Beginner Baking 101 with SusieJ

So you've decided to bake, but you don't know where to start. Or, you are already baking, but you still feel a bit lost. If you feel like you know what you are doing, go on to part 2 . To start baking, to see if you like it, you don't need many things, and they aren't expensive things. I hate, I loathe the articles and catalogues that list basic kitchen supplies and include stand mixers and $100 electronic instant-read thermometers. Let me tell you, unless you approach your kitchen appliances like a newborn baby, you will break the $100 thermometer. You will leave it near a sink of water or a boiling pot of water or some water feature in your kitchen. And this will kill the $100 instant-read thermometer dead. Then you will keep baking without a thermometer, wondering why you needed it to bake. Or you will by the $10 mechanical thermometer, which comes in more colors to match your decor, and won't make you feel guilty when it gets too cozy with the water can. What follows is a list of the very few ingredients, equipment and techniques absolutely necessary to bake.

Ingredients

Six ingredients are used for most baking: flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, butter, and eggs. Not all recipes use all ingredients, many recipes need additional ingredients, some recipes use none of the above, but if you have these on hand you can bake many things, and often need to buy only a couple of additional ingredients for a recipe. All should be available at any grocery store.

Flour

Should be all-purpose. Some people care about bleached vs. unbleached, but I don't. There are other kinds of wheat flour: pastry, cake, bread, self-rising, whole wheat; and other grains: rye, spelt, corn meal, and a host of other things humans have put between two grindstones over the millenia. All-purpose is used in most if not all basic recipes. Should last for a while. Brand generally doesn't matter.

Sugar

Should be cane or beet sugar, white, and is sold in four- or five-pound bags. There's also 4x or caster sugar (actually an acceptable substitute, and often used in cocktails), powdered or 10x sugar (for icing), brown (light or dark), and demerra. There are other sweeteners, like honey, agave nectar, corn syrup (light or dark), molasses, artificial sweeteners. Just get the stuff you'd put in a sugar bowl (but not artificial). Sugar should last for a year or more. Brand generally doesn't matter.

Baking powder

Is the most-used leavener (thing that makes baked goods rise) in baking unless you are baking yeast breads. Buying baking powder was my commitment to baking. Before that, I'd always had a box of Bisquick in the house, but buying a whole can of baking powder meant I could bake pancakes, cookies, cornbread, and cakes whenever I wanted. Baking powder combines an acid and a base that don't react to each other until they they are wet and/or heated. Double-activing baking powders When the two chemicals react, they turn into water (very little) and carbon dioxide gas, helping the batter or dough puff up. In general, recipes use 1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder per cup of flour. Not all do; red velvet cake recipes use much less to get that dense texture. I use double-acting Clabber Girl and Calumet, and avoid Rumford, which is not double-acting. Baking powder should last six months to a year after opening.

Butter

Available by the pound or half-pound, or sometimes even in single sticks. One stick is one-half cup is one-quarter pound, or one pound is two cups is four sticks. When you start baking, salted or unsalted doesn't matter much. Recipes generally call for unsalted butter so that you can control how much salt goes in, but using salted butter won't make anything inedibly salty. Lasts for a month or more in the refrigerator; the biggest problem is it picking up the tast of other foods in the fridge. Can be frozen, just remember to defrost the night before (or become adept at defrosting in the microwave).

Eggs

Most American recipes assume large eggs, which weigh about 57 grams including the shell, or 50 grams without the shell. Whether you can substitute other sizes of eggs depends on the number of eggs and the ratio of eggs to other ingredients. If the recipe calls for many eggs (say a half dozen or more), then add an extra medium or small egg, and use one less large or jumbo egg. The Wikepedia entry on chicken eggs can help you with the conversion, or you could skip the math and buy large eggs.

Vanilla extract

Vanilla is not the boring option in baking. It is, instead, the subtle oomph in the background. I personally prefer real extract, but, at nearly $80/quart (Penzey's Mexican vanilla sells for nearly $40/16 oz), you have my permission to buy the artificial stuff. The testers at Cook's Illustrated magazine couldn't tell the difference in the finished product.

Cinnamon

The spice most often used in baking, it is sold in small and large jars, and enourmous bottles in discount stores. Until you know you love baking, the large jar from the grocery store should be sufficient. The advice is to replace your spices every year, but the only people likely to do this are those who use their spices in a year. You could just buy the small jar and throw it out whatever is left after three years.

