Why baking terrifies people – and why it doesn’t have to
I absolutely did not grow up helping my mom measure flour and sugar for homemade birthday cakes. My grandpa has always been the baker in the family, and I loved spending time at the G-rents’ house watching him twist up cinnamon rolls and roll out pie dough, and to this day he’s in charge of the pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving. He peaked my interest in baking, but I want to be clear that this was not a skill or art I learned as a child. It wasn’t until my first job, at 14 years old (they overlooked the work permit law for a good six months), that I started to study the art of baking. The pastry chefs at Primrose Pastries in Castro Valley just adored me (I was far less sarcastic at 14) and let me help prep and mix, when I finished weighing and balling cookie dough, whenever the opportunity arose. By the end of my tenure there I was creating fondant mushrooms and dusting them with cinnamon, writing script on cakes, and making cookie dough all by my onesie. That’s when I learned that there’s nothing more delicious than making a sweetie yourself, from scratch. So I’m here to quell the fears you may have about baking. It’s really not that scary, I promise, and it’s worth every minute and calorie.
First, ignore what you’ve heard about baking being a science and a lot like chemistry. If you’re not interested in science, and you associate baking with science, (no surprise here) you won’t be interested in baking. And although completely true, there’s no need to understand the chemistry of baking soda versus baking powder in order to produce a tasty treat. I have no idea what the difference between the two is or why you use one and not the other or both sometimes. You merely need to be able to find a good recipe and follow it.
Take the time to do a little recipe research. If you choose a faulty recipe, you’re going to waste loads of time making a sweetie that doesn’t measure up to your expectations. Look up a bunch of recipes for the same item and figure out what they all have in common and which one stands out – avoid that one. Choose the recipe that seems to be the lowest common denominator, the one that includes all the basic ingredients and techniques, nothing fancy, nothing experimental. Bakers stand by tried and true ingredients and techniques, and will rarely deviate from their favorite cake recipe once they find it. When you’re just starting out, keep it simple. Don’t try to be a cupcake hero.
Speaking of expectations, adjust yours before you put that apron on. If it doesn’t turn out to be the most delicious apple pie you’ve ever eaten, remember that you saw a hundred other recipes out there and try another one next time. It took me 12 years baking chocolate chip cookies to find THE recipe, and I must have tried two dozen others before I found it. The smallest detail can alter a recipe vastly (which is why choosing a simple one at first is key), so try to determine what you didn’t love about your dish and Google it – “apple pie filling that isn’t mushy,” “flaky pie crust,” etc. (BTW, I recommend a combination of cooked and raw Granny Smith apples for the filling, and an all-butter pie crust.)
Once you’ve got your recipe, follow it exactly. When you’re cooking, it’s ok to sub vegetable oil for olive oil, or to omit the carrots if you forgot to buy them. You cannot skip a single step or ingredient in baking. Maybe this is daunting, or maybe it makes things easier. You don’t have to think at all, you just have to follow instructions. Unlike cooking, where you have to understand what sweating onions means in order to complete that step, baking instructions are pretty self-explanatory. Sift flour, cream butter and sugar, whisk together dry ingredients. Easy peasy. If you follow instructions exactly, your dish will turn out exactly how it’s supposed to. Remember, that might not be how you want it to turn out, but it’ll be how the recipe wants it to turn out.
I’ve compiled some basic tips that I think will help anyone who wants to learn how to bake.
- Don’t mess with oven temperatures or rack positions. If it says use the lowest oven rack at 400, don’t be too lazy to move your oven racks around.
- Rotate your baked goods 2/3 of the way through cooking time. I rotate everything I put into the oven, but it’s especially important with baked goods.
- Seek out recipes that explain what the consistency or texture should be like at certain stages. In baking, you can’t taste as you go so these are the only measures you have to determine whether you followed the recipe correctly.
- Take the time to read about making the dish first. I won’t use recipes that don’t have an introductory paragraph or two that explain why that particular recipe works or is different.
- Give yourself plenty of time. If you’re supposed to bring a pie to dinner, make it the night before and read the recipe thoroughly two days before. Baked goods take time to cool and set, and often the prep time is quite long because you have to refrigerate items for a length of time before you can incorporate them into other items. The quickest and easiest baked goods to make are cookies, and even those take a good 45 minutes from start to tummy.
- Let items cool for the amount of time noted and no less. Have you ever tried to trim a cake top or slice a pie before it’s fully cool? It’s a disaster. Getting your dish from the baking pan to the plate is just as important as the mixing and baking.
In order to bake, all you really need is the proper ingredients, the ability to follow a recipe and patience. You don’t have to be a pastry scientist or even a good cook. I actually find cooking more difficult than baking sometimes because of the freedom to add and adjust as you go. With baking, you make your batter or dough or filling, put it in the oven and forget about it until a timer goes off. If you can’t cook, that doesn’t mean you can’t bake. Most professional chefs only excel at one or the other, so don’t let the kitchen frighten you in general. Give baking a try. The worst thing that’ll happen is a mess in your kitchen and a hilarious story about that time you put salt instead of sugar in your cookies. And who doesn’t love a good kitchen mis-hap story?