People who bake A LOT, what are your best tips?
December 31, 2018 12:43 PM   Subscribe

I am a decent home baker, (much better than the contestants on Nailed it! but not nearly as good as those on GBBO) and I’ve decided that my winter project this year is going to be baking more and better. I’d like to get comfortable with projects more complicated than cookies, bars, and layer cakes, and I want to work on my cake/cookie decorating skills using my shiny new frosting tip set (I already have a cake lazy susan and an offset spatula to go with them).

Right now, every time I bake, it’s an ordeal -- I have to make an ingredient list, check my disorganized pantry, go shopping, and carve out time to bake. What’s your best advice for making this easier on myself? What supplies should I stock up on? Should everything go in canisters? Any favorite equipment? Cookbook recommendations? (I recently acquired Christina Tosi’s All About Cake and Christine McConnell’s Deceptive Desserts.) Should I try the same recipe many times in a row to improve, or keep trying new things? Also, I am the only person in my house with a big sweet tooth and I don’t want to eat all the sweets (If I bring them to work, I will still eat them!) Creative ideas for how/where to distribute treats? Also interested in any tips I haven't thought to ask about- if you have a baking secret, I'd like to hear it!

Thanks in advance!
posted by tangosnail to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
I keep flour and sugar in canisters with a backup bag of each in reserve. I also stock up on seasonal ingredients and/or specialty ingredients (I keep a bag of cranberries in my freezer at all times, a couple cans of pumpkin in the pantry, and I will buy 2-3 vanilla beans when I'm at the store that sells vanilla beans at a fraction of the price of the other stores.) Don't be afraid to have stuff in reserve or buy duplicates - I was out of baking powder for 3 months this summer and baked on just fine because I had plenty of baking soda and cream of tartar.

Re baking many times in a row to improve: I find it helpful to annotate recipes for this reason. That carrot cake a little too sweet? Note it on the recipe, and then the next time you're making it because you want to be making carrot cake, adjust accordingly. No need to churn out 3 similar cakes in a row that way.

I was skeptical about food scales until I got one, and now I use it all the time. I love my KitchenAid mixer but it's not a game-changer.

Joe Pastry's blog archives and Smitten Kitchen taught me how to bake.
posted by coppermoss at 12:58 PM on December 31, 2018 [12 favorites]

In Charlotte, NC there’s a youth agency (The Relatives) that has kids living at the house while they’re between places and there’s Time Out Youth which is a center for LBGTQ youth. Both organizations do weekly meals made by volunteers. I know they would love nice desserts- perhaps there’s organizations near you doing similar work where you could bring some baked goods?
posted by raccoon409 at 1:14 PM on December 31, 2018 [7 favorites]

My best baking friends: oven thermometer (my oven’s thermometer was way off and wow what a difference), cuisinart hand mixer (personally I think a stand mixer is a waste of space and $$ for many home bakers who don’t have those things to spare), food scale, bench scraper. Multiples of liquid and dry measuring cups and spoons.

I heartily second annotating recipes (more or less time, more or less of a certain ingredient, etc. ) and just making it that way the next time you feel like making that item. You’ll refine as you go.

Yes to keeping regularly used supplies in canisters, and if possible, in a designated area you can easily access and view. For me that would be flour, sugar (including brown and confectioner’s), vanilla, semisweet morsels, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon. I try to just always have eggs, oil, nonstick spray, tons of butter, milk, citrus fruit. Yes, I too grab bags of cranberries for the freezer and cans of pumpkin as available.

Same concept with bakeware— get what you’ll use regularly and organize it. After years of chaos, my cake pans, muffin tins, rolling pins, etc. are all in one cabinet so I’m not clanging around my kitchen, sweating and cussing.
posted by kapers at 1:21 PM on December 31, 2018 [5 favorites]

One of the hurdles to all cookery projects is the hassle of shopping. Front-load it. How much space do you have? Max it out. Build your pantry backwards if space allows; buy a bit of everything you'll need (most baking staples have long-ish shelf lives). I'm the cook in our family and my wife bakes, but we operate the same way; we draw from the pantry and when we USE the item, we add it to our list. That way, worst case, you're popping into the store for A Thing instead of a whole cart. There are numerous guides on how to build a good pantry for baking. You can tailor the list to your needs and style (we don't really cook with alt-milks or a hundred types of flour). I think those are a bit overkill, but they're good complete lists that you can edit down.

