Everyone loves delicious baked goods, fresh from the oven. For those who regularly bake, it’s only a matter of getting in the kitchen, pulling ingredients and get started. We have a tendency to allow our minds to drift. But that’s okay. We have long since learned the art of baking by instinct. We also bake by feel and by sight. Do you think you are a Baking Failure?
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Wait! I AM a Baking Failure! I don’t HAVE those skills!
But what about those who think they are a baking failure, and approach their ovens with skepticism, and then, only once or twice a year? These folks haven’t honed those instincts – YET – and get frustrated when the cookies come out flat, or the bread doesn’t rise. It doesn’t mean you are a baking failure. I have one friend who I believe approaches her oven with a stiff-postured warrior pose. I wouldn’t be surprised if she even threatens it with a blow torch. But she still wants to learn.
So for my sweet (soon to turn from baking failure to baking pro!) friend, here are a few tips to get you started:
(keep reading – there is a fun freebie waiting for you!)
Most baked goods call for basic ingredients like flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Bakers often restock these items, as they are the most used. But for the non-baker, these same items may sit on their pantry shelf for years, and only be moved when they are in the way.
For the baking failure, it’s good to know these are items that can go ‘bad’. They don’t spoil so much as lose their ‘powers’. If left in a damp space, they will clump. If left out to open air, they absorb air-borne odors and grease. For long-term, infrequent use, store these ingredients in the freezer. Salt and sugar can be kept indefinitely on the pantry shelf, but only if stored correctly.
Don’t think you are a baking failure if your flour has Indian Meal Moths or their eggs in the bag. They are already in the bag when you purchase it. Left alone for even a day or two, these eggs hatch into a moth that is up to 1-1/2” long, almost rectangular in shape, and leave webs and a mess behind. And not just in the bag, but also in your pantry. Don’t worry. The eggs aren’t harmful to humans, but the larvae can be gross, and the moths a headache.
First, with all powdered ingredients, store them in a glass or plastic tightly sealed container. Be sure to label the container, because baking soda and baking powder looks similar.
For the sugar and flour, you will need a larger container. Here’s a tip for the baking failure – be wary of those cute kitchen canisters. Some have lids that just sit on top, and do not have a proper seal. This means there are tiny spaces where bugs and moisture can get in.
Also, leaving them in the paper or plastic bags are not a deterrent against mice. There is nothing worse than purchasing a brand new bag of flour, to find a hole in it the next morning. It’s even worse to have to clean up the mess.
Wash your containers before adding new ingredients. Fresh and clean prevents mixing the new with the old, and is just better all the way around.
For brown sugar, you need a certain amount of moisture to keep it from becoming rock hard. Use a Brown Sugar Preserver to keep the moisture levels where they need to be. (Here’s a tip: these also work for other things, such as marshmallows, raisins, and keeping chips crispy!) Before these became available, Mom would add a small piece of fresh bread (like Wonder Bread) and put it on top of the brown sugar in the canister. It worked great. I prefer the Preservers, though, because as the bread dries out, it will leave crumbs in the sugar.
Other ‘Dry’ Ingredient Issues
For your flour: After you have transferred it from the bag to a container, pop it in the freezer for several hours, or even a day. This will kill off any eggs that may be in your flour. I keep all my flour in the freezer. But make sure it is still in well-sealed glass or plastic containers. Flour in paper bags can absorb freezer odors, and easily freezer burn.
For your Pasta: Pasta doesn’t so much go bad or lose its powers, but it does dry out and become brittle. And mice love it! Pastas should also be stored in glass or plastic containers. If necessary, you can also store it in the freezer, but if you don’t use it often, a better option is to purchase the small bags and transfer it to a container.
Butter is often called for, especially in chocolate chip cookies. There is a simple trick to using butter. Stick your thumb on it. If you cannot press down, it is too cold. If the butter squirts out of the wrapper, or leaks out in liquid form, it is too warm. You want to be able to make an imprint in it, but not be able to push all the way through.
