12 lessons I've learned from decades of baking

lemon circles
© Melissa Breyer

Here are some of my favorite little baking tricks that I learned through years of mistakes.

Some people have apron-clad moms and grandmas (or dad and grandpas) who patiently impart their wisdom in the mysterious ways of baking. I, on the other hand, didn't have time for that. I would race home from grade school, thumb through my beloved Betty Crocker's Cooky Book and dive in blindly. Throwing together ingredients to create confections was magical alchemy for a young me, and it remains so today for a much older me. Aside from its magic, baking is therapeutic and mindful; it also allows one to steer clear of the perils of packaged food and make healthier versions of their favorite treats.

cooky book© Note the well-worn lemon squares recipe page ... and the recent lemon circles above? Some things never change. (Photo: Melissa Breyer)
To that end, some weeks I bake every day after work and on the weekends too. Needless to say, I have learned a lot in the years since those early kooky "cooky" adventures. Here are some of the little things I've picked up along the way. They are not giant revelations, just tips gleaned through years of mistakes.

1. Unwrap butter before bringing to room temperature

I love using plant-based alternatives for butter, but many baking recipes call for softened butter and if you're using it, here's a trick. Instructions for softening butter usually direct one to leave the butter on the counter until it reaches room temperature. I have found that a much better way is to unwrap the butter straight from the fridge and let it soften in the mixing bowl. When cold, it lifts cleanly off the wrapper; when softened, too much of it sticks to the paper and it's a mess.

2. Use butter paper to grease pans

If you don't unwrap your butter when cold and you have butter-globbed butter wrappers, use them to grease pans. This isn't something I invented, by any means, but consider it part two of the tip above.

3. Use a large slotted spoon to separate eggs

egg separate© Melissa Breyer
I use a lot of egg alternatives in baking, but sometimes I use eggs from local farmers, too. For separating them, the half-a-shell to half-a-shell method is the one I see most people use to separate yolk from white. But those jagged shell edges always seem dangerous to me, as in, a pierced yolk. My favorite way is just to use my hands; fingers do the best work of delicately holding a yolk and letting the whites drain off. But fingers also have oil that can hamper peaks when beating, so I have found that a metal slotted spoon does wonders.

Break the whole egg into a small bowl; grab the yolk with the spoon, use the wall of the bowl to help, and let the white slink off the edge of the spoon, jiggling if the white is stubborn. The white doesn't actually go through the holes of the spoon, but the holes somehow seem to facilitate their departure. Do one at a time and transfer each one after so as not to taint the batch should a yolk break. (If you are using just the whites and don't need the yolks right away, stick them in the freezer for later use.)

4. Use the right kind of measuring cup

Use spouted cups for the measuring of wet ingredients, use the scoop/cup type for dry ingredients. This may be in the common-wisdom category, but it's something I learned on my own. It's hard to get an accurate amount of flour or sugar in a big glass measuring cup, and it's hard not to spill oil or water when it's filled to the brim in a scoop measuring cup.

For wet ingredients, get to eye level with the quantity marks and make sure they are even. For dry ingredients, spoon ingredients into the cup and then level it off with a knife.

5. Better yet, use a scale

Unlike the rest of the world, American recipes use cups for measuring; it's the strangest thing. As an experiment, I just weighed five cups of flour using the same measuring cup and method; each one was different in weight, ranging from 121 grams to 135 grams. When I measured out that 14 gram range, it was about two tablespoons, or 1/8th of a cup – which is a 12.5 percent variation. Baking can be an exact science and a 12.5 percent swing could cause mayhem!

When asked why scales are not the norm in the US kitchen, chef Alice Medrich told The Telegraph that she thinks there may be deep-seated cultural issues at play, where cups are seen as The American Way and scales are considered “almost unpatriotic." She said, “I have sometimes wondered if Americans think using a scale is some kind of Communist plot left over from the cold war,” she jokes. “I also think that US home cooks used to feel that weights and scales were somehow too complicated or hard, or required math."

But really, it's the easiest way to go. Scales are affordable, easy to use, and the most accurate way to measure ... as long as the recipe includes weights, that is.

