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From the looks of folks’ sh*tty homemade bread, pudding-like banana bread, and flat cookie crisps, it’s pretty obvious a lot of people could use a hand mastering this baking stuff.
We’re here to lend that hand with advice on swaps, tips for avoiding disaster, and hacks to level up your baking game.
1. Read the whole recipe from start to finish before you begin
You wouldn’t believe how many fatal baking mistakes — i.e., mixing ingredients out of order, leaving out an ingredient, or forgetting to preheat the oven — could be avoided by just reading the directions. *Facepalm*
2. Do exactly what the recipe says
Turns out, when a recipe tells you to “cream the butter and sugar,” “sift through a fine-mesh sieve,” or “add eggs, one at a time,” there’s a reason for it.
Baking is a science. Precision and care are likely the difference between your weird, pancake-like cookies and the perfectly chewy ones at your local coffee shop.
3. Use a recipe adjuster
A recipe adjuster is a tool that recalculates the volume of ingredients in a given recipe so you can customize the serving size. It especially comes in handy when you want to make more precise adjustments — for example, if you want to add 2 servings to a recipe that originally made 5 servings.
4. Eggs and dairy should be room temp (unless otherwise specified)
If you take away one lesson from this article, let it be this one! The shortened explanation is that emulsions create more bubbles at room temperature. These bubbles expand and rise in the oven, giving you a fluffy baked good.
The easiest way to bring ingredients up to room temperature requires planning ahead: Leave butter out of the fridge overnight, and take eggs and other dairy products out of the refrigerator 2 hours before you start baking (or 1 hour if it’s over 90 degrees).
If you didn’t think ahead, skip ahead to our hacks section for temperature tricks!
5. Prep all your ingredients beforehand
The French actually have a phrase for setting up before cooking: mise en place. Trust us (and especially trust the French) — this just makes life so much easier.
Once you’re in the throes of baking, it’s easy to make a disastrous measuring mistake like adding a tablespoon of baking soda instead of a teaspoon.
6. Don’t pack flour when measuring
If you don’t own a kitchen scale (weighing is the most accurate way to measure ingredients), use a spoon to transfer the flour into a measuring cup, and then use the handle or your finger to level off the top.
Never pack the cup, press the flour down, or even scoop with the measuring cup straight from the bag! A cup of all-purpose flour measured correctly weighs about 125 grams, whereas a packed cup can weigh as much as 150 grams. And too much flour can result in a dry or crumbly texture.
7. Add eggs one at a time
This will give them the chance to emulsify and fully incorporate. Eggs have a water content of 74 percent, so if you add several eggs to your batter at once, you’re adding quite a bit of moisture into fats and it’ll be harder to combine the ingredients.
8. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl
It’s tempting to minimize the number of dishes used, but cutting corners by mixing your dry and wet ingredients at the same time is a big no-no. Flour, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, spices, and other dry ingredients need to be thoroughly combined before the wet ingredients are added.
It’s much more difficult to evenly distribute small amounts of leavening agents throughout a wet mixture, so you run the risk of an uneven bake.
9. Add dry ingredients to wet gradually
This preserves air bubbles and maintains the structure created by creaming or whipping.
When adding dry ingredients to wet ingredients, fold gently with a spatula or, if using a stand mixer, mix on the lowest setting. Once you can no longer see any dry ingredients or any lumps in the batter, stop!
10. Don’t overmix
Overmixing or mixing too fast (which is especially easy to do with a stand mixer) can result in a dense or chewy baked good. As soon as the dry ingredients vanish into the batter, stop!
When using a stand mixer, it’s best to fold gently by hand toward the end to incorporate the unmixed ingredients that often get trapped underneath the paddle.
11. Use parchment paper, a no-stick wonder
Nothing is worse than having to scrape the bottom of your beautiful cake off the pan. Parchment paper allows for easy removal and easy cleanup. It’s a good idea to lightly grease the pan before putting the parchment in — this creates a seal to ensure the batter doesn’t seep under the paper.
12. Out of parchment paper? Grease instead
If you don’t have parchment paper, you can grease your pan with butter, oil, or cooking spray — and be liberal with it! Make sure you get every nook and cranny. You can also dust a little bit of flour on the bottom and sides for good measure.
13. Use an oven thermometer
Burnt cookies three times in a row? It may not be your fault. Ovens vary greatly in the way they heat and the temperature reading. An oven thermometer is a cheap and extremely helpful tool to give you a more accurate read on your oven.
1. Quickly bring butter, eggs, and dairy up to room temperature
Patience is a virtue, but ain’t nobody got time to wait for ingredients to come up to room temperature. For the spontaneous, impatient baker, here are some quick hacks.
- Butter: Put the whole stick, still in the wrapper, on a plate and microwave it for 10 seconds. Then rotate the stick on its side once and microwave for another 5 seconds. Repeat if needed. Be careful not to melt the butter — the stick should be soft but still hold its shape. If you press your finger into the butter, it should leave an indent.
- Eggs: Place whole eggs in a bowl of warm water for 5 to 10 minutes. The water should be warmer than room temperature but not hot enough to cook the eggs.
- Milk, buttermilk, cream: Place in a microwave-safe dish and microwave on low power in 10-second intervals. Alternatively, you can heat it in a saucepan over low heat for a couple of minutes.