Equipment

Below are the absolute basic equipment every baker must have. Note how short a list it is! Stay away from the high-end, national equipment chains because they are supplying trophy kitchens. When you start baking, you need only a few items — measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, a mixer, a scraper, and pans.

Measuring cups

One set of cups in 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 and 1 cup measures for dry ingredients, and a pyrex 1- or 2-cup measure for liquids. Odd sizes like 1/8, 2/3 and 3/4 cup can sometimes be found. I like my Oxo cups; they are sturdy and have easy-to-read measurements.

Measuring spoons

One set of spoons in 1/4, 1/2 and 1 teaspoon (tsp or t), and 1 tablespoon (Tbs or T). Some sets also have odd sizes like 1/8 teaspoon and 1/2 tablespoon. Three teaspoons are one tablespoon, so 1 1/2 teaspoons are 1/2 tablespoon. The Oxo measuring spoons have the same virtues as their measuring cups: sturdy and easy to read. However, the round bowls don't fit into some spice jars, and narrow spoons work better.

Bowls

They're not just for mixing any more! In addition to a three-quart bowl and two-quart bowl for mixing, smaller bowls for holding pre-measured ingredients, cracking eggs, holding cookie decorations. As lovely as a graduated set of nesting mixing bowls from 1/4 cup to 4 quarts is, cereal bowls and coffee cups (not mugs) do just as well.

Mixer

Technically, you could do it the way your great-grandmother did, and beat everything by hand. This could be as simple as an egg-beater from the hardware store, which is capable of creaming butter and whipping egg whites. The Oxo brand has a nice, smooth action. More likely, you'll pick up a three- or five-speed hand mixer, which is even better at creaming and whipping. A hand mixer is not powerful enough for bread dough, and some cookie doughs need to be finished with hand folding.

Spatula/scraper

While not necessary, a silicone spatula mixes, folds, beats and gets the last bits of pancake batter onto the griddle. There are mini-srapers and large spoon-ulas, but starting out, a mid-sized spatula gives the most bang for the buck. Silicone lasts longer than rubber, and can be used on hot pans without making a gooey mess.

Pans

It all depends on what you want to bake. In general, your pans should be shiny (because dark colors absorb more heat and lead to burning) and heavy weight (to transfer heat more easily). Pyrex is a bad choice except for a pie plate (nine to ten inches), because the food will burn too easily. Insulated cookie sheets were the hot thing a decade ago, but bakers have cooled in their appreciation of late. If you have two of anything (two cake pans, two cookie sheets) they should be identical, so that baking times are identical. Some things are most useful in twos: cake pans (nine inch diameter is a good, generic size), cookie sheets, muffin/cupcake tins, small loaf pans.

Timer

I almost forgot to include a timer in this list, which is fitting considering how often I forget to set the timer. A clock works, but doesn't grab your attention when you get sucked into blogs. The timer on a cell phone or computer works, but it's much cheaper to replace a plastic timer than a cell phone.

After that ...

Buy items that you need and will use. Buy a rolling pin and cookie cutters if you like sugar cookies.

Skills

Prepare

The value of preparation was driven home the night I was stir-frying with hot peppers, and thought I had time to mince the garlic and get it into the pot before the pepper burned. The pepper burned and the smoke drove me from the kitchen. That smoke lingered all night, even with the windows and doors open and the fan running. To be fancy, call your preparation mise en place (said with a Philadelphia-French accent: meez ahn plass).

Get out all the ingredients before you start — even before you start measuring. Get the flour, sugar and eggs out; you'll see if you are short a couple eggs and can run to grocery store immediately. Measure out the other ingredients, putting each measured ingredient into its own bowl: this can be a soup bowl, a tea cup, or a little dessert bowl. Now you find out if that really was two cups of flour left in the bag.

In a nice, clear, clean counter space arrange the ingredients in the order they'll are used in the recipe.

If any of the ingredients have preparation methods, like chopping or melting and cooling, do that before starting on the other directions.

Measure

The first skill you need to master is how to measure, because baking is really applied chemsitry, and if the ratios get too far out of whack, disaster awaits. (The good news is, if everything is consistent, you should get the same result. The bad news is you can't just throw everything together and hope it comes out.) Most cookbooks and recipes in America today use "dip and sweep" for dry ingredients: dip the measuring cup or spoon into the bag, bring out far more than you'll need, and sweep off the excess back into the bag with the back of a knife or the side of a fork or spoon handle. Don't press it down! If the flour or sugar goe everywhere but the bag when you sweep, sweep onto a piece of wax paper or tin foil, or into a large enough bown, and pour the excess into the bag.