6. Don't measure over the bowl

In my quest to keep counters clean, I would historically pour things like salt or vanilla directly in a measuring spoon over their intended bowl and just dump them in. But if the ingredients get a slow start and then come out in a rush, one might end up with a whole lot more in the bowl than the intended spoonful. Now I measure to the side of the bowl, even if it means I may have to wipe up a few grains of salt from the counter.

7. Know your oven's moods

I don't know what other people's ovens are like, but my stalwart 20-year old Viking range has hot and cool spots that explain its uneven baking. Every time I bake anything, I set a timer for half the baking time and rotate the pans and switch their shelves. It's kind of a pain, yes, but better than half a sheet of burnt cookies.

You can test your oven using this brilliant method described on Food52: Turn on your oven to 350 F degrees, line the racks with slices of white bread and cook until they start to toast; remove them and analyse the results for a pattern – are they even, are the ones from the back darker than the rest, et cetera. (And then use the toast for bread crumbs, of course.)

8. Use an oven thermometer

meringue© Melissa Breyer
If you have a fancy oven with an accurate thermometer, skin this one. But if not, here's a little story.

I had made hundreds of well-behaved French meringues – both traditional and using chickpea water – before all of a sudden, they started looking awful. Cracked and weeping sugar, they were fine buried in pavlovas, but a disaster to look at.

I realized that this coincided with having an oven part replaced and so decided to monitor the temperature in real time. I stuck a remote thermometer inside, one that has a sensor that goes in the oven and is attached by wire to a read-out that sits on the counter. I saw, to my shock, that the oven was jumping from my ideal merengue temperature of 190 F, which is where the thermostat was set, down to 160 F upon opening the door to put them in, and then kicking into heating mode, jumping to 240 F where it stayed until dropping again. That is a lot of inconsistent heat for sensitive things, no wonder my meringues were screaming at me. Having the ability to monitor the temperature in real-time, and not relying on the over dial, allows me to adjust as needed. And have pretty meringues again.

9. Calibrate your candy thermometer

Speaking of thermometers, let's talk candy. If you are well-versed in dropping your cooking sugar/candy in a glass of water and divining its secrets from there, maybe you don't need a candy thermometer, but I couldn't live without one. That said, all candy thermometers are not created equally. I was wondering if mine was askew when a few of my confections were not turning out as planned, and sure enough, it is off. Now I add four degrees to the reading and my confections started behaving better.

Here's how to calibrate: Put the candy thermometer in a pot of water and bring it to a rolling boil, with constant and vigorous bubbles. The boiling point for water is 212 F (100 C), which is what your thermometer should read (if you are at sea level). You can leave it in there for a few minutes to make sure the reading is accurate.

10. Dark and light pans are not perfectly interchangeable

Are your cookies always overdone on the bottom? Are your roasted vegetables not getting browned enough? This one makes perfect sense, and many people likely already know it, but I learned it on my own after experiencing both of the above scenarios. Dark pans absorb heat, light pans reflect it. Use light pans for cookies and cakes that don't want a brown crust; use dark pans for roasting vegetables, making pizza, or baking anything in which you want more of a crust.

11. There's a way to swap pan sizes and shapes

They say that pan shape and size are important, but I generally don't like to be constrained to a recipe's specified pan. I don't like rectangular cakes, for example, and love to make wonky three-layer, 8-inch-round cakes. So how does one turn a recipe calling for a 9-by-13-inch cake pan into a quirky tall 8-inch round cake? The handy-dandy Baking Pan Sizes page from Joy of Baking. This is a goldmine; a list of every pan and its capacity, so that one can switch things around and swap pans with compatible capacities, or adjust from there. I use it every time I am tackling a new recipe, or trying to double or halve a recipe. Everytime I use it, I think about grateful I am that it exists.

12. Wear an apron

Last year I asked my colleagues at our virtual water cooler if they wear aprons when they cook or bake – I felt like I was the only one I knew who wore an apron! The bakers and cooks said, basically, "no, but I don't know why not." I think Katherine was gone that day because she just wrote a story on why we should wear aprons; it's great and I couldn't agree more!
apron© Melissa Breyer
It will take a beating (Exhibit A, above) but it will save your clothes ... and I suppose mine has turned me into the apron-clad mom showing my kids the ropes.

Do you have baking tips you've picked up along the way? Share them in the comments.

12 lessons I've learned from decades of baking
Here are some of my favorite little baking tricks that I learned through years of mistakes.

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