Your butter will need to be ‘whipped’. This means few to no large lumps. Once it is whipped, it becomes a pale yellow in color, and appears to be smooth. To keep my butter from getting too soft or melting in the bowl, I begin by chilling my bowl for a few moments in the refrigerator.
Once butter begins to melt, it will separate. The oil in the butter can drastically alter your dough. Keep it cool!
Unsalted vs Salted
Unsalted butter contains no salt, just as it says. Salted butter has salt added as a preservative. When a recipe calls for ‘unsalted’, it is taking into consideration additional salt in the recipe.
Too much salt can alter the way the other ingredients act and react with each other, or can detrimentally affect the flavors. If all you have on hand is ‘salted’, you can lower the additional salt by up to one-half.
‘Seasoned’ bakers already know what a recipe does or should taste like when finished, so adding or subtracting salt is an easy process. For the non-baker, you may have to try the recipe once or twice before it is perfect. Better yet – buy the appropriate butter. It is definitely quicker and easier.
As with all ingredients, the fresher the egg the better. Did you know that egg purchased in the grocery store could easily be as much as five weeks old? My questions on those are: Where have they been? How have they been stored? I am fortunate to be able to walk out my back door and get eggs as fresh as they come – just laid. For those of you who don’t have that luxury, here is how to test the freshness of your eggs:
Fill the sink or a large bowl with water. Add the eggs straight from the carton. Those that float are old, and are questionable for usage. Those that sink are fresh – or, at least, fresher, and are good to use.
There is only one reason I won’t use a freshly laid egg, and that is when I need to boil and peel them. I do not care what method you use, but fresh eggs do not peel well. It is better to use eggs that are at least 2 to 3 days old for this.
A common egg question is: Do the different colors have different tastes? The answer is: No. All eggs taste basically the same. A duck egg is a bit richer than a chicken egg, but you can still use them for baking.
When a recipe calls for 2 eggs, beaten, what they mean is, crack the eggs into a small bowl. Using a fork, very lightly mix the yolk and white together. Do not beat them much. Usually, it takes only two or three rotations of the fork. The purpose of this is to allow the egg white and yolk to blend evenly into your dough.
Sift Your Ingredients
Flour is meant to be light. As it travels from manufacturer to the store shelves to the home pantry, it settles and packs down in the package. Sifting breaks up this packing, and returns it to its lighter stage.
If I am baking bread, I simply use a fork. I pour flour into a bowl, and briskly stir it with a fork before measuring. But with cookies and other baked goods, use your sifter.
Recipes will often tell you to sift some of your dry ingredients together. The rule of thumb is to sift your flour into a bowl first, then measure out how much you need. Add to that the other dry ingredients, then sift them together. This helps to blend them well.
Seasoned bakers may skip this, and simply fork-sift, add ingredients and fork-sift again. But these are folks who know instinctively how the blended ingredients should look and feel. For a non-baker, take the precaution to do it right.
Some recipes call to add the vanilla at the very end. I add my vanilla with my liquid ingredients to insure it is fully blended. If in doubt, follow the recipe. My thought is that by adding it last, it just puts you in a position to blend it longer. (See more about this in the Last Tips section below).
Herbs & Spices
This is another ‘dry’ ingredient that can lose its freshness, especially if you purchase them in bottles. The recommendations are any spices that are one year old need to be replaced. Spices will definitely lose their flavor. Depending on the spice, I purchase them in the smallest container, and toss them after about 6 months. You can lengthen this time by storing them in the freezer.
It’s the same with fresh herbs. To keep them viable, you can dry them and store them in the freezer. If you want fresh, lightly chop them and put them in ice-cube trays. Add enough water to cover, and then freeze until solid. Pour these ‘herb cubes’ into a plastic container or zip top bag, and pull out what you need, when you need it. You can either add it directly to your recipe, or place it in a bowl to thaw and drain.
