On becoming a better baker (and almost burning banana bread)...


I admire great bakers.  Baking requires attention to detail, lots of patience, and practice.  The great bakers I've come across have spent hours upon hours in the kitchen, meticulously working on their measuring skills and slightly tweaking recipes to perfection.  They didn't just happen to be awesome at throwing flour and sugar together, they developed their technique and learned the "right way" to bake.

This skill has never come naturally for me, especially because following detailed directions and caring about the difference between whisking and whipping aren't my strengths.  So when I started to dabble in baking early in my marriage, I was a mess.  Our kitchen was a mess.  The outcomes were a mess.  I could barely make a chocolate chip cookie that didn't come out too burnt on the bottom and too spread out on my dark non-stick cookie sheet.  

These days (after lots of practice), I'm doing a little better.  I'm still a long way from making a cake fit for a bakery display or a flaky pastry, but my cookies have shape and I don't bake peaked muffins anymore!  Over the years I've had a few (very basic) realizations that have helped me become a better baker. 

1.  Have baking ingredients on hand (and keep them stored in the same place).
I used to crave oatmeal cookies or desire to spend an afternoon baking, only to check my pantry and realize it was going to require a trip to the grocery store.  Bummer.  I find that for me, the desire to bake or the need to have a dessert prepared for an event, comes up somewhat unexpectedly.  Having all of the baking staples on hand makes baking much more enjoyable and much less of a chore.  These might include things like flour, sugar, vanilla, butter, eggs, oatmeal, cocoa, shortening, baking soda, and baking powder (to name a few).  I also designated an area of the pantry for my baking ingredients, so I don't have to go searching for what I need.  When I'm running low on a staple, I always buy it before I need it and have extra on hand.

2.  Have the correct tools and utensils.
When we registered for bakeware, it never occurred to me that all pans were not created equal.  Why wouldn't I want all dark non-stick bakeware?  Less mess, right?  Some thoughtful women had mercy on me, and provided a few aluminum items to start my collection and I realized quickly there was a difference.  I've gotten to where I use almost all aluminum bakeware because my results come out more evenly cooked.  When I do need to use non-stick, I turn the oven temperature down 15-25 degrees lower to compensate.  If the recipe requires a special tool, I try to use that item specifically.  I think using the right whisk, wooden spoon, baking sheet, and sifter can really impact your baking.

3.  Carefully read and follow the nuances of each recipe.
The devil is here in the details, folks.  I used to ignore the little sentences in my recipes that said things such as, "be careful to not over mix...let boil for 1 minute...fold in gently".  Who needs "folding" when you can just whip your spoon and beat the batter to death?  Yikes.  When a recipe says something suspicious, instead of wondering why they included that seemingly meaningless detail, I follow it closely.  This by itself has made a HUGE difference in the outcome of my baking.  If it says butter softened, you will get the best result when you butter has actually been out on the counter softening all day (versus being nuked in the microwave).  Instead of heavy-handedly scooping my flour out of the container, I take care to spoon it into my measuring cup and level it off.  Yes, you can still get tasty treats the other way around, but the intended results are much more consistent when you follow the directions to a T.

4.  Watch someone more experienced and take mental notes.
There isn't much of a substitute for just watching and helping an experienced baker.  Before trying to make cinnamon rolls on my own, I went and helped a good friend who is a cinnamon roll expert.  She told me so many secret tips that I never would have picked up from just following the recipe.  When I went to do the recipe on my own later, the results were leaps and bounds beyond what they would have been had I attempted them without help to start with.  Sometimes, I'll also help my mom bake or ask for her to show me how to do a recipe.  I try to notice how she stirs or what speed she puts her mixer on.  Those experienced bakers know a thing or two!

5.  Practice.
At the end of the day, becoming a good baker is a learned skill.  Sometimes you have to make the same recipe over and over again before you get it right.  Sometimes you have to experiment with your bakeware, oven temperature, cooking time, or technique before you have an end result you are proud of.  This isn't an instant gratification homemaking skill, but one that improves with more hours in the kitchen.  


P.S.  As I was writing this, I slightly overcooked some banana bread.  What is that proverb?....oh...pride comes before a fall.  :-)  Beware of baking and blogging.

The treat pictured is Classic, No-Fuss Banana Bread, a recipe from Espresso and Cream.  Madison is a wonderful writer and you will love her blog!

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