Learning to bake
August 30, 2018 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I've been re-watching The Great British Baking Show lately, and it's inspired me to learn how to bake properly. But where to start?

I enjoy baking, but I've never really strayed beyond basic 'foolproof' stuff like cookies (chocolate chip, oatmeal, browned butter cookies etc.), sweet breads (banana, carrot etc.) and cakes (yellow, sugar, chocolate). I've been watching TGBBS and while I'm definitely not aspiring to those heights, it struck me that there's just so much about baking that I don't know. So I'd like a book or a plan to start with something simple and slowly work my way up to more complex goodies. Can you think of something suitable, where the path is laid out for me? Right now, making pie crust seems equally daunting as making choux (which I'm guessing is not the case), so I'm really interested in something that builds skills slowly.

In the same vein, I'd like to learn more about the science of baking, but it has to be in the context of what I'm making. So something that kind of points out things like 'if you over-cream the butter here, this happens' or 'mixing in A before B will result in C' would be ideal.

I can get intimidated fairly quickly (I tried baking sweet rolls with yeast once and it was a complete disaster - they tasted pretty good but sat like lead bricks in my stomach, and I've never tried it again), which I know is ridiculous (honestly, what's the worst that can happen?) but it keeps me from just going out there and trying a bunch of different things. Hence the request for something that builds skills slowly.

Thank you so much : )
posted by widdershins to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I took a baking class, and it was so helpful to be able to ask questions and have the instructor check my technique and progress. I took it with a few friends which was also very fun. The class I took was "biscuits and scones" and I can now confidently make a mean scone. I recommend bringing a pen and taking tons of notes as well!
posted by radioamy at 11:56 AM on August 30, 2018

There's a show called The Great British Baking Show: Masterclass where Paul and Mary show you how to bake! It's on Netflix.
posted by typify at 12:02 PM on August 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Alton Brown's I'm Just Here For More Food is all about baking and is organized by technique -- so a technique is introduced and explained along with the reasons the technique works, then there are a few recipes that use that technique.

Truthfully, I wouldn't say that any one task is "harder" than any other (barring truly exceptional recipes); if you can make a quickbread or cake, you can make anything else if you understand how and why they're different. (Your yeast rolls were probably dense because your flour was too low-protein or wasn't kneaded enough, if I had to guess; give it another try! I bake batches of rolls almost every week and it's something that gives me a great deal of joy.)
posted by uncleozzy at 12:12 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you just want to jump in, by all means do that. The worst case is that you are out some flour, sugar and butter.
That being said, baking is more science than cooking, so follow the recipe directions carefully - this is not the place to riff and add the chocolate before the recipe says to.

You might try looking for some baking recipes on YouTube, but I really think you can figure it out by just reading, following the directions and doing. Good places to start with would be books by Dorie Greenspan, Rose Levy Berenbaum, Shirley Corriher and America's Test Kitchen (check them out from the library so you can test-drive them before buying).

Source: I am a cook, not really a baker, but I wanted to learn how to make pie crust. One summer I made a pie a week until I figured out what recipe worked for how I worked. We ate some rather mis-shapen and soupy pies at the beginning, but they were still delicious!
posted by sarajane at 12:20 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook is a good one to start with, as it explores basic techniques along with more elaborate recipes.

The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum is an absolute must-have and will teach you practically everything you need to know about cakes.
posted by briank at 12:22 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you're interested in baking bread, I recommend The Bread Baker's Apprentice. It includes the basic concepts of bread baking, the science of bread, and information about equipment and ingredients, as well as detailed step by step recipes.
posted by Kris10_b at 12:22 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mastering the Art of Baking is good. Even better if your local library has it, so you can try it out. I love using the library for cookbooks.
posted by pinochiette at 12:24 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could start with upping your game on a few recipes you already have down. E.g., I had been making chocolate chip cookies for about 50 years and had always assumed the Toll House recipe was the gold. Then I discovered this recipe on the Serious Eats website—it's a game changer.

Re cakes: if you're using American buttercream frosting, learn to make one the alternatives, i.e., Swiss, French, or Italian. (I favor Italian.) It's a little tricky at first, but once you've tried it, you won't go back to the American version.
posted by she's not there at 12:33 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm going to cite myself and strongly encourage you to pick a book that measures ingredients by weight in place of/in addition to volume, assuming you are in the US as your profile indicates. This is very easy to tell -- just take a random recipe and see how it describes the flour; it should call for "125g flour" or "4¼ oz flour," instead of just "1 cup flour."

You'll just need a digital scale -- American cooks (of which I am one) tend to have this idea that scales are extremely technical or fancy or expensive, but you can get cheap digital scales for as little as $10 (or my favorite for $30).

Measuring your ingredients by weight is much more precise, particularly for things like flour, and tends to be less messy -- you can measure things directly into the bowl and don't have to fiddle with many different sizes of measuring cups. Especially if you're hoping to work up to more complex baking, it will go a long way toward better results.

