10 Things Every Beginner Baker Should Know
Don't be afraid of baking your first cake.
All good bakers understand that baking is just as much science as it is art, which means it has rules for success. Each ingredient and every step in a cake recipe has a specific purpose, beyond flavor alone. Unlike most non-baking recipes where a little more or less of this or that is no big deal, when it comes to cake, making substitutions, leaving things out, or taking shortcuts often results in unexpected and unintended (if not disastrous) outcomes that can’t be discovered until it comes out of the oven, when it’s too late or difficult to remedy.
It’s wise to heed basic baking rules and follow a well-written cake recipe to the letter, at least the first few times. Great cake recipes are baking lessons that can turn beginners into experts with bragging rights. It also teaches bakers (of all skill levels) how to fill in the blanks and unmentioned steps that are common in handwritten recipes tucked in family recipe boxes, jotted down by one expert baker intended for another, back when it was assumed that everyone knew how to put together a cake.
- Read the recipe. Before you begin, read the recipe all the way through so that you know what to expect and how to prepare. This also ensures you have all the necessary ingredients and tools. Nothing breaks the spirit more than getting half way into a recipe only to discover you need to run to the store, or should have done something in advance, or don’t have the right pan or utensil.
- Start with the right ingredients. Use the specific types and amounts of ingredients listed in the recipe. Different types of flour, sweetener, leavening, fat, and liquid are not interchangeable without making other adjustments to the recipe, if possible at all. What might seem like a simple, harmless change or swap can cause unintended consequences. Use an ingredient because it’s the right one, not because it’s what happens to be in the pantry or fridge door.
- Follow the steps. Combine and mix the ingredients as instructed. Every step in a baking recipe has a role and contributes to the outcome. The directions are there to help you and make the most of your time and effort, not waste it.
- Measure carefully. The amounts and ratios of each ingredient in a cake recipe impact the outcome. Most of us cannot eyeball an amount with precision and guesstimates don’t make good cakes. Rely on the consistency and reliability of measuring cups and spoons. (Advanced baking recipes call for scales, although most recipes written for beginning home bakers don’t require one.) Use measuring cups with pouring spouts for wet ingredients. Use even-edged cups with level tops for dry ingredients; these are often called dry measuring cups, appropriately enough. Wet and dry measuring cups are not interchangeable, and trying to use one in place of the other can result in surprisingly inaccurate measurements that can ruin a cake. To measure dry ingredients, such as flour or granulated sugar, spoon it from the bag or container into the appropriate-size dry measuring cup, and then use the straight edge of a (non-sharp) knife to sweep away the excess until it is level with the top of the cup. If you use a lot of sticky ingredients in your baking, such as peanut butter, honey, or corn syrup, an adjustable plunger-style measuring cup comes in handy. The plunger acts as a squeegee on the inside of the cup, scraping out every last bit of the ingredient.
- Let ingredients sit. When a recipe calls for room temperature eggs or “softened” butter, allow at least an hour for them to sit on your counter before you begin baking. Eggs should no longer feel cold to the touch and a fingertip should easily indent the butter. It’s tempting to rush butter along by zapping it in the microwave, but it’s too easy to melt the butter instead of softening it. Melted butter does not perform in a recipe the same way as room temperature butter and the cake or icing will suffer.
- Use the right tool for the task. A spoon cannot replace a whisk or a spatula, for example. Baking doesn’t have to be expensive, but you won’t regret investing in well-made, versatile basics, such as sturdy bowls, measuring spoons and cups, spatula, whisk, wire cooling rack, mixer, and common baking pans that will last for years.
- Prep the proper pan. Use the size and type of pan stated in the recipe, which affects far more than the shape of the cake. Unless the recipe says otherwise, bake a cake in metal pans rather than glass or ceramic. Prepare the pan as directed in the recipe, whether that’s greasing and flouring, misting with cooking spray, or lining with parchment. There’s more behind those steps that merely avoiding sticking. They also have an impact on the appearance and texture of the cake, and will help with cleanup afterward.
- Make sure the oven is hot. The oven should be hot and ready before placing the pan(s) inside. Heating (usually called preheating in older recipes) should be your first step, even when it’s not listed as the first step in the recipe. If the recipe specifies rack positions, move them into place before turning the oven on. If you suspect your oven thermostat is inaccurate (because, for example, baked goods are consistently over- or under-done when baked according to the time stated in the recipe), buy an expensive oven thermometer to sit or hang from the oven rack and give you a second opinion.
- Do a temperature check. Use a reliable timer, but always double-check for doneness. A good recipe will not only give a baking time, but also provide other cues or steps to help you assess whether the baked good is done, such as springing back when lightly touched or pulling away from the sides of the pan. When a recipe offers a time range, check for doneness at the earliest time. You can always bake it longer, but there’s no un-baking a scorched or dry cake. Toothpicks or slender skewers make good testers. Once it’s done, follow the recipe’s instructions on how long to let the cake cool before removing it from the pan or serving.
- Pay attention to the eggs. Unless otherwise specified, use large fresh eggs in cakes. Instead of cracking eggs directly into the batter bowl, crack them one at a time into a smaller bowl, and then pour it into the batter bowl. If small bits of shell fall into the egg, you can easily see and remove them from the smaller bowl. If the recipe calls for separating the yolks and whites and you accidentally break the yolk, you’ve ruined only the one egg instead of all the batter. Believe it or not, cleanly and carefully separated eggs will matter all the more when your cake recipe calls for beaten egg whites that cannot reach their intended volume if they contain even a single drop of yolk.