10 things I’ve learned about baking

How’s everyone doing this grey bank holiday Tuesday? Oxford is not looking its best today, it has to be said. Very gloomy and damp.

It’s been a weird kind of week over here. I couldn’t walk properly for a large chunk of last week, and losing 1 day to pain and 3 to limping has completely thrown me. Considering I spend a large amount of time sitting at a computer doing things, that seems rather odd, but it meant I couldn’t potter around the house or town properly, and all those little jobs that I don’t normally think about just didn’t get done!

One thing that definitely didn’t get done was eating the pile of bananas in the fruit bowl, so I spent most of last night making banana cake/muffins. I use this recipe by Nigella Lawson, although I never follow it exactly. For one thing, I don’t like rum and so have never soaked the sultanas in it! Water or orange juice works pretty well. I also change the sugar around depending what I have, and rarely put the nuts in. It has to be said that the best version I ever made was with dark muscavado and dates. Last night’s variation was apricot and ginger, since that’s what I had in the cupboard.

But it got me thinking. I’ve been making cakes for as long as I can remember, and when I was a student, I’d make 2 or 3 a week. It’s something I’ve always done, and something I have a strong instinct for – I can normally tell by looking whether or not a recipe is going to work. So while I was baking last night, I started thinking about the best tips I’ve picked up over the years, and that people don’t necessarily tell you when you first start baking.

[Note: I definitely think of myself as being good at baking rather than cooking. Cakes, buns etc I find very instinctive. How much chilli to put in a curry? Not so much!]

It all got a little long, so I’ve put it under the jump, but I could have gone on for even longer! What about you guys? What’s the best baking tip anyone’s ever given you?

1. Baking is a craft, not a science

I think of baking very much in the same way that I think of crochet or sewing. Yes, there are guidelines and instructions and good practice and useful tips. But ultimately, baking comes down to you and the ingredients, and no recipe book can know exactly how much water your flour will absorb or exactly how hot your oven gets in a particular spot. This isn’t precise, it’s practice.

Oh, and yes, some people to seem to have better instincts about baking than others, but the funny thing is, the more cakes I make, the better my instincts are…

2. Recipes are guides not regulations

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It is entirely possible to follow a recipe to the letter and end up with a disaster of a cake. Recipes have to be guides, because ovens, scales and ingredients can’t be precisely calibrated for absolutely everyone. There’s an unwritten assumption in recipes that you will use a certain amount of common sense to recognise what will work for your situation.

3. Start baking with things you like to eat

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Because cake-making tends to be something we do for others as much as ourselves, it’s easy to get carried away and make something that doesn’t really float our boats, just because we want to impress or please. The problem with that, especially when you’re still fairly new to baking, is that you don’t really know whether or not you’ve succeeded. If you make a lemon madeira cake when you hate lemons, how do you know if it’s a good cake or not? You won’t learn how to balance flavours or how not to over or undercook. If you make chocolate brownies because you love them, you’ll quickly know whether or not it’s good, and can get ideas of how to improve. And learning from one recipe will carry over into all your others.

4. You can do a lot with a wooden spoon.

As far as I’m concerned, a wooden spoon is a baker’s best friend. It’s heatproof, rust proof, washes up well and will last a lifetime. With it, you can stir, beat, fold and scrape. While it’s not the only useful kitchen tool, it’s probably the most versatile.

5. Make friends with your oven

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The thing that will make more difference than anything to your cakes is your oven. I’ve baked with ovens that barely seemed to get hot and others that singed everything as soon as you put them in. The best way to test an oven is either with a cake that you’ve made before, or if you’ve never baked, start with a basic victoria sponge and see what happens. Does it rise in the middle? Does the back of the cake get cooked more than the front? How does cooking it in the middle compare with cooking it in the top? Once you know your oven’s quirks, you’ll know what you can and can’t do.

Incidentally, don’t panic too much about the oven door being opened in the middle of cake baking. There are some things that it will make a huge difference to, but with most modern ovens and most sponge-type cakes (ie a butter/sugar mixture blended with flour), a brief open and close will be fine, although you might have to add a few minutes to the cooking time.