2. Use a cheese grater to break up cold butter for pie doughs and pastries
Breaking up cold bits of butter with your fingers can take quite a while. To expedite the process and ensure that the butter is evenly distributed, use a cheese grater to shred your cold butter, and then incorporate it as usual.
3. Ripen bananas
Banana bread calls for brown, speckled bananas. But what if your bananas are still green? You can use your oven as a time machine to quickly ripen them.
Put the bananas on a sheet pan — peel and all — and bake them in a 300-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the skins are blackened. Voila!
4. Remove eggshells with a wet finger
If you’ve accidentally dropped a piece of eggshell into the bowl when you cracked your eggs, simply wet your finger and stick it next to the eggshell fragment. It’ll naturally gravitate toward your finger like magic.
5. Rehydrate hardened brown sugar
Brown sugar has a high moisture content, which means it can dry out if not stored properly.
To soften it, add an apple slice, a piece of bread, or a marshmallow to the bag of brown sugar, seal it, and let sit overnight. The sugar will absorb the moisture from the apple, bread, or marshmallow and soften up.
If you need a more immediate solution, you can microwave the brown sugar in a bowl covered with a wet paper towel for 20 seconds. Repeat if needed.
6. Test the effectiveness of baking soda or baking powder
Baking soda or baking powder that has gone bad isn’t dangerous to consume, but it might be ineffective (which can easily ruin a baking project).
To tell if it’s still good, fill a small bowl with hot water and add a little bit of baking powder (for baking soda, also add 1/4 teaspoon of vinegar). You should see immediate fizzing. If not, it’s time to get a fresh box.
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway into a baking project and realizing you’re out of a key ingredient. Luckily, human ingenuity has come up with countless combinations that can substitute for traditional ingredients.
While these swaps will work in a pinch, you should be prepared for your final product to taste or look a little different than it would have if you’d gone with the original recipe.
|1 cup all-purpose flour||=||1 cup whole-wheat flour + 2 tsp water|
|1 cup cake or pastry flour||=||1 cup minus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour + 2 tbsp cornstarch|
|1 cup self-rising flour||=||1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 1/2 tsp baking powder + 1/4 tsp salt|
|1 cup all-purpose flour||=||1 cup oat flour|
|1 cup of any flour||=||1 cup almond flour + 1 extra egg (or binding agent)|
|1 cup all-purpose flour + 1/2 cup liquid||=||3/4 cup plus 4 tsp liquid|
|1 cup white sugar||=||1 cup packed brown sugar|
|X amount white or brown sugar||=||X amount raw or turbinado sugar|
|1 cup white sugar, processed in blender (optional: + 1 tsp cornstarch)||=||1 3/4 cups powdered sugar|
|1 cup white or brown sugar||=||1 cup coconut sugar|
|1 cup white or brown sugar||=||2/3 cup date sugar|
|1 cup white sugar||=||1/2–2/3 cup honey*|
|1 cup white sugar||=||3/4 cup maple syrup*|
|1 cup white sugar||=||2/3 cup agave nectar*|
*Reduce baking temperature by 25 degrees — you may have to bake a few minutes longer.
Baking soda and baking powder
A handy rule of thumb for understanding the difference between these two rising agents is that baking soda is three times as strong as baking powder. You can’t use them interchangeably, but you can substitute pretty easily.
Try the ones below or try one of several other substitutes for baking soda.
|1 tsp baking powder||=||1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp cream of tartar (acid)|
|1 tsp baking soda||=||3 tsp baking powder|
|2 tsp yeast||=||1 tsp baking soda + 1 tsp acid (cream of tartar, lemon juice, buttermilk)|
|2 tsp yeast||=||1 cup sourdough starter*|
*Keep in mind that you may have to adjust the flour or liquid in the recipe. Find out how to make your own sourdough starter from scratch.
|1 egg||=||1 tbsp flaxseeds or chia seeds + 3 tbsp water||Combine in a separate small bowl and let seeds soak up all the water, about 15 minutes.|
|1 egg||=||1/4 cup mashed banana, applesauce, or pumpkin purée||Fruit purées add moisture — to counter this, add an extra 1/8 tsp baking powder for each egg substituted.|
|1 egg||=||1 tbsp vinegar (ACV or white vinegar) + 1 tsp baking soda|
|1 egg||=||1/4 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk|
|1 egg||=||3 tbsp chickpea flour + 3 tbsp water||Combine in a separate small bowl and let sit until thickened.|
|1 cup butter||=||1 cup ghee|
|1 cup butter||=||1 cup coconut oil*|
|1 cup butter||=||1 cup oil (for breads, muffins, cakes)|
|1 cup butter||=||1/2 cup oil (for cookies)|
|1 cup butter||=||1/2 cup applesauce|
*Keep the coconut oil as close as possible to the intended consistency for butter in the recipe — hard for pastries and pie dough, room temperature for creaming, and melted for brownies.
|1 cup buttermilk||=||1 cup milk + 1 tsp vinegar or lemon juice|
|1 cup buttermilk||=||1 cup milk + 1 3/4 tsp cream of tartar||Combine and let sit for about 5 minutes, or until slightly curdled, before adding to your mixture.|
Grace Simmons is a San Francisco-based writer, former line cook, and health food guru. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 14, she became passionate about health and using food to nourish the body. Check her out on Twitter.