When I was younger, I loved baking but dreaded it at the same time. Baking for me was very hit and miss because what worked out once did not work out the same way the next day. It was an unending desire to become a great baker that kept me baking even though I had disastrous results sometimes. While learning, I threw away numerous baked goods that did not taste good or turned out hard, dry and unappetising.
Baked goods would remain on the counter for fear of food poisoning, and my family would offer many criticisms on my baking until I was forced to toss the goods in the garbage.
Years later, my baked goods never last long enough, a 10-inch cake lasts for 24 hours. I sat deliberating on what changed in my baking and techniques, and I realise that my improved baking was not the product of practice alone. My improved baking is a result of the many changes I had to make. The mistakes I made are very much avoidable, so I have put together a list that will help you in your quest to become a great baker.
To become a great baker, you must:
-Know your ingredients
-Bake the recipe as directed the first time
-Educate yourself on the science of baking
-Know your equipment
-Learn how to measure properly
-Only use great quality ingredients
-Learn baking terminology
-Do not limit yourself
-Have a base recipe
-Buy good quality bakeware
-Become your own greatest critic
-Accept that the journey to greatness is a long, tedious and sometimes painful one
Know your ingredients
One mistake I made in my journey to become a great baker was that I did not know my ingredients. Yes, I knew what they looked like, but my knowledge of their function in a recipe was lacking. While anyone can bake from a great recipe, a great baker can bake from a recipe and transform the recipe into something else because they understand their ingredients.
Educate yourself on the science of baking
Connected to the point above, a great baker must understand the science of baking. He/She should be able to explain the ‘why’ in a recipe. For example, why do you add soft peak egg whites to baked goods and what does it do? Why is the cream of tartar added to egg whites? What is the reason for using frozen butter to make puff pastry? Why do cake and cookie recipes call for room temperature ingredients? Understanding the ‘why’ questions improves the way you look at the steps in a recipe. It changes how you prep for baking and overall contributes to improving your baked goods.
Learn how to measure properly
As unnecessary as this point may seem, it is important that as a baker you learn how to measure your ingredients properly. It would amaze you on how much difference in weight there is between a level cup of flour and a heaped cup of flour. A teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda is a level teaspoon.
Furthermore, where weight is used to measure out ingredients, I prefer a digital to an analogue food scale. This is because I do not want to read lines on a scale but would rather read the weight of my ingredient to the last gram.
Only use great quality ingredients
One thing I learnt when I started cooking with wine was that if I could not drink it as a stand-alone ingredient, I should not cook with it. The same rule follows with baking, use only the best quality (you can afford) for your baking needs. When making use of ingredients such as cocoa powder, chocolate, liquor, coffee, vanilla extract and others; I recommend using the best available as these ingredients can alter the taste of your baked goods in no small way. You may have the techniques needed to be an amazing baker, but the ingredients you use can break an otherwise great recipe.
Bake the recipe as directed the first time
One problem I had when I started baking was that I altered recipes the first time i used it and then I would complain when I got bad results. A baker’s mind is a creative one, and as such, I understand the need to try new things. However, endeavour to follow the recipe the first time you make it.
Baking a recipe as directed initially helps you to identify your point of dissatisfaction after which you can alter the recipe to fit your taste.
Know your equipment
Knowing your equipment goes beyond knowing how to operate your mixer or blender. A great baker knows their oven, bakeware and tools. Educate yourself on your kitchen equipment to give yourself an advantage in your baketivities (baking activities), e.g. If your oven has a hot spot, you should know where it. You should know what mixer attachment works better for mixing your fluffy frosting. This way any baking mishap is not because you use the wrong baking equipment.
Practice is necessary to reach baking greatness. A great baker is one that is always baking and trying to improve. While recipes describe what to watch for while mixing or baking, practice improves your baking senses. An example of this is being able to identify a fully baked cake in the oven without inserting a tester or skewer to check for doneness. When I began baking I would check with a skewer to see if my cake was ready, now all I have to do is look at the sides of the baking pan to ascertain if the cake has pulled away from the edges (This does not apply to all cakes though).
Learn baking terminology
I have come to realise that one problem I had when I started baking was that I did not understand the terminology used in cookbooks. A great baker must educate him/herself on terms used in cookbooks and understand how to apply them when baking. It is important to follow terms such as folding, rub in…, creaming, cut in.., if you want good results when baking.
Buy good quality bakeware
Your equipment affects your baking positively or negatively. Of what use is mixing a cake carefully to preserve its tender texture and putting It in the oven only to have a cake pan that heats up unevenly, warps at the slightest touch of heat or worse, sticks to anything you bake in it.
Aside from making your baketivities easier, good quality bakeware saves you money because you will not replace them often as long as you care for them. Good quality bakeware is essential to becoming a great baker.
Do not limit yourself
A great baker is an explorer, a great baker is unafraid to try new recipes. A great baker is one that tries to conquer her baking fears. When I learnt how to bake an awesome cake, I stuck to that recipe. While I have improved the recipe and even found better ways to make the recipe, I have come to realise that I did myself a great disservice. I have since started baking things that are new and foreign to me, and each baked good is a step towards becoming a great baker. Strengthen your baking skills and knowledge by baking a plethora of recipes.
Have a base recipe
To be a great baker you must have a base recipe that you have perfected to the point of being able to convert it to another masterpiece if the need arises. Learn how to use your baking strengths. I have seen that in some baking books, some recipes (cakes, pies, cookies) are in the basic/beginner category. However, as i continue reading the book, I come across the recipe again but with more flair and nearly unrecognisable due to the addition of other complimentary ingredients.
Become your own greatest critic
To be a great baker, you must be able to criticise your work and identify what could be better even without anyone telling you. Learn to identify and accept the mistakes you have made while baking and learn from the outcome. Do not give up. Rather, think of your mistakes as one more step made towards baking perfection.
Accept that the journey to greatness is a long, tedious and sometimes painful one
To become a great baker, you must prepare your mind for possible failure. Once you have accepted the possibility, you must have the understanding that failure is part of the journey. Some recipes won’t work out, your equipment may malfunction, you may make mistakes, and things may just go left despite your best plans. Accept that you are on a journey, learn and you will grow.
In my baking journey, I have made use of some books that I believe are indispensable in learning to bake. You should check them out; I recommend getting a copy from a library if available.
-The Simple Art of Perfect Baking by Flo Braker
-The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum
-Butter Baked Goods by Rosie Daykin
-Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish
If you do not mind a long and daunting read: ‘How Baking Works by Paula Figoni’ is the way to go.
Photo Credit: © Robert Byron | Dreamstime.com