Finally, since you mention the British Baking Show, having a scale will also open you up to the world of British baking cookbooks, which today universally use metric units and weights for solid ingredients (100g flour, 50g sugar, 300 ml milk, etc.)
posted by andrewesque at 12:34 PM on August 30, 2018 [14 favorites]

I'm an amateur baker, and the reason I started baking was after watching TGBBS and figuring out that baking = science (I'm a scientist.)

That said, you don't need to go out and get a doctorate to be a great baker. In one of my previous questions I list the techniques I've become good at, and I mostly got there watching YouTube videos and googling specific techniques. For example, this blog post is my bible for a great choux. She goes into the science of ratios and why adding more or less of an ingredient matters. The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt also has a few baking techniques explained: the perfect pie crust, for example. I get gazillions of compliments on my Swiss Meringue Buttercream because I follow this foolproof recipe, and am always baffled as to why everyone laments SMBC as one of the hardest buttercreams to make. Smitten Kitchen is a great blog for cooking, and she has a lot of tips on different types of cakes.

The reading recommendations above are all great. I tend to stick to online stuff mostly because I don't have time to read, and with the free time I do have I'd rather just jump right into baking. Experience has taught me that actually doing the thing teaches a whole lot more than reading about it. From one terribly amateur baker to another, I'd say begin with mastering sponges, and the different types of pastry: choux, puff, and bread. That gives you a great basis for pretty much any dessert masterpiece out there. Besides, if you master those things, your confidence will be such that you can tackle pretty much anything else. I went from ruining box cake mixes to whipping up batches of delicious eclairs in about a month just by watching YouTube videos and reading a couple blog posts on choux. Good luck - it's a fun venture!

On preview: what andrewesque said about weighing ingredients rather than going by volume is crucial. Many good recipes will tell you that as well. That, and not attempting to bake certain things in humid weather have been eureka baking moments for me!
posted by Everydayville at 12:41 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The King Arthur Flour blog does walkthroughs of their recipes that can be quite helpful. Lots of step-by-step photos and notes from the test kitchen on the more science-y bits like "Photo A is using X%, Photo B is using Y%, and the difference is because of [brief technical explanation]."

They also have monthly Bakealongs, and the selected recipes tend to be high in wow-to-effort ratio. (Their Almond Puff Loaf is a good intro to choux!)
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 12:44 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Rose Levy Berenbaum . She's very detailed and very precise, and she does a lot of explaining what physically and chemically is going on in her recipes. And in my experience her recipes are foolproof - they seem elaborate and fussy, but if you follow them step for step the results are spectacular.
posted by LizardBreath at 12:45 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

A lot of the GBBO Technical Challenges are available online, and bear in mind that the reason that they are 'challenges' is that the bakers on the show are given very cut-down instructions, because it's meant to be a test of general baking knowledge and skills. The recipes as posted are much more comprehensive, so it's worth giving them a go - I've certainly improved my baking a lot by doing so.
posted by Major Clanger at 12:53 PM on August 30, 2018

Best answer: Mark Bittman, the guy who did the "How To Cook Everything" book, has a follow-up called How To Bake Everything. I've not seen that book, but "How To Cook Everything" does indeed go into the structure of "In this chapter, we'll look at this type of cooking- and here are some things to know about the particular techniques before we begin". He's pretty good about the hows and whys and wherefores of techniques before he gets into the recipes. If his baking book is structured the same, then I highly recommend it. Hell, even the baking sections of How To Cook Everything are structured this way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Find a simple bread recipe and try it. It's best to start simple. It's a good way to get the basics down, like kneading and such.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:24 PM on August 30, 2018

Flour Water Salt Yeast is a great introduction to baking artisinal bread. It goes through the science, the art, and the technique of baking in great detail.

The best advice I got about baking (it may have come from this book - I forget) is that you should treat Time and Temperature as two additional ingredients. To get a good rise, for example, I'm measuring the ambient room temperature and adjusting the time or yeast/salt ratio accordingly.

Also good advice above about weighing all your ingredients. That makes a huge difference.
posted by Paragon at 1:46 PM on August 30, 2018

Paragon, it probably was from Flour Water Salt Yeast. That book is pretty clearly derived from combining an artisanal sensibility with the technical understanding from the Suas textbook "Advanced Baking and Pastry" which is, most of the time, completely overkill for home bakers. If you want to/are able to learn by just doing a bunch of recipes, cool! The resources already given are good ones, and even ugly first-time cakes are usually still tasty. If you want something that's more technical/procedure/engineering oriented, but also has formulas and recipes, and gets into the relationships between recipes, then a textbook is going to be a good idea.

If you want to go completely over the science cliff, I'd send you to Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking" for a good grounding in, e.g., yeast or foams or browning, but that doesn't have any procedural information or recipes at all.

