No one is born an ace baker, but anyone can become one with the help of a few basic top baking tips. I had an aunt or two to share theirs – I’m happy to be your ‘aunt’ and share mine.
I love to bake. The word ‘cake’ is one of my favourite in the English language, and I firmly believe that cake deserves it’s own food group. While I’m basically a self-taught baker, along my road to cake I had aunts to turn to when I needed help, and I learnt many of my top baking tips from them. Times (and aunts) have changed, but if the popularity of some of my baking posts and the cake pics I put on my Instagram profile are any indication, cakes and baking in general are more popular than ever.
I’m very aware that many of my readers are interested in baking, but lack confidence and might look for some help to begin with. While lots of great cooking is imaginative and can be fairly experimental, baking is a bit more of a science but, once the basics have been mastered, any creative cook can play with their bakes totally successfully.
At the urging of my good friend and novice baker Jacqui, who has been nagging me about this, I’m happy to be your ‘aunt’ and share the baking love with you, along with some of the basic top baking tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
A post like this could be almost never-ending, but I’ve divided it up into three sections and will limit my tips to just the very basics in each section, at this stage. If you love it, find it helpful, and want more – then please do say so. I’m more than happy follow up with more posts like this or perhaps do a Q&A post to answer specific queries – but in the meantime, here goes.
Ovens – obviously you’re going to need one. Those pricey, fancy-pants European ovens are all well and good, but most can’t afford all of the bells and whistles, and you don’t really need them to get good baking results. If you’re in the market for a new oven, work out what features you can’t live without, take your biggest baking tray along with you when you go oven shopping (to ensure it fits), and get the best you can afford.
Ovens in my house get a huge workout. I’ve bought three, in two separate houses, over the last few decades and, while I’ve set out each time to get a ritzy model, I’ve never come home with one. I like a decent 60cm wide oven that is fan forced, self cleaning and has timers. I also prefer to have double ovens, so I can cook things at different temperatures at the same time. Struggling to justify the huge cost of the expensive models, I’ve always come home with either Electrolux or Westinghouse (which I think might actually be the same, I’m not sure), and they’ve always been brilliant, lasting a minimum of 10 years – that’s 10 years of hard work here. I bought my last one four years ago at a ‘scratch and dent’ store and saved $$$.
If you’re renting, or buying the oven of your dreams isn’t a possibility, don’t despair. There’s one little purchase you can make to help make baking much more predictable for you. For less than $20 you can pick up an oven thermometer. I have a Cuisena one that hangs on my oven rack, and can be moved anywhere in the oven. They’re brilliant to help you monitor the actual temperature in your oven, and to hunt out hot or cold spots – it’s one of the best investments you’ll make if your oven is at all unpredictable, or the thermostat is a bit dodgy.
Mixing appliances – what do you actually need? Again, the flash stand mixers are very desirable, but not everyone can afford one, and unless you’re baking for shearers, or several times a week, you can probably do without one. Get yourself a good set of electric hand beaters, they’ll get you through most bakes, so long as you’re prepared to stand and hold them. My hand beaters are KitchenAid, cost about about $150, and have been going happily for about 8 years now.
Timer – once upon a time we used to buy these, but now we all have one built in to our phones. Use it. Every time.
You will also totally need a good set of scales, digital is best and the most accurate, a couple of good, deep mixing bowls, a glass measuring jug, a set of measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, wooden spoons, a couple of decent spatulas, a balloon whisk, a pastry brush and a rolling pin (although you can improvise here with a wine bottle in emergencies).
Flours – well, people have written books on this topic, but I’ll keep this brief. The bare basics are as follows.
Plain flour is what is also known as ‘all-purpose flour’, it is a processed wheat flour that is used on it’s own or with leavening agents depending upon the recipe.
Self raising flour is a processed wheat flour that has already had some leavening agents added and is commonly used in cake recipes here in Australia.
Bakers flour is wheat flour that contains more gluten, and is recommended for bread baking, where a stronger crumb structure is desirable.
Wholemeal flour is flour that has not been processed to remove the whole grain. It’s courser, nuttier and results in a denser, but higher fibre and more nutritious bake. If using in cake baking, I’d recommend using 1/2 in 1/2 with white flour to lighten up the end product, but you may also need to adjust liquid levels if using wholemeal.
Commercial flours are pretty standardised, but baking results can vary depending upon the moisture content of the flour, moisture in the atmosphere and elevation. Those who live at high altitudes often need to adjust baking times and temperatures, and sometimes amounts of the ingredients.
Flour can also go off. If kept too long or incorrectly (and the amount of time will vary) it can go rancid or become contaminated. Wholemeal flour especially will spoil in a relatively short period of time. I keep mine in the fridge. Other flours are best kept in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place.
Leavening agents – the basics include baking powder, baking soda – which is not to be confused with baking powder and is actually bicarbonate of soda, and yeast.
Sugar – again there’s a huge amount of variation here. The basics for any domestic baker to have on hand are white sugar, caster sugar, soft brown sugar and icing sugar – because icing is the most important part of a cake. 🙂
Fats – any cook will tell you that fat=flavour, so it’s important to use good quality fats in your baking. I use the best quality butter I can find, never margarine – it’s too processed and contains less water than butter so results will be less consistent. Other frequently used fats include olive oil, vegetable oil or, in some old-fashioned recipes with delicious results, lard.
There are as many techniques and methods to baking as there are bakers. These are the top baking tips I have used to get the best possible results.
First things first and possibly my most important top baking tip – avoid frustration and failure and read your recipe through. I can’t tell you how many times I got halfway through a recipe only to find I didn’t have an ingredient, or was supposed to have prepared something earlier.
Set out all of the ingredients required, and your bowls, scales, measuring spoons etc, on your bench and double check them against the recipe.
Make sure your butter is at room temperature. If you use the microwave to soften it, be very careful. Melted butter will not give you the desired result if the recipe calls for softened butter, and rock hard butter will not cream with sugar successfully.
Read the recipe again.
Preheat the oven and check the temperature (using your new oven thermometer).
Grease and line your baking pans and/or trays as per the recipe instruction. There’s not much more heartbreaking than rejoicing over a successfully risen cake, only to have it crumble as you try to prise it out of the pan.
Check ingredients off the recipe as you add them. Some bakers move each ingredient to a different part of the kitchen as they use them, ensuring a clear bench when the batter is made, indicating everything has gone in. We’re all busy and often preoccupied, and it’s easy to get distracted, so just do whatever works for you to make sure you don’t miss anything out.
Once your bake is in the oven, remember to set your timer, or phone timer, and keep it where you will hear it.
Don’t open the oven door unnecessarily – heat escapes quickly, and this can make your cake collapse.
Wow – these are really the bare bones of my top baking tips, and I have so much more to share, but this has gone on long enough. if you want more of this – please leave a comment, message me here or on Facebook!