Oh! On the topic of pantries, find your nearest hippy-health food store or anywhere with a larger bulk-foods section. Shopping in bulk doesn't always save you money, but it saves you space (for us, space savings is sanity savings, and worth the cost difference). That way we don't have a 3lb bag of vital wheat gluten because one recipe called for a couple tablespoons, we have a half pint of the stuff.

My wife does this to focuses on techniques; if she wants to get good at meringues, she'll work through several different recipes that use them in different ways so she doesn't have to keep re-treading recipes but still gets to learn techniques, and see how they play with other things. That way, when she does want to go back over and try a recipe again, she'll know what to do. 2nding annotating recipes or taking notes.

While Alton Brown is problematic for a couple reasons, older episodes of his show Good Eats has some excellent, easily accessible (not entirely always really-accurate, but functionally accurate for the home cook) science behind why certain things happen when, and the mechanisms that occur when you're cooking. It helps me extricate technique from flavors, resulting in things like a very Oregon 'paella' that would make a spaniard cringe, but is quite tasty.

Honestly, you could do worse than baking through the technical challenges that are shown on the Great British Baking Show would give you most of the skills you'd need to cook just about everything.

If you get deep into baking, start planning your give-away routes now. Co-workers, neighbors, local schools (for the teachers), nonprofits. Slice off a couple bits of cake for you, portion out the rest and drop them off just as a 'thanks for being awesome' will make you local-famous.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:21 PM on December 31, 2018 [9 favorites]

If you don't already have it, get a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible". She also has a great website.
posted by briank at 1:23 PM on December 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

Do you have a Kitchen Aid mixer? If not, save up or catch one on a deal or see if you can find one used. It really does make a HUGE difference. Because my #1 baking tip is to beat the HELL out of your butter and sugar. Use an ice cream scoop, the kind with the little lever that scrapes the scoop. I have several in different sizes and I use them for cookies, meatballs, potato pancakes, anything that needs to be scooped up.

Organize your pantry and keep the staples around. I always have flour, sugar (white and brown), vanilla, cinnamon, oatmeal, nuts, chocolate chips. I keep a box of butter in the freezer. Switch your spices over to spices from Penzey's, if you don't already shop there. The difference between their cinnamon and, like, grocery store cinnamon is HUGE.
posted by Aquifer at 1:24 PM on December 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Cooks Illustrated folks try recipes multiple ways and record the differences in their recipes. It’s great for learning how recipes work.

I took a cake decorating class ages ago and they had us practice using frosting with a Crisco base, which is way cheaper. Practice the things you want to do on a plate or wax paper before you try to decorate a cake. The frosting can be put back in the bag and reused until you get the hang of it. Also, use paste food coloring, and add it to the frosting with a toothpick. You don’t need much at all. And lettering looks much nicer if you use a small star tip.
posted by FencingGal at 1:39 PM on December 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Dedicate an area of your pantry - a shelf, a half shelf, a corner - to all baking-related items. When I need to go see if I have any, idk, shredded coconut, it helps that there's only one place it can be. Organizing more thoroughly probably helps even more but I find that to be useful in itself.

I consider canisters a necessity for frequently scooped/measured items - scooping or pouring flour and sugar from bags is such a mess comparatively (plus, airtight containers are much better for deterring critters and making sure that if you *do* get bugs, you don't get bugs *everywhere*).
posted by Lady Li at 1:45 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you keep flour in the freezer, it won't get bugs. Same with rice. You might have to warm it up before you use it, but that's fine. I prefer the delay to wasting flour because it gets buggy sitting on the shelf.

My cake decorating class had us using instant mashed potatoes mixed to frosting consistency, which is even cheaper than actual frosting with a fat base.
posted by blnkfrnk at 1:49 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

The King Arthur website is amazing for its breadth - plus it converts all recipes between volume and weight. Also, there’s a phone number for when you need advice or help troubleshooting.
posted by valeries at 2:01 PM on December 31, 2018 [10 favorites]

Check out Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise for science of baking tips. Measuring spoons that fit in jars and are magnetic are nice. I get food safe plastic buckets or square storage containers (Rubbermaid or Cambro) for flours, sugars and the like. Keep pastry bags on hand - get them online in bulk. Nthing Penzey’s, King Arthur - especially their guaranteed/approved recipes, which are well tested. If you’re a Costco member, they have cheap parchment that’s decent, and good prices on other essentials. Serious Eats is a good resource - Stella Parks explains things well.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 2:18 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Baking is my primary hobby, so I have a few thoughts.

