design of your finished product.

Other Tips:

You’ve read my top tips. Now here are a few more!

  • Use precise measurements! A cup of flour means just that. . .a cup of flour. 1 teaspoon means 1 teaspoon. . .and so on.
  • Stop comparing yourself to a more experienced baker. You’re on a learning curve and that’s okay! Your baking confidence will grow over time. World class bakers are few and far between but you can definitely be better tomorrow than you are today!
  • You don’t need to attend culinary school to become a good baker. Much is learned by following recipes and by trial and error.
  • Some of the best bakers (even top dollar pastry chefs) make mistakes. They learn from them and move on.
  • Buy a good bundt pan, angel food cake pan, muffin tin, and so on.
  • Invest in a great mixing bowl and good mixer.
  • Learn how to make a great layer cake. You’ll go far with this knowledge.
  • Create base recipes for cookies, cakes, scones and so on–simple recipes you can add to. (I have several foundational recipes that I return to, again and again.)
  • Subscribe to Out of the Box Baking.com! Here you’ll find a collection of amazing recipes and loads of information you will find helpful.

BONUS TIP: Keep trying!

I’m going to throw this one in for fun: Keep trying. No matter how many times you’ve failed at a certain cookie, don’t give up. It took me months (literally) of trial and error to get the perfect cut-out sugar cookie. You don’t even want to know how many times I tried and failed!

I’ve got quite a few other posts that might prove helpful as you seek to improve your baking skills. Check out the links below:

For more terrific ideas check out Miz Helen’s full plate offerings!

That’s it for now! I’ll probably check back from time to time to add to this post as new ideas come to me. Feel free to share this with your friends and please leave comments below with your best tips for better baking!

Happy baking, y’all!

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Laney Gutstein

Friday 18th of February 2022

Thanks so much. Lots of great advice

Jasmine

Friday 18th of February 2022

First, thank you for finally being the first person to explain to me why I need to use room temperature ingredients! I've just started doctoring cake mixes and I'd like to start the next level of amping up my cakes....cookies will come later...What would you recommend for an absolute beginner who is on a strict budget and would like to start frosting and decorating cakes properly? I'd like to start off with just a very few basic tools and build my 'collection' from there as I can afford it. My end goal would probably be to someday, after lots and lots of practice, be able to make a geode cake for my birthday. I'm a February baby and an 'amethyst' geode cake would be perfect. But I need to start with the basics first...

Janice

Friday 18th of February 2022

@Jasmine, one more thing: you might consider typing in "cake decorating kit" on amazon and taking a look at the various sets that are available. Most come with a variety of items you will find useful.

Janice

Friday 18th of February 2022

@Jasmine, thank you for the kind words! If I had to narrow down the list to just a few basic items I'd say the most critical would be a good set of pans. They don't have to be expensive. I love this set from Wilton: https://www.amazon.com/Wilton-6-Inch-8-Inch-10-Inch-12-Inch/dp/B0000VZ2QG/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1MMXFP3G2YCQE&keywords=wilton+cake+pans+set&qid=1645166905&sprefix=wilton+cake+pans+set%2Caps%2C94&sr=8-3. (Not sure if the link will come through in the comments.)

I would also invest in an offset spatula: https://www.amazon.com/Wilton-409-7712-Angled-Spatula-Black/dp/B00F0A6GDU/ref=sr_1_6?crid=VDM7KIVCWARP&keywords=offset+spatula&qid=1645166981&sprefix=offset+spatula%2Caps%2C97&sr=8-6

Also, a cake leveler: https://www.amazon.com/Wilton-Leveler-Small-10-Inch-415-0165/dp/B007E8KCFY/ref=sr_1_5?crid=15BM8WTKXX2X4&keywords=cake+leveler&qid=1645167018&sprefix=cake+leveler%2Caps%2C88&sr=8-5

Finally, a basic tip set: https://www.amazon.com/Wilton-Starter-Decorating-Piping-9-Piece/dp/B00IE6ZB42/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=24U2EGJ7HE65T&keywords=cake+decorating+tips+wilton&qid=1645167258&sprefix=cake+decorating+tips+wilton%2Caps%2C104&sr=8-1-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUE0NDVJNU43R0JCUU0mZW5jcnlwdGVkSWQ9QTAyMjkwNThFV0laNlYzRTI5UUImZW5jcnlwdGVkQWRJZD1BMDY3MjI5ODFJVFVQUEhUM1dLQ1Emd2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGYmYWN0aW9uPWNsaWNrUmVkaXJlY3QmZG9Ob3RMb2dDbGljaz10cnVl

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