You think you know, but you have no idea.
I admit it. I’ve been guilty of diving straight into a bag of flour with my measuring cup, packing the cup to the brim while gently sweeping off any excess flour with my finger. However, according to Pam Lolley, recipe developer and tester for the Time Inc. Food Studios, I (and I’m sure most of you all, too) have been doing it wrong all along. I recently sat down with Lolley and she schooled me on how to be a better baker with a few key tips that are sure to take your baking game to the next level.
1. Scooping Flour
First, Lolley explained to me the proper way to measure flour, which you’d think would be intuitive, right? I would have never given this step a second thought. However, according to Lolley, when it comes to baking, incorporating air into ingredients is very important. It’s crucial to remember to stir your flour before you measure it. Lolley advises spooning the flour into a measuring cup in order to incorporate air and avoid over-packing the flour. She says that “you can add about ¼ cup more flour than you need when you scoop straight from the bag.”
2. Working Without Quality Equipment
Lolley notes that you set yourself up for success by investing in a good set of measuring cups, measuring spoons, and a heavy-duty stand mixer. Now, mixers can definitely be pricey, and not everyone is ready for that type of financial commitment— which is perfectly understandable (trust me, I get it). If that’s the case, opt for a hand mixer that you can get at a lower cost at big-box retails stores and Amazon.
3. Ignoring the Difference Between Liquid and Dry Measuring Cups
A common misconception about measuring ingredients is that you can measure a cup of flour in the same vessel that measures a cup of water. However, that is not quite the case. Make sure that when you’re stocking your kitchen with the proper tools, you buy dry measuring cups and liquid measuring cups. With these tools, you can rest assured that you’re incorporating the proper amount of each ingredient that the recipe calls for.
Typically, liquid measuring cups are going to be made of clear glass or plastic, and have both cup and ounce measurements marked on the exterior of the cup. Most liquid measuring cups also have a spout (perfect for pouring… you guessed it, liquids), and they come in various sizes—anywhere from 8 to 64 fluid ounces. Dry measuring cups are generally sold in a stacked set including a 1-cup, ½-cup, ⅓-cup, and ¼-cup measures.
4. Greasing Pans with Butter
As if all of this knowledge wasn’t enough, Lolley dropped another jewel of wisdom on me. “I grease with shortening, not butter. Butter burns,” she says. (For the record, she clinched her chest as she said this, knowing that many other bakers would not agree.) Lolley is adamant that greasing baking pans with shortening, followed by a light dusting of flour, is a foolproof way to keep your baked goods from sticking, without creating overcooked edges.
5. Overbaking Your Cakes
Another mistake that many home cooks tend to make when baking cakes is overbaking the final product. When you prick the cake with a fork or toothpick to check doneness, it’s okay if a few crumbs linger. Most people wait until the tester is completely clean from crumbs, however this typically results in an overbaked cake. You also don’t have to wait for the edges of the cake to pull away from the sides of the pan. Lolley explains that a cake still cooks when you pull it out of the oven. That’s why it is important to let it cool, undisturbed, for 10 to 15 minutes when it is removed from the heat.
6. Making Uneven Cake Layers
Once you gain confidence in your baking skills and move to layer cakes, Lolley says the only way to get even layers is to weigh the batter and divide it accordingly. The only accurate way to do this is by measuring with a kitchen scale. “That’s a valuable piece of equipment, and everyone needs a kitchen scale,” she says. Not to mention, having a digital kitchen scale can be extremely helpful in plenty of applications beyond making even cake layers.
7. Skimping on the Ingredients
Lastly, Lolley adds, “If you are going to take the time to bake, don’t skip out on the ingredients.” Buy real vanilla extract instead of that imitation stuff, and use fresh spices, freshly squeezed juices, and freshly grated citrus zests when the recipe calls for them. It will add to the overall quality of your baked masterpiece. After all, a cake can only be as delicious as the ingredients that you use to make it.