To start with: to the extent you can afford it / have space for the equipment, buying the right tool for the job is invaluable. If you think you'll be making a lot of cakes or meringues or frostings, a stand mixer is absolutely the right thing. I grew up without one, and the difference in being able to make what I wanted when my family bought one when I was 16 or so was huge. I was lucky enough to be able to buy one for myself the summer I was getting ready to move into my first apartment. Refurbs are often ~$200, and worth every penny. A cuisinart or other food processor is also really useful for a lot of baking tasks that a stand mixer isn't (and isn't interchangeable with a blender). That's another ~$100 for a good one. Those are the big, expensive tools that come to mind.

Smaller tools? As many sheet trays / cake pans / tart pans / cooling racks as you can store and afford. Simple and durable should be your watchword for all of these. A sheet tray shouldn't feel flimsy. A tart pan shouldn't feel like the bottom will bend if you look at it wrong. A cake pan (at least, one without a removable bottom) should feel like you could clunk someone over the head and only maybe dent the pan. Other small tools... silicone spatulas for mixing things in. Wooden or bamboo spatulas for getting things out of the cuisinart (which will eat silicone spatulas, as me how I know!). A thin metal spatula (I have a fish spatula) for moving cookies and other things like that off trays. If you're going to be doing a lot of citrus zesting, a microplane. Accept no substitutes. A lot of citrus juicing? A Chef'n Freshforce ($15 or so), because while the cheap aluminum ones look similar, this one will blow them out of the water (I go through a lot of citrus for various things).

Consumable materials? The most liberating thing I can suggest is to buy your parchment paper in bulk. It's gotten much easier to get at grocery stores in the last decade, but Costco sells a 2-pack of 200' rolls for reasonable money, and it means I can use it and not care. Which is amazing.

For actual baking supplies? If you can, bulk bins - I use 4qt Rubbermaid bins with lids for flour and sugar; and smaller 1qt bins for smaller quantities (corn flour, semolina, nuts). Buy your basic supplies in bulk. It sucks to run out. Costco here is handy (25lb sacks of good flour and sugar for reasonable money). In general, if you're going to use it, keep lots of whatever it is on hand - I get twitchy if there are less than two pounds of butter in the fridge/freezer, and usually buy 4lbs at a time. Nuts from Trader Joes. Spices from Penzeys (although note that vanilla prices have been really high for a couple years now, which means vanilla extract is really expensive... it's worth hunting around for who has it at a price you can stomach; beans are too expensive right now to make your own in an affordable way unless you really want to spend money).
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 2:25 PM on December 31, 2018 [12 favorites]

Stand mixer. Weigh ingredients rather than measure for stuff that's picky - I don't bother for making bread, do for cakes. Seconding Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible. I also like Smitten Kitchen for sweet stuff - she tests recipes thoroughly and is making them in a tiny kitchen. Good cooling racks are handy as is a silpat for rolling out delicate doughs.
posted by leslies at 2:38 PM on December 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Fresh flour is really important for the quality of the end product. For that reason, I keep flour in the freezer.

Grinding fresh spices is lovely for good, strong, fresh flavor. However, there is zero benefit from grinding salt. Just use the same salt you've always been using; it doesn't change with time or go bad or lose flavor at all.
posted by amtho at 2:45 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Understanding the science behind baking and honing my technique has taken me to the point of being able to improvise in baking the same way I can in cooking. Shirley O. Corriher's Bakewise , Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking and Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio are my go to books.
posted by ljshapiro at 2:56 PM on December 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

In addition to keeping your flours in the fridge or freezer, I keep my chocolate and also nuts in the fridge.

If you like to bake breads or yeasted cakes, get some instant yeast, which also stays in the fridge.
posted by Temeraria at 2:57 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Definitely get a kitchen scale so you can weigh dry ingredients, rather than using measuring cups or spoons. Kitchen scales have a reset button that lets you set the current weight of the bowl to zero, so you can measure each ingredient right into the same bowl. It saves a lot of hassle and means you don't have to wash as many measuring cups.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:14 PM on December 31, 2018 [6 favorites]

A few things I've found that make a difference:
Use good quality ingredients.-- Its amazing how much of a difference this makes.

As a few others said, a kitchen scale is a huge help. It really helps keep things consistent and accurate. I found my hand done measurements, particularly for flour, were often a lot more then called for, and using a scale produced a big improvement in quality.

I love my kitchen aid stand mixer. If you have space and budget for it, it is a good tool.