Spices are one of those ingredients that should almost always come with a disclaimer: ‘To Taste’. With my spiced oatmeal cookies, I stick to the measurements listed. But please don’t ever tell the Country Boy to use only ‘1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder’. He won’t read that. Instead, he uses his hand for a measuring spoon. When he gets to a level he likes, in it goes. If you thought you were a baking failure before, you should be well on your way to changing your mind with this tip alone!
‘Cook to al dente’. That is all fine and good, unless you aren’t sure what ‘al dente’ means. Translated from Italian, it means ‘to the tooth’. In plain English, it means that the pasta is somewhat firm to the bite. It is soft, but not mushy.
Do you believe the old saying you can test if pasta is done by throwing spaghetti on the wall? I am sorry to disappoint you. If you throw dry spaghetti on the wall to ‘test’, then it will just break and drop to the floor. If you throw ‘wet’, or cooked spaghetti on the wall, it just means it is sticky. And then you have to get a sponge and a broom to clean up the mess.
The best way to test if pasta is done is with your mouth. Remove a piece from the boiling water, allow to cool, then test it with your teeth. Soft, but still a hint of firmness? It’s ready.
If you are using candies, nuts or fruits to a recipe (muffins, breads, cookies, etc.), here are some things that may be helpful:
Add chocolate chips and candies to the mix by hand. A mixer has a tendency to break up these more fragile pieces.
Raisins can be blended with a mixer, but just make sure they are fresh.
Nuts can be blended with a mixer, but as with raisins, you want them as fresh as possible. If you have nuts in the freezer, check to make sure they aren’t freezer burned, and still have good flavor. Nuts contain oils, which can make them dry out or lose flavor, if left in the open air.
Fruit: ‘dryer’ fruits, such as apples and pears, should be pretreated in Fruit Fresh or lemon juice before adding to a recipe. This prevents them from turning brown.
‘Wet’ fruits, such as blueberries and peaches, should be well drained before adding them to a recipe. Otherwise, the batter may be too wet. A simple trick is to add them while still slightly frozen, and toss them in flour first. This prevents your muffins or breads from getting too wet, or turning colors from the berry juice.
As an Added Bonus!
Did you run out of an ingredient? Don’t want to make an extra trip to the store? Still think you are a baking failure, and just want to give up?
Don’t do it! See if this fun freebie – Kitchen Substitutions – will help!
Last Tips for the Now Not-So Baking Failure!
Get rid of the heavy hand. Cakes, cookies and other baked goods can become heavy and tough if overmixed. Once the dry ingredients meet the wet ingredients, it is time to mix the two together literally just until blended. If using a mixer, you may want to mix for one minute or less, or use a ‘pulsing’ (or on/off) mix cycle. Unless it is a thick, heavy batter, you may also want to mix by hand at this point.
If you are a non-baker (or still consider yourself a baking failure), I would suggest you start with something simple. Learn the tools of the trade. Have a perfectly straight edge to level your flour and dry ingredients in the measuring cup or spoon.
Keep two sets of measuring cups and spoons – one for wet, and one for dry. The cups make sure you have the proper amount and having two sets of spoons prevent you from having to wash and dry before reusing for the next ingredient.
I have a set of small bowls I use to measure out my ingredients first, especially the wet ones. This way, I can just grab and add, rather than having to stop to measure. It does mean more clean up, but it also makes baking a longer, more complicated recipe easier. This is especially true when we make peanut brittle. Once it reaches candy stage, we have to be ready to add fast, as it is an impatient recipe.
See? With these few tips and tricks, you can easily move from ‘baking failure’ to a pro. All you have to do now is get in a little practice!
For those who only thought they were a baking failure (and now are in the kitchen baking their hearts out!), I hope this clears up some of the frustration and confusion when baking. For the seasoned bakers, I hope this gave you at least one tip you can use. And for both of you, please save me some cookies. I promise to share my lemonade with you!!!
(Don’t forget to download your Kitchen Substitutions list!)