5 Baking Rules I Learned Working in a Professional Kitchen
For the past year and change, I have worked as a professional baker. Over the course of the day, I'll run through hundreds of eggs and pounds of butter, baking countless pies, cookies, and cakes. I started out as a dedicated home baker, spending weekends laminating croissant dough by hand and growing my own sourdough culture. But those one-off projects, I learned, were vastly different from the world of professional baking, where my batch sizes grew tenfold and my days were optimized based on oven space.
Working in a professional kitchen has seriously streamlined my baking skills. Today, I'm sharing a few of the foundational pieces of wisdom that transformed me from a casual home baker to a true professional. Though they focus on baking, these tips and tricks extend from sweet to savory—they're basic culinary building blocks that will give you a sense of confidence in the kitchen.
1. Read the Recipe (Yes, Really)
This one may seem obvious, but 9 times out of 10, the reason that a dish goes wrong is that the cook hasn't fully read the recipe before starting. Do you need room-temperature eggs or butter? Will you need to incorporate the cream into the caramel quickly? Little factors like this can make or break a recipe. Setting out the eggs and butter ahead of time or measuring out the cream before the moment comes to add it to the caramel will ensure proper execution. So before you get started, read the recipe in full—you may come across some surprises.
2. Stay Organized
The French term mise en place translates to "everything in its place," and this is a rule to live by in the kitchen. In practice, it means measuring and preparing all of the ingredients before you even get started on the recipe. Combining your dry ingredients, cracking your eggs, and melting your butter ahead of time allows you to visualize exactly when and how you will incorporate each element in the process (it also ensures that you don't forget anything). Preparing all the elements of your recipe—from cubing butter to measuring quantities of milk or vanilla—before beginning makes the baking process a breeze.
3. Dress Appropriately
If you want to feel like a real chef, dress like one. Wearing closed-toed, non-skid shoes is the safest way to navigate potentially slippery kitchen floors. Not only will wearing an apron save your outfit du jour from splashes and splatters, but it can be a fashion statement of its own. Aprons can be both functional and fashionable, and they make a great keepsake to pass down to future generations of cooking in your family. We love the pretty aprons from Anthropologie or Southern Living's very own functional (and cute!) apron from Dillards.
4. Take the Conditions into Account
Whether or not you realize it, the weather can have a big impact on your food. Not only does your region and climate determine what food can grow locally, but something as simple as the rain can make or break your dish, particularly in baking. For example, meringue notoriously requires a dry climate—don't even bother attempting it on a rainy day, as the sugar absorbs water from the air, turning the meringues soft and chewy.
Many recipes will call for softened butter, or butter that has been removed from the fridge and come to room temperature. Depending on the season and the climate, this can take vastly different amounts of time. In the winter, I'll often set my butter out overnight to soften; in the summer, I'll take it out of the fridge at the beginning of the day, as it'll soften in just a few hours. Understanding the conditions you're working in will help you determine how much time you'll need for your butter to soften, and you want to be as accurate as possible—letting butter soften overnight during the summer in the South is a recipe for a melted mess.
If you didn't have the foresight to set your butter out in advance, don't worry—I have a handy trick that'll get your butter soft in a snap. Boil a pot of water, then carefully pour the water into a heat-safe bowl. Let it sit for a minute, then pour the water out and set the steamy bowl over your butter. Let it sit for 3-5 minutes and you'll have softened butter.
5. Keep It Clean
Perhaps the number one lesson I learned working in a bakery (without a dishwasher, might I add) is to clean as you go. Keeping a clean work station is crucial to staying organized and avoiding cross-contamination. Do your dishes as you go and you won't be left with the dreaded, towering pile of bowls in the sink at the end of the process.