The King Arthur site (and books) have a lot of good tips. their blog also has a lot of pictures and descriptions of how they make things and how changes to recipes or equipment effect the outcome. I've learned a lot reading it.

peter reinhart's bread books are fantastic if you want to get into bread baking.

For cake decorating: Wilton offers classes in cake decorating, often at local craft stores. I took one a while ago and learned a lot.

I would try a mix of repeating recipies and trying out new ones. Its helpful to see how differences in recipies produce different results, and they try incorporating techniques from one author / recipe with another and see what works best for your style.

Many people have mentioned the benefits of canisters. I would also specify that see through containers are helpful so you can get a better idea of what you are low on.

Have fun!
posted by nalyd at 3:16 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pantry organization - I recommend keeping the following on hand: different flours depending on what you bake (all-purpose, cake, bread, whole-wheat), sugar (regular and brown sugar), butter, eggs, vanilla, vanilla beans (online is cheaper than brick-and-mortar outlets, in my experience), spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, baking powder and soda, cocoa powder, cornstarch, cream of tartar, yeast, molasses, and aluminum foil and parchment. I keep my flour and sugar in air-tight containers (I recommend keeping whole wheat flour, in particular, in the fridge or freezer if you can, since it goes rancid fast). I use this bakeware rack to keep most of my pans organized. I also keep my baking stuff together in my cupboards. With all this around, I only have to do minimal shopping for new baking projects.

Favorite equipment - Depends what you bake. But keeping it generic, my favorite tools are my kitchen scale, oven thermometer, instant-read thermometer (all of which eliminate room for error when it comes to measuring ingredients and ensuring things are at the right temperature), stand mixer (honestly not necessary if you only do simple things like cookies and bars, but very helpful for things like meringues or kneading bread), mini measuring cups (no more spilled/wasted vanilla!), cookie scoops (makes it so much quicker and easier to scoop out even amounts of cookie/muffin/cupcake/scone dough), bowl scrapers (makes it easier to fully scrape down bowls and ensure minimal wastage of dough), pastry strips (for rolling out pie or cookie dough to an even thickness), multiple sizes of spatulas and whisks. For pies, I also like my marble slab (to keep dough cold) and pastry sleeve and cloth (to keep dough from sticking). For cakes, bake-even strips (for flat, un-domed cake layers) and cake lifter. I have more equipment listed here.

Favorite ingredients - Maldon sea salt (for topping off anything with chocolate or caramel in it), turbinado sugar (for sprinkling on top of muffins/pies), high-quality Dutch-process cocoa powder (I had only used Hershey's natural cocoa powder for years and been underwhelmed by all the chocolate things I baked; once I switched to good Dutch cocoa powder, I was amazed by how much more I enjoyed my brownies, chocolate cookies, etc. But to some people, natural cocoa powder might taste more chocolate-y, so it does depend. Still, in that case, look for good-quality natural cocoa powder.)

Recommendations for cookbooks and other resources:
- Anything by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Her recipes are pretty much foolproof if you’re able to follow all the instructions. Just a caveat - I would say that her recipes aim more for the "perfect, regardless of how much time and effort it takes" end of the scale as opposed to the "quick and easy" end. So they do tend to contain a plethora of fussy details that some people seem to loathe, but that I find very helpful in ensuring my baked goods turn out well.
- BraveTart by Stella Parks. Great recipes for American desserts. Like Beranbaum's, these tend to be demanding/involved. Every single recipe I've tried by this author has turned out delicious.
- The King Arthur Flour website has a very helpful blog, and all their recipes include weights.
- Serious Eats - Stella Parks's posts and recipes are excellent.

There are a lot of non-technique-related factors that can affect your baking projects but that can be easy to overlook: mismeasured ingredients (I strongly recommend weighing everything out, plus it's just easier/more convenient to use a scale rather than a bunch of measuring cups), temperature of ingredients (both too cold and too warm can lead to problems), material and color of pans (dark pans produce over-browned crust, and glass pans can produce overbaked edges), flour protein content (even within a particular type of flour, protein content can vary; King Arthur flour is higher-protein across the board, so their all-purpose flour would not be great for anything that needs to have a delicate texture), and type of butter (European-style butter can result in a greasier, drier texture when used in American recipes). I have more baking tips here.
posted by LNM at 3:20 PM on December 31, 2018 [18 favorites]

As far as whether to try the same thing several times or keep trying new things - I say both. As I try new things I run into recipes that I *know* I want to make again and again, and what if I baked it 5 minutes less or adjusted the temp or added some orange zest ... etc. Notes are great.

