Some tools and techniques may be beyond the ken of the home baker, but aspiring pastry chefs can use some of these top secrets to baking like a pro to do Grandma’s recipes proud.
Prepare Like a Pro
The French call preparation mise en place. It means having all your ingredients measured, grated, chopped, and ready in individual bowls before you even start the recipe. It may seem like a lot of extra work, but having all your ingredients measured, laid out in front of you, and ready to go actually saves time. Having the ingredients at room temperature is also recommended, with the notable exception of things such as pie crust, where the recipe may dictate that you cut in cold butter. Check the recipe for the recommended temperature of ingredients.
Sure, Grandma’s fancy penmanship says “a pinch” of this and “a dash” of that, but for professional-style baked goods, accurate measurements are important. Measuring cups with handles and pour spouts are for liquids, while cups with handles but no spouts are for dry ingredients. Overfill the dry ingredient measuring cups and use a knife to level off at the top for accuracy. Pack brown sugar and level it to be sure you have enough. Post a chart of equivalents to remind yourself how to measure if you want to divide or double a recipe.
Professionals measure by weight, not volume. Buy a good digital kitchen scale and learn how to tare the scale to subtract the weight of your mixing bowl when you add ingredients. If your recipes don’t provide measurements by weight, investigate a chart that will give you equivalent weights of common ingredients.
Use the Right Tools
Home bakers aren’t likely to invest in or have the space for a commercial-style dough sheeter, but other tools are available to the home cook to bake like a pro. Silicon pan liners or parchment paper keep cookies and cakes from sticking to baking pans. Using a cookie dough scoop results in cookies of more uniform size.
Invest in a good whisk and a fresh set of wooden spoons for mixing, but remember never to overmix batters, which can cause them to become gluey. Invest in a reliable oven thermometer. No two ovens are alike, and temperatures can be very inconsistent from one oven to the next. Always preheat your oven to the recommended temperature.
Use Fresh Ingredients
OK, so you only make pumpkin pie once a year. That doesn’t mean it’s wise to use a ten-year-old plastic container of cloves or nutmeg. You’d never use rotten eggs in your baking, so don’t use expired dry ingredients, either. Bakers also use cake flour. All-purpose flour works, but it won’t produce cakes as light and airy as ones made with cake flour.
Other Tricks and Secrets
After you’ve scooped dough or used cookie cutters to place your cookies on a baking sheet, let the dough rest in the fridge for a day or two. If you don’t have that much time, put the raw cookies in the freezer for about 15 minutes before you bake. Tap the pan and swirl cake batter around the pan a bit before you cook it. Starting with batter on the sides keeps the cake from doming up too much.