10 Baking Tips for the Inexperienced Chef

homemade blueberry cake

A chef once told me that you're either a cook or a baker but hardly ever both. If you enjoy throwing things in a pan and hoping for the best (like my husband) then you are certainly not a baker. In fact, bakers are more like chemists than cooks sometimes. This makes adapting recipes to meet dietary needs or restrictions incredibly difficult. That's why its best to leave the experimenting to the chemists...I mean bakers. That is tip numero uno. Don't waste time recreating the pastry wheel.

Here are 10 more tips to keep inexperienced chefs sane in the kitchen:

1. Use established and tested recipes from reputable sources such as the SkinnyMom Dessert Cookbook. Allow the experts to do their job and provide you with the best-tested treats. Baking is hard. Some people (me!) can even screw up boxed goodies from time to time, so take my word for it and look on websites, blogs, and Pinterest for the best recipes.

2. If you have a recipe you love and you're brave enough to swap out fattier ingredients yourself, applesauce and plain yogurt are a good place to start. According to the queen of at-home baking, Betty Crocker, for maximum texture and flavor, replace no more than half the amount of the fat listed in the recipe. If a recipe calls for 1/2 cup butter, you can substitute 1/4 cup applesauce, saving 44 grams of fat and 400 calories (the fat and calories in 1/4 cup margarine).

messy baking ingredients laid out on table

3. Betty Crocker also recommends that you replace 1 whole egg in a recipe with ¼ cup fat-free, cholesterol-free egg product substitutes (such as ConAgra's Egg Beaters®) or 2 egg whites. You'll save more than 10 grams of fat and 100 calories.

4. Cake layers can be baked a month or so in advance according to Big Night Entertainment Group Pastry Chef, Maria Cavaleri, who is responsible for creating and executing dessert menus and specials for Boston's Red Lantern Restaurant and Lounge, GEM Italian Kitchen, Nightclub and Lounge and Empire Asian Restaurant and Lounge. She recommends allowing the layers to cool completely and then wrap them in multiple sheets of plastic wrap for best results. They should be stored without anything that could crush them until the layers are frozen. Once frozen, they will last for 3 months.

5. Pastry Chef, Maria Cavaleri, also recommends having your ingredients at room temperature (if the recipe requires it). Having your ingredients at room temperature allows you to mix them together more easily. Additionally, when whipping eggs, you will gain more volume.

woman baking with a stand mixer

6. It is so important that you follow the directions exactly and learn to "bake like a chemist". If a recipe calls for you to stir it 30 times, don't throw in 10 extra stirs for good measure. If it says to add items in a particular order, you must add them in that order. If it tells you to grease the bottom of the pan, you must do that. If it tells you to hop on one foot while reciting the pledge of allegiance, you can assume it is in your cake's best interest so just follow the instructions. I really can't stress that enough.

7. Read the whole recipe in advance and create a Mise En Place. Even recipes that seem quite simple could have steps that feel a little out of order. For example, the recipe includes toasted almonds, step 5 says to add them, but you haven't toasted them yet and and step 4 has you continuously mixing over high heat. Agh! What do you do now? Take some advice from the pros and create your mise en place first. (I believe that Mise en place is French for use every bowl in your kitchen). By pre-prepping your ingredients you side-step any recipe surprises and ensure you won't get caught mixing over high heat with your toes as you pop your almonds into the oven.

8. Test your oven for irregularities. Sabrina Bone, test cook for Cooking Light recommends giving your oven the "bread test". "Arrange bread slices to cover the middle oven rack. Bake at 350° for a few minutes, and see which slices get singed―their location marks your oven's hot spot(s). If you know you have a hot spot in, say, the back left corner, avoid putting pans in that location, or rotate accordingly."

hand sifted flour

9. I was watching Shark Tank one night on ABC and this adorable woman actually got the sharks to part their investment dollars in her cake company called Daisy Cakes. To become a Shark Tank success story, those must have been some pretty good cakes, so I'm going to take Kim Nelson's word for it that the secret is using hand-sifted flour (along with generations-old recipes and a god-given talent for baking cakes).  Although time consuming, "Sifting the flour for cake baking is very helpful for making cakes, especially if the home baker doesn't have any cake flour on hand. Sifting all-purpose flour will create a silky, airy batter making a cake fluffy and less dense."


10. Chef Jennifer Iserloh of Skinnychef.com taught me that for easy clean-up you can line the bottoms of your pans with aluminum foil before baking. Duh. Why didn't I think of that?

For more stay-sane tips, check out Cooking For Dummies: Avoid These 9 Common Mistakes!