As far as how to dispose - the best thing I've figured out so far is to have people over and feed them. Or plan your bakes around potlucks hosted by other people. But some of my favorite bakes are savory - vegetable tarts, breads - I don't mind having those things around the house.
posted by bunderful at 3:50 PM on December 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

Plan a few recipes ahead so you can have all the ingredients and equipment on hand. Xerox or photograph the next few recipes you want to try and, before you shop, inventory the list of ingredients so you can buy every ingredient you need. Be sure you have whatever equipment is called for. Pies, cakes, and brownies don’t require more than basic equipment; one pie pan and an 8x8 or 9x9 pan will do.

My biggest help in the kitchen is Silpats for baking cookies and free-form tarts. My stash of parchment paper has sat untouched since I bought my first Silpat. If you foresee a lot of cookies in your future, I recommend at least one Silpat.

I’ve been using the same vanilla beans for years–20? 30?–to infuse sugar in small jars, so that if I want I to, I can use vanilla sugar in a recipe and skip liquid vanilla.

Bulk groceries are good places to buy flour, sugars, nuts, and yeast. Taste a sample to be sure the nuts aren’t rancid. I keep butter, special flours, and nuts in the freezer. I have big canisters on the counter for flour and sugar and spare plastic bags of them in the pantry. When I’m about to bake, I get out all the ingredients and line them up, let eggs and butter come to room temperature, grease the pans, or whatever, then measure out ingredients.

I never preheat the oven for very long. It annoys me to see a recipe start with “Preheat the oven to 350F” and then the recipe goes on to say “soak raisins in X for 2 hours” or some other time-consuming instruction. When I’m scraping the batter into the pans, that’s when I turn on the oven.

For years I prepared everything without a stand mixer. When I needed to cream butter and sugar I did it by hand, smearing it across the kitchen counter. I’ve whipped egg whites on a plate with a fork. I’ve rolled out dough with a bottle. Nowadays you can google all kinds of tips and tricks if you don’t have the right equipment.

Baking is so much fun and there’s so much variety in techniques and flavors. I’ve been baking a long time and still try a new-to-me recipe once or twice a week. You’ve chosen a fascinating, satisfying hobby.

You can freeze your excess baked goods–this is advice I should follow but don’t.
posted by sevenstars at 3:54 PM on December 31, 2018 [3 favorites]

All butter isn't equal. In my experience, it’s best to use European, high-fat butter (Plugra or the like); I’ve never had a problem with making the recipes greasy. Make sure it isn’t salted; salted butter is fine for cooking and spreading on bread but it’s not good for baking. If you can’t find the high fat butter, use Land o’ Lakes; it’s what tends to be used in test kitchens so you’ll be more likely to get a good result from the recipe if you use it.
posted by holborne at 4:34 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

The best baking cookbooks are those by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Yes, there are many steps. Yes, they seem complicated at first. But they always work, and she explains why they work. Baking is chemistry, basically.
I keep my baking supplies on one shelf in my pantry. Cake flour and pastry flour in the freezer. Nuts in the freezer. I replace baking powder pretty often.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:47 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Silpats and a cookie dough scooper have transformed my cookie baking. So much easier, so much more delicious! My cookies are uniformly-shaped and evenly-baked, they slide right off the pan without a spatula, and clean-up is super easy.
posted by kayram at 5:39 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the recs for Rose Levy Berenbaum and using a scale and fatty butter (I like Plugra) and doing the GBBO technicals to practice. Princestarta will push on several skills, for sure. I also love me some pre-cut parchment rounds and half-sheets, and having a lab book where I record what I *actually* did vs. what the recipe said/how it came out. Even though my cookbooks are filled with pencilled in marginalia as well.

Another book recommendation: Michael Suas's Advanced Baking and Pastry. The explanations are good (especially the pictures of under/overproofed dough) and the test-scale in the recipes is usually appropriate for a home baker.

One thing that was helpful for my skills was to add some constraints to narrow down the recipes to practice with. In the summer I have a standing commitment to, basically, Crone Island Saturday Camp where some of the fellow crones don't eat wheat. So I got very good at dacquoise and meringues and macarons and sabayon and curd and mousse-cakes minus-joconde-collars. A fast thermometer (e.g., a Thermapen) is pretty great for lots of baking tasks.