6. Get your hands dirty

Sometimes there really is nothing for it but to use your fingers. And sometimes everything works better when you do! Just make sure your hands are clean when you start – even if you don’t plan on using your fingers for anything, hands should be washed before cooking. Partly for just basic good hygiene and partly because you just don’t know when you might have to retrieve an escaped ingredient or scrape down a sticky implement!

7. Some gadgets are worth the money

Despite what I said above, I think it can really be worth investing in a few things that you know are going to be of use to you. Good scales are definitely worth it. I love my digital platform ones because I can put any bowl on them, which lets me weigh all types of ingredients into their separate bowls, without having to think ‘if I weigh the butter first, the flour will stick to the pan’. I also have a Le Creuset heatproof spatula that is just brilliant for scraping out bowls. I got it specifically to make gingerbread, because you have to pour a hot mixture from a non-stick saucepan, and nothing else did the job quite as well. My oven gloves are also Le Creuset because they’re the toughest thing around.

Having said that, the one ‘gadget’ that I wouldn’t be without is my cake release. It really is a wonderful product, and I’ve never had anything stick when I’m using it. Everything from fruit cakes to brownies to the stickiest gingerbread, it just comes straight out the pan. Magic.

It’s more about having the right tool to do what you need than every type of gadget. I don’t do much icing, so I have a single icing bag and nozzle. But I do make a lot of things that need lots of ingredients weighed out in advance but kept separate (see #8 below), so I have a fabulous set of glass bowls that nest inside each other and are heat/freezer proof.

8. 50% of baking is in the planning

Normally, I’m all in favour of loose improvisation, but in the same way you can’t make a dress without cutting the pattern pieces, it’s very tricky to make up baking as you go along. It’s different to, say, making a curry, where you can largely go with what you’ve got in the cupboard and still end up with something roughly right. In baking, if you don’t have the baking powder or eggs, there’s just no doing, and you don’t want to find out that you’re short of something vital once you’ve already started.

Incidentally, this is not the same as saying you shouldn’t substitute. But part of learning to bake is learning what you can and can’t swap for what. So I know that I can substitute the nuts in my banana cake for pretty much anything that doesn’t absorb liquid too much. But I can’t substitute the banana for anything, because it’s part of the foundation of the cake!

9. Things will last if you keep them dry

One of the most useful tips I ever got about baking was that once the baking powder/bicarb gets wet, it’s active. And once it’s active, it will eventually run out of steam. That means if you realise in your planning stage that you’re short of 1 ingredient, but you’ve already weighed out the others, as long as you haven’t added anything liquid (that includes eggs!) to your dry, they can all be covered and put aside while you nip to the shops. Or hunt in the garage for the right attachment for your food processor *cough*

Even if you do realise once things are active, it’s not the end of the world – just cover and put in the fridge. With baking powder, that will delay the inevitable for about an hour or so.

Sadly, once you make bicarb wet, there’s no going back. This is why planning is so important!

10. There is always more washing up

Trust me on this one.

Or get a dishwasher.

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5 thoughts on “10 things I’ve learned about baking

  1. That’s my go-to bananana cake recipe, too, but I never use the dried fruit or nuts (T doesn’t like dried fruit, though he does like dates and apricots so I suppose I could try them…it’s never occured to me!) and often put in a bashed-up bar of dark chocolate and/or substitute cocoa powder for some of the flour.

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  2. Trying to make a banana cake without bananas is definitely not doable, I have, however, been known to add a random over ripe banana to a differently flavoured cake such as ginger or chocolate without it affecting the flavour too much.
    My top tip? Always use the correct size tin! Talking of baking tins, silicon cake ‘tins’ seem to cook the outsides of cakes too quickly for my liking, but are great for when you want to make a baked cheesecake; simply nest the loose bottomed tin inside a silicon one before dumping the whole lot in a water bath in the oven.

    ION I’ve just finished that tea cosy!

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  3. Excellent tips 🙂

    Get your hands dirty is the best one – sometimes it’s necessary. My granddad was a baker and mixed everything by hand – and I do mean everything. It makes a real difference to the lightness of the cake. Some things, like shortbread, are sooooooo much better if you avoid all tools.

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  4. My number one baking gadget is my hand mixer (a Kenwood – currently about £17). It makes mixing jobs so much easier and cakes (and buttercream) tend to be lighter when I use it as I don’t have the patience for creaming things for as long as you should.

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