For liquids, pour into the glass measuring cup, bend down and check the with your eye level with the measuring line. Looking at it from above is innacurate because refraction keeps your eye from accurately seeing where the liquid is in relation to the line.

Mix

In the easiest recipes, such as Jewish Apple Cake or Pumpkin Bread, you only need to mix the dry ingredients (flour, seasonings, baking powder, salt, maybe sugar) in one large bowl, mix the wet ingredients (eggs, water, milk, oil, melted butter, maybe sugar) in another bowl, and then mix the wet into the dry. Professionals call this the muffin method, because this is how most muffins are made.

When you mix, be sure the bowl is big enough to keep batter from flying everywhere. With an electric mixer, start on a low speed and then go faster to prevent flying batter. Use a spatuala/scraper to get everything off the bottom and into the batter. The recipe will probably say whether the batter should be smooth (no lumps) or if it can be lumpy.

Oven

Most American home ovens are conventional, and not convection ovens. Convection means the air inside the oven is blown around; this transfers heat more efficiently to the food. Most American recipes are written for conventional ovens.

Before baking, you need to pre-heat the oven. Some ovens have a preheat setting which can heat the oven faster, but you must remember to re-set the oven to bake, or things will burn. The other way is to turn the oven to the bake setting and let it heat for 20 minutes. In most recpies (mine included), the oven should have more than enough time to heat up if it starts pre-heating when the directions say to pre-heat. And if you forget to pre-heat until mid-recipe, you should still have enough time

The biggest and most expensive baking tool in your kitchen, and possibly the most fickle. It can run cold, or hot, or take forever to heat up, or have hot spots. Pop an oven thermometer in while preheating and check to see if the temperature matches. If it's off by 20 degrees or more, adjust the temperature. And keep checking. The bread test can show if you have any hot spots. If the spots are particularly bad, you can avoid them, or rotate your pans. If the oven has temperature problems and needs a good cleaning, that good cleaning will probably help it regulate temperature better. Oven walls are shiny to reflect heat; oven crud is dark and absorbs it.

Cream

The technique, not the ingredient.

Although, yum.

Creaming is beating butter (or margarine or shortening) until light and fluffy, often with sugar. This puts air bubbles into the fat, and it is mainly the air bubbles in the butter that will make your cake rise, according to all the cookbook authors. The baking powder reaction makes the bubbles in the fat bigger; the powder works best with existing bubbles. It's the basis of many cakes and cookies, including Choclate almond cherry cake, sour-cream cut-outs, all kinds of spritz

First thing to do is to bring the butter to cool room temperature. For creaming, butter can be a little cooler than what most of us would consider room temperature, about 65 degrees. Butter from the refrigerator needs about 30 to 45 minutes to reach this temperature. In the summer, be careful not to over-soften.

Second, drop the butter into a large bowl and start beating on low speed. When the butter is smeared nicely around the bowl, increase the mixer speed to medium, and continue beating until the butter begins to look fluffy. Add the sugar, and, once the sugar is incorparated into the butter, increase the speed again. Keep beating sugar and butter mixture until it's very fluffy, about two to three minutes with a stand mixer, longer with a hand-held mixer, longer yet with an eggbeater.

Creaming is also a way of mixing batter ingredients together. The general method is to cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs, then mix in dry and liquid ingredients.

After creaming the butter, in most recipes you will beat in the eggs, then add the dry ingredients alternating with the liquid ingredients. If the recipe says to add the eggs into the creamed butter, add the eggs one at a time, beating for half a minute after each addition. After adding the last egg, scrape the butter up from the bottom of the bowl before beating the egg in. This makes sure all the butter has mixed with the eggs.

Finally, mix together the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the liquid in another. Add some (usually 1/2 or 1/3, according to the recipe) of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed just until mixed in. Add some of the liquid ingredients, again mixing on low speed just until mixed in, and keep alternating, ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape the all the butter and batter from the bottom of the bowl, and mix on low or medium speed until the batter is smooth. Of course, if the recipe's directions for adding ingredients differ

Practice, practice, practice

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

How do you become a good baker? Practice, practice, practice. At least with baking, you can eat the results, the failures, too.

My friend Cecily recently posted a photo of her first crafting effort along with a snarky comment that this was why she doesn't craft ("anti-craft," I think she called herself). I thought it looked pretty good; I couldn't have done better. The problem is that Cecily is a good writer, and expects to be equally good at most creative things. Well, she's been reading since before kindergarten, and probably writing since not long after. She has practiced writing for more than three decades. Of course she's good! But she's only made one gingerbread train in her life.