Some behavioral tips: grease liberally. Pay attention to the pan size & aspect ratio. Pay attention to the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, work surfaces, and ingredients.
posted by janell at 5:42 PM on December 31, 2018

LNM - holy pastries! Your document of tips is awesome! Actually, all of these tips are so helpful! Thanks, MeFites :)
posted by sundrop at 5:42 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Not a master baker but a frequent one, and I can easily have my favourite cookies in the oven in less than 15 minutes thanks to my stand mixer (if you get one get this attachment it really is better), keeping all the edible supplies in one place near the mixer, all the measuring spoons and cups together in a mixing bowl, and the recipe on a note card so I just pull everything out and get going. I make a dozen right away then refrigerate the rest of the dough for the next day, or I freeze it. I have a little glass container with an airtight rubber seal and a wide mouth that is from ikea (korken line) and it stores about two dozen small-sized cookies perfectly.

I use old honey jars of different sizes (regular mason jars work great too) to store things like baking soda, baking powder, salt, chocolate chips, shredded coconut, cocoa. Bigger jars for sugar (brown and white), and check that your measuring cups can fit inside for scooping easily. For really frequently used ingredients like flour and brown sugar I just leave a measuring cup in the container (I have acquired a few sets over the years). Same for flour but even bigger containers, I keep pastry flour and all-purpose flour and I freeze excess as well.
posted by lafemma at 5:57 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’ll add a plug for the Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book. Huge variety of recipes but they’re well thought out with thorough instructions and everything we’ve made has turned out well.
posted by notheotherone at 6:16 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

One small tip I find a big time-saver while baking. I keep a small bin stocked with baking soda, baking powder, salt, extracts, vanilla beans, and an oil spray mister in the pantry, so it’s easy to grab and plonk on the counter instead of rustling up the individual items.

Same for baking spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, mace, cloves - all grouped in their own bin.

Then chocolate products - bars of semi-sweet, dark, white of various qualities, chocolate chips, American + Dutch process cocoa powder.

And so on... otherwise it’s very easy for a baking hobby to overrun your pantry. My bin of specialty sugars alone include golden and dark brown sugar, confectioners sugar, Demerara sugar, sanding sugar, vanilla infused sugar, superfine, golden treacle, molasses & corn syrup. If I had to hunt down just the can of Lyle’s golden syrup instead of quickly grabbing the big bin of assorted sugars, it would take forever!
posted by Vindaloo at 6:25 PM on December 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all SO much! These are fantastic tips! I think my first steps will be to buy a scale (I already have a stand mixer and it is my dearest love) and re-org my pantry. Excited to check out some of these books and experiment!
posted by tangosnail at 6:41 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I love baking and used to avoid it because of what an ordeal it was to get everything and make it happen. Here are the things that, now that I have them on-hand, make it way too easy to whip up a cake or a batch of cookies on a weeknight:

- Wide-mouthed, airtight storage containers for flours and sugars. I like the Oxo Pop set. It's just so so much easier to scoop dry ingredients out of one of these than a folded-over bag that my hand and the scoop can't fit into, and will get flour or sugar everywhere as soon as I open it. Also it helps keep these ingredients longer, so you don't think you have a big thing of brown sugar or flour and come to find them unusably hard, spoiled, or mite-infested.

- A set of dry measuring cups and a set of measuring spoons that are pleasant to use and clean.

- Sufficient baking sheets so I don't have to wait for one to cool or clean it before I can start working on another batch. For me,"sufficient" is 3 half-sheet pans and 2 quarter-sheet pans.

- Parchment paper. How did I ever live without it? Big rolls are cheap at Costco. You can also get pre-cut sheets that fit your pans. No shame.

- A rolling pin that fits my hands and accommodates my lack of coordination. For me, this is an old heavy wooden traditional rolling pin (the kind where the main part rolls smoothly around the core). Many of my friends who are avid bakers swear by the single-piece tapered rod that is a French rolling pin instead.

- A bench scraper and a bowl scraper.

- Silicone spatulas for gently folding in fragile ingredients, transferring royal icing from bowl to pastry bag, stirring the browning butter, and getting every last bit of custard out of the pot

-Offset spatula for icing (and for gently coaxing the dough you've just rolled out to separate from the surface you rolled it out on without sticking)

-Disposable pastry/piping bags, and proper metal tips with a coupler. So much more reliable than snipped ziploc.

With all these on-hand and the proper ingredients, I'm set.