An intermediate option is Shirley Corriher's explanation-filled general purpose cookbook Cookwise.
posted by janell at 2:00 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone else who's saying to pick up a scale, and to select baking cookbooks and recipes that go by weight, whether that's grams or ounces. Especially when measuring flour, it's so easy to have significant variance when using cups as the core measurement that getting better results from more complex baking depends heavily on accurate measurements and proper ingredient proportions.

Another consideration: I'm contemplating a winter "learn to make good bread" (sourdough, country bread, peasant loafs, etc) project baking my way through Tartine Bread. The reason I'm waiting until winter is because right now in New England, it is *humid* as all get out, and I've been told it will be easier for me to get a good base loaf down in drier conditions, and then learn how to adapt when it's more humid rather than the other way around. If you're interested in getting better at baked goods involving yeast, this may be worth taking into account. (Humidiy also affects my go-to dessert of meringues, though for different reasons.)

Re baking science specifically, I like Shirley Corriher's BakeWise for how she guides you through various recipes, and explains why she wants you to do things a certain way.

Re more general baking cookbooks that provide recipes with weight measurements, I bake from Alice Medrich (Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts, and Seriously Bitter Sweet) and Joanne Chang (Flour) regularly, and Stella Parks' BraveTart is on my list to pick up based on her recipes I've baked from online.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:52 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I tried baking sweet rolls with yeast once and it was a complete disaster - they tasted pretty good but sat like lead bricks in my stomach, and I've never tried it again),

You have to be okay with screwing up if you want to get good at this! Haven't you ever burned a batch of cookies or used baking soda instead of baking powder by mistake? Or tried to combine the liquids and solids in the wrong order and ended up with a mess? These things happen.

The first time I ever tried to bake bread, I ended up with a literally inedible lump of dough. It was inedible because it was so heavy and rock hard; it was a struggle even to cut through. When something goes wrong, just chalk it up to experience, google the problems and watch some youtube tutorials. It will get better! You can ask experienced bakers in your life for advice if you have a problem or something doesn't work out.

This is the "order" I would work up to for breads:
Soda bread
No-knead yeast bread
Biscuits, both spoon and rolled (good practise rolling and shaping a more elastic dough without toughening it)
Pie crust (simple ingredients but very fiddly procedures and good practise mixing, rolling and shaping a fragile dough without toughening it)
Kneaded yeast bread

I think this background would prepare you for more complex baking tasks with breads and pastries.
posted by windykites at 3:01 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

IMHO, bread is very different from cake. Once you get the basic feel of bread-making, it's very forgiving and not necessarily science-y. Cakes and deserts are much more demanding in one way: you must follow the recipe, and yes, a digital scale makes your cake-making life better. On the other hand if you follow the recipe, you get the results you expect.
Apart from that scale, an oven thermometer can be very useful. Most of my baking catastrophes are caused by my unreliable ovens: mostly they are far hotter than it says on the oven-dial, so my projects get burnt.
posted by mumimor at 3:53 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Baking bread with yeast is an excellent skill, and even if it's not perfect, it will be pretty good.
It's worthwhile to know how to make:
Pie crust,
Choux pastry, and popovers (Yorkshire puddings)which get their lift from eggs,
Quick breads, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and
Cakes, which get their lift from some combination of eggs, baking soda, baking powder, activated by something acidic, usually milk.
posted by theora55 at 4:03 PM on August 30, 2018

I found thekitchn’s 20 Day Baking School is good introduction. Each lesson focuses on a basic ingredient (like eggs, butter, sugar, etc.), explains the role of that ingredient in baking, provides “homework” to help you better understand the ingredient, and generally a link to simple step by step recipe. There’s lots of supplemental material and videos to explain concepts and techniques. Each lesson builds on the last, leading up to a final project. It’s free and self paced, so it’s a good way to dip your toes in and get a good foundation before moving on to something more advanced.
posted by chrisulonic at 12:54 AM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Apart from that scale, an oven thermometer can be very useful. Most of my baking catastrophes are caused by my unreliable ovens: mostly they are far hotter than it says on the oven-dial, so my projects get burnt.

It's my experience that home ovens straight up lie through their teeth about the temperature; in my last apartment the oven would indicate it had reached 350°F when the oven thermometer indicated it was one hundred degrees below that (250°F).

For forgiving things like quick breads (e.g. banana bread, zucchini bread, etc.) this isn't a big deal, but if you get into more technical baking/items that require a shorter or more precise baking time I agree with mumimor that an oven thermometer is invaluable.
posted by andrewesque at 5:20 AM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone. I went to the library and looked through cookbooks until I found some that looked like the baking projects followed a progression of skills, rather than just sections on each type. For anyone else interested, Bake! looks pretty good so far, and Baking Illustrated has a ton of additional tips on techniques etc. for each type. I'm starting 'baking school' this weekend and am really looking forward to it!
posted by widdershins at 8:10 AM on September 4, 2018

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