Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Baking Top Tips

It occurred to me recently, when visiting a non-baking friend, that there are plenty of us who have never been taught some of the basics when it comes to baking. I really believe that anyone can bake if they just know what to do. You don't have to have the knack, just a few facts! I've put together a few of my top tips for baking but also, more importantly, what are yours?

  • Always turn the oven on before getting started, and make sure it is up to temperature before you put your baking in the oven. On all the ovens I know, the light will switch off once it has got to temperature (it will continue to go on and off from then on, as it is on a thermostat).
  • Temperatures in ovens are not perfectly accurate, so get to know your oven. Some will take a little longer to cook than the recipe suggests, and others will be quicker.
  • Cakes, muffins and cakey puddings are ready when you put a skewer (or small knife) in to the centre  and it comes out clean. Biscuits and pastries can be judged by their golden glow.
  • Put your tray in the middle shelf of the oven unless instructed to do otherwise. If you have more than one tray's worth of baking, don't attempt to cook them at the same time. I suggest shaving a minute or two off the cooking time for the second batch as, like it or not, your oven will be a bit hotter. 
  • Creaming butter and sugar together means you need to soften the butter first (on low in the microwave is easiest). Beat it hard with the sugar in the mixer until you get a light mixture or, if doing it by hand, you'll have to give your arm a really good workout. 
  • Once you start adding the dry ingredients to the wet when making muffins, you need to mix very lightly and gently so you don't get tough muffins. This doesn't apply to cakes or puddings.
  • I never sift my flour and very rarely use my sieve at all. Don't bother I say, unless you have something you really think needs it - like cocoa that has clumped a bit. I also very rarely bother with caster sugar as opposed to standard sugar, unless perhaps I'm making something more delicate such as a meringue. Even then, if I don't have any available I wouldn't worry.
  • If you have to rub butter in to flour (often required for scone mixtures and crumbles), chop the butter up small and beat it hard and long in the mixer with the flour. I have tried everything and this is by far the easiest way.
  • Taste the mixture! This will be my Mum's number one tip. She visited a neighbour decades ago who had done some baking and left out a key ingredient. "But didn't you lick the mixture?" Mum said. No, she hadn't. This has always served my Mum as a great excuse to have a taste, though you're not likely to notice if you've left out the baking powder, so checking the recipe is probably a good idea too. (I once made a chocolate moussey something when my brother was coming for dinner. I didn't taste the mixture as it was too eggy I suspect, but as it turned out I had put salt in instead of sugar. Everyone has to do that once in their life).

These are the tips that come to mind for me. No doubt many of you have some great ideas. What are your top tips? And fledgling bakers, do you have any questions? I can't guarantee I can answer them, but I bet my readers can.

Oh and one more thing:

  • When blogging about top baking tips, don't ever, ever leave your 16 month old in the kitchen near a rack of cooling biscuits. Not ever. All I can say is I'm glad I had a second tray cooling in a different spot, and a good vacuum cleaner.

The little RASCAL demonstrating Nana's Number One Tip.


  1. My number one tip is: never bake tired.

    1. Ha ha yes. Though what do you think I do ALL THE TIME?!

  2. Good tips. Interested to see what you said about sieving and caster sugar... I am generally a stickler for both - in fact, we rarely have "normal" granulated sugar in the house because no-one uses it in their drinks and I tend to bake with caster; until recently, I was under the impression that caster sugar was "normal" sugar, I never realised it was considered outlandish or extravagent until some visiting friends expressed surprise that I had it in my cupboard! I have recently been trying to liberate myself from sieve slavery... Although that seems to be the part of the baking process Marcus most enjoys helping with, so don't think I'll drop it entirely.
    I don't have an electric mixer, so rubbing in still happens by hand here. I find it helps to chop the butter up really small and make sure it's coated with the flour before I start helps. Otherwise, it's just a matter of keeping going for far longer than you imagine necessary. And try to keep your hands and fingers cold. On a similar point, pastry (and biscuit dough) are generally easier to roll and work with when they've sat in the fridge for a bit first.
    Final tip is to make sure all tins and trays etc are lined and ready before you start mixing - nothing worse than turning round to pour your carefully prepared muffin mix into cases that are still in the cupboard! - and that they are the appropriate size for your recipe - I once made a 2lb fruit cake recipe in a 1lb tin and was astonished to find the inside of my oven covered in partially cooked cake mix!
    Just wondering, did you get my rambly message about sponges last week?

    1. Ah yes. The tins. I couldn't agree more. I keep mine up high and have to use a stool to get them, which is a real pain when I just want to get everything in the oven now!
      You sound like a very committed butter-rubber, well done! It's something I'm not very patient with.
      Yes I wouldn't want to discourage Marcus from sifting, it is rather fun! I tend to always be keen to get things done as quickly as possible, though when Reuben is helping I am learning to slow down.

  3. I think you've summed it up pretty nicely - my failing points are usually over-mixing and not doing the skewer test. Oh, and opening the oven door too early and letting the heat out.

    With no fancy mixer or food processor, my 2 favourite useful gadgets are a hand sifter (squeezy one) and a pastry blender - no flour/butter under the nails!

    1. Funny how you can know the rules but still be a bit naughty and break them. For me, no doubt, it's impatience.

  4. I learned most of what I know about baking from my Mum, who learned most of what she knew from my Nana. Mum let me be experimental in the kitchen from fairly young and now my girls are carrying on the tradition ... so my number one tip is let your kids loose in the kitchen from much younger than you feel entirely comfortable with and before long they'll be baking things that amaze and astound you (eg macaroons)
    I concur with all but one of your baking tips ... I always sift things, religiously, apart from when I make bread. I have an old fashioned rotating sifter with a little handle on the side which is an essential part of my baking ritual! My favourite appliance is my Kenwood mixer, another family tradition, and I'd be quite lost in the kitchen without it.
    Recently I discovered a couple of new baking tips I didn't learn from my Mum ...
    When lining a round spring-form tin with baking paper: remove the bottom, place the un-cut paper over it, attach the sides of the tin to the bottom with paper in between, then cut paper from around it - much faster and stops any mixture leaking out the sides.
    The other is you can cut a cake into layers with dental floss (or heavy-weight cotton thread) strange but true. Wrap a generous length of dental floss carefully around cake at level you want to slice through, cross ends of thread over and pull in opposite directions. Works like magic with hardly any crumbs!

    1. Yes I sort of enjoy sifting when I'm not in a hurry, though I never notice a difference with the end result. Love the tip about kids - it was one of the things I most looked forward to about having children, being able to cook with them.
      I've seen someone on TV cutting a sponge with string. If I ever get one high enough perhaps I should try it!


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