As far as ingredients go, I try to get into the habit of purchasing fresh baking powder and baking soda at least a couple times a year--they do go bad. Also helpful to keep on-hand (besides the usual flour, granulated sugar, and brown sugar):

- Various cocoa powders
- Various chocolate bars
- Vanilla extract
- Vanilla beans
- Cream of tartar
- Superfine sugar (aka baker's sugar)

As far as cookbooks go, enthusiastic +1 to: Stella Parks' Bravetart, Baking Illustrated, anything Rose Levy Beranbaum ever wrote. If you're wanting to bake more breads, check out Peter Reinhart, especially The Bread Baker's Apprentice.

Happy baking!
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:21 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

+1 for Bravetart cookbook. Stella is AMAZING!!! Every recipe comes out perfect and delicious. Her instructions are precise and descriptive, which is really helpful. I've been baking for 25 years (!), and Bravetart is by far the best cookbook I've used!
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:55 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Other than the usual platitudes ("hot glass looks the same as cold glass"; "taste it, stupid!"; "learn techniques, not recipes"), my number one suggestion would be to emphasize the importance of repeatability. You can't do it right every time until you can do it the same every time.

This is why an oven thermometer and a kitchen scale are so important. This is why flour is always measured by weight, never by volume. (If you have a recipe that uses volume, then pick an estimate -- like 1 cup = 110g or whatever -- and write it down. That way, at least you will have a known starting point if you need to make adjustments when you make the recipe again.)

Make notes. Taste stuff critically, and make *small* adjustments; iterate to perfection. Be ready to eat (or in extreme cases, discard) your mistakes.

Cooking is art. Baking is physical chemistry. Control everything you can, as narrowly as you are able: time, temperature, process, inputs. (At least, do that until you learn where you can get away with being sloppy.)

Kitchen Aid stand mixers are awesome. King Arthur flour is good (but see comments upthread re: higher protein). Unsalted butter is a thing that exists.

Find a source in your community (or failing that, online) for decent spices. The little glass McCormick bottles at your grocer cost ten times what they ought if they were decent; they are ancient and taste of nothing.
posted by sourcequench at 10:35 PM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Basic ingredients like flour, butter and eggs vary a LOT from country to country, so when you try a recipe from a foreign cookbook or website, research how to adjust. For example, standard US eggs are smaller than in my country, bread flour is stronger, WTF is cake flour (we don't do bleaching or bromination/chlorination), my butter is always salted, ... it makes a big difference.

Another tip: whenever recipes give weights as an alternative to volume, go for the weight measure with your very accurate digital scales. Because proportions matter. Because, as noted above, baking is chemistry, much more than other kinds of cooking.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:57 PM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

I bake and cook a lot (probably not quite so much as you're going to bake, but still a lot). Nthing pantry organization, and pantry organization on a frequent basis; I have a ton of small jars on hand for when I have something in the pantry where it's running low in its original container, so that I can decant it into the smaller container and free up space in my pantry. I had to do that because I'm in New York and always have had a small kitchen, but find that this has helped me tremendously in another couple ways:

* I have a decent awareness of "what do I even have in my pantry and how much of it". Even if I'm just decanting elbow macaroni to a smaller jar, it still has me looking in my pantry, and then the molasses jar catches my eye and I register that "oh hey, molasses, I can do something with that soon" or "hey, look, I actually have two packages of marzipan" or "wow, I only have a little brown sugar, I should pick some up next time I go grocery shopping so it's on hand". Also, keeping the sizes of the containers compact means I can see everything better (the cornstarch doesn't get stuck hidden behind the flour, say).

* Sometimes the mere act of touching the ingredients gives me ideas ("hey....I have cacao nibs as well as some nuts. I wonder if I can throw some cacao nibs into that pumpkin bread I was gonna make along with the nuts? Let's try that").

Also - sometimes, instead of adapting the pantry to fit the recipes you pick, maybe try letting the pantry dictate the recipe now and then. What I mean is: instead of making up your mind to make Madeira Cake and then having to get any ingredients you don't have, start by taking a look to see what you do have, and then find a recipe that will fit that ("I have a lot of leftover almond meal after that one recipe I tried last week, let's see what else I can make with that using what I've got on hand"). There are a few baking projects I've done simply to use things up before they went off (like a pie this summer that was a catch-all for a ton of random CSA fruit - I think there were cherries, blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and maybe a peach or two, I just kept throwing in fruit until I had enough). Trying to find a recipe to use up [blah] will force you into new territory, some of which will be pretty good. Or it could force you to make creative changes to something you know well. And that's a way to grow too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:59 AM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Read recipes through before you begin baking.