You can't succeed without trying, and without trying again, and again, and again. There will be failures. Oh, will there be failures in the kitchen. But if you can figure out what went wrong, you get to call a failure a learning experience, which sounds nicer.

Reading books and watching cooking shows can teach a lot, but they only go halfway. It's practice that perfects. The more you bake, the more you know about how it should work. Should the dough be this wet? Was it this wet the last time? How difficult was it to handle? How did it bake up?

Baking a recipe the second time is always easier than the first, just as driving an unfamiliar route is easier the second time. Even without the details, you have a general idea, and you know what gave you problems and can prepare for it. The tenth time is even easier, and eventually, you've memorized the recipe.

I can whip out a batch of scones or cream biscuits in under half an hour for weekend breakfasts because I have baked scones or biscuits nearly every weekend for years. Sometimes the biscuits don't rise, or they taste soapy the next day (too much baking powder). Burned cupcakes tell me to dump the muffin pan with the black bottom.

Bake things you like to eat, things you won't mind eating over and over, especially things you would like to eat if they aren't perfect. Start simple and work your way up to wedding cakes. Or just jump into wedding cakes, but bake a lot of them.

Books

All Cakes Considered

This book by Melissa Gray is perfect for the beginning cake baker. Her first chapter is devoted to expanding and explaining one of those back-of-a-notecard recipes experienced bakers give out. Gray's inspiration for the book was a failed attempt at Martha Washington Cake and a year-long project to teach herself the skill to bake it. The book roughly follows the cakes she added to her repertoire to build her skills.

Gray starts with a simple sour-cream pound cake, covers the Bundt genre well, and moves on to gooey layer cakes. She makes a brief detour into cookies and fried pies to give everyone a break from cake, cake, cake. Then it's back to modern, involved cake creations.

Although she didn't intend it to be, All Cakes Considered is a thorough survey of post-war American baking. It was the book I give to German friends and family interested in baking.

Baking: From My House to Yours

By Dorie Greenspan. This is my pick for "if you only had one book in your kitchen ..." Recipes are detailed and unambiguous; most are accompanied by a photo so that you know if your result is as intended. The focus is American and she covers everything but bread baking, with an entire chapter devoted to apple pie.

Baking has my go-to recipes for cream biscuits (I do reduce the baking powder), chocolate cake and muffins.

Artisanal Bread in Five Minutes a Day

This book, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François, covers the bread gap left by Gray and Greenspan. As much as I resisted the no-kead bread phenomena, it really does produce a fantastic loaf. The five minutes refers to the active time of mixing up the dough and shaping the loaf. In between, there are the usual couple hours of rise, followed by roughly another hour and a half pre-heating and baking.

I modified the directions a bit by baking in an enameled, cast-iron dutch oven, rather than using a baking stone and steam bath. Preheat the dutch oven with the oven, and bake the loaf covered for the first half of the baking time.

TV shows

I'm a bit curmudgeonly about television. Most shows are too much like chips — I watch TV (and eat chips) because that's what's there, not because it's interesting or yummy. "Yummy" food programming is, for me, only about learning how to cook, no reality, not "games," just people teaching how to cook well. (Iron Chef is the bad Chinese dumplings of food programming; I rather like it in spite of myself, but too much is off-putting.)

There are only a few people whose shows are in-depth enough to really teach a novice how to bake. Most TV chefs cook a three-course meal in half an hour, something possible only with trained staff or prepared ingredients.

Sara Moulton

On the other hand, I have a world of respect for anyone who would cook a meal in an hour of live television, incuding all the chopping and measuring that takes most of the time. Food TV jettisoned Cooking Live with Sara Moulton, but you can still find her on public TV, although no longer cooking live.

Julia Child

In The French Chef, she did most, if not all, of the prep work on-camera because she focused on one dish at a time. She would demonstrate how to chop the vegetables and describe a heretofore-unheard-of ingredient. When it was time to saute the vegetables, rather than pulling out a pan of pre-sauteed vegetables, she would saute and discuss the history of the dish, variations or pitfalls. Her earliest shows are available on DVD.

Alton Brown

Is another chef who goes in-depth into a single dish in one program. He devotes one episode to chocolate chip cookies, showing how varying the ingredients changes the texture of the cookie to crisp or chewy or puffy. He slips science and culinary history into the program under goofiness. Early episodes of Good Eats are also available on DVD and he's one of the last trained chefs on Food TV.