Make notes during and after baking, either on the recipe itself or on a post it note stuck to the recipe. That way you'll remember the little things you did differently or want to try differently next time, or how they were received, a step that didn’t work, etc. I find my notes help me improve a lot.

Keep flours, baking soda/powder, sugars, etc together as much as possible. Makes it easy to pull out what you need efficiently.

Buy the best quality tools & ingredients you can afford, but don’t get caught up buying every single baking gadget you see. Too many tools makes it hard to store and find things unless you have a lot of storage space.

My best cookie tip is to never use a mixer to incorporate flour. When you get to the step of adding the flour & soda/powder, use a wooden spoon. A hand or stand mixer toughens the cookie dough.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 8:20 AM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The main reasons for using a scale have already been mentioned -- accuracy, repeatability, less mess -- but I also want to add it opens you up to the world of British and Irish baking recipes, which all universally measure solid ingredients by weight and nearly universally use the metric system. (I am assuming you are not British/Irish as I've never met a British/Irish baker who is unfamiliar with food scales.)

And on that note I have found this Cooking Stack Exchange page useful. It's a compendium of cooking terms that differ between Anglophone countries, so that the next time you run into a recipe that calls for strong flour, double cream, caster sugar or greaseproof paper, you'll know what the equivalent product is (or at the very least how to make a reasonable substitution based on the % milkfat or whatever).
posted by andrewesque at 1:17 PM on January 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Check out your local library's cooking/baking section. They may have some of the books mentioned in this thread. Mine has several Rose Levy Beranbaum books and it is free vs. $$ for a book you may or may not want to keep.

I recommend getting everything you will need out before starting: ingredients, mixer, scale, pan, spatula, whatever. I set the ingredients in the order they will be used and when I'm finished, I scoot them over to the other side of the counter. My baking is usually interrupted (toddler afoot!) and this helps me remember which step I'm on, plus I don't forget any ingredients.

I have a pantry shelf for baking ingredients and then a small cupboard for my silpat, piping bags, cookie cutters etc. Having things grouped together makes setting up a lot easier and faster. I keep my flours and sugars in Click Clack containers.

I've learned a lot of decoration techniques through Youtube and Instagram. Lots of tutorials and inspiring people to follow. Of course, it doesn't take the place of practice but it's fun to watch :)
posted by elerina at 5:34 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh - this is a tip that applies for cooking as well as baking, but:

Clean As You Go. When you have a couple spare minutes in a recipe when you're waiting for something to happen (you're letting bread rise, dough chill, or gelatin bloom or whatever), use that time to wash the used dishes and bowls that you've used thus far. This will free up utensils you may find you need later on, and will also cut down on the post-bake cleanup.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on January 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

My skillset is less than yours, based on your description, but I've made a few of Christina Tosi's layer cakes from her first book. A Kitchen Aid is a must for those. I can't imagine having to use a hand mixer for as long as you have to beat some of those ingredients.

Agreed with all the knowledge you can get from the King Arthur website, but I also love all the products they sell. Get yourself a bottle of Fiori di Sicilia if you don't have any. (And a medicine dropper. It's very strong!)
posted by BlueBear at 9:20 AM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

My wife is the baker in the family, and a while ago bought two sets of bakery boxes online. They each come with inserts to hold cupcakes; one set can hold a dozen and one set can hold two. If we have a lot of baked goods left over and have guests over, we can hand out boxes of treats and not worry about getting storage containers back or having things get crushed in plastic baggies.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:11 PM on January 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Apologies for the multiple comments, I just keep thinking of stuff -

Instead of the regular cocoa powder you get in the grocery stores, seek out dark cocoa powder - and black cocoa powder. The dark cocoa powder is more intensely chocolatey - and the black cocoa powder is even more intense, almost to the point that you shouldn't use it alone. I actually use it in conjunction with the dark cocoa powder - however much cocoa powder the recipe calls for, I use about 1/8 black cocoa and 7/8 dark cocoa.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:30 PM on January 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Again, thank you all - you are amazing!
Just popping back in here to say that The Container Store is having a buy 5 kitchen canisters, get one free sale! I bought all the canisters and completely revamped my pantry. Cake and Baking Bible requested from the library, kitchen scale on its way from Amazon. Can't wait to get started!
posted by tangosnail at 2:41 PM on January 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

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