People often say that baking is a science. I prefer to say that it’s exact. There is a lot of creativity to baking, and a lot of room to experiment – but you need to be purposeful with your measurements and process. Sloppy measuring or mixed-up instructions can make a profound impact on your final result. You can certainly recoup your efforts even if you make a mistake. In fact, whenever I realize I’ve messed something up, I bake it anyway! It’s fun to see how things turn out. And every now and then, the “mess up” can be quite delicious. My friend Anne and I once made a lemon olive oil cake… but forgot the olive oil! We baked it anyway and ended up with a delicious lemon cake we called “Lemon Crackle Cake” for our dinner guests later that night.
Still, you’ll want most recipes to come out the way they were intended. There are some easy things you can do to maximize your odds of delicious results. Here are some of my favorite baking “best practices”:
- Read Ahead: Read the entire recipe all the way through before you even start to do a single step. And I mean really read it – don’t just skim. When you skim, it’s easy to miss important details about the overall time required or important info on the order of operations. For example, a recipe might require you to chill specific ingredients after you mix them together. If you don’t realize that upfront, you might not have enough time to do the recipe right. The order of operations is really important, too. It makes a difference for how ingredients come together, so you should heed instructions for when to mix wet vs. dry, when to add the salt vs. the sugar, etc.
- Prep Your Space: I set up all of the ingredients and measuring cups before I even start a recipe. It’s efficient, and it helps you make sure you have everything you need. No one wants to be 5 steps in and realize they’re all out of sugar! It makes prep work quicker, too, because you aren’t racing around your kitchen in between every step. You also might want to check off ingredients as you add them to make sure you don’t forget critical steps – especially if other people are in the kitchen chatting with you as you bake.
- Be Precise: Some measurements don’t need to be perfect, e.g. whether you add exactly a cup of chocolate chips to your cookies, or slightly more or slightly less. But for most things, you should be very precise with your measurements. I use the spoon/knife trick with dry ingredients to level everything off as I go. Fill the cup, using a spoon as needed to fill in empty spaces. Then, use the blunt edge of the knife to smooth it out. It may sound like extra work, but it’s worth it.
- Use Baking Times as a Guide: Every oven acts differently. Altitude affects baking time. How big/small you made each piece affects baking time. So when I look at a recipe, I assume the “bake time” is just guidance, not an absolute number. I always check things a couple minutes before they’re supposed to be done – just in case. Sometimes the recipe needs more time in the oven than stated, sometimes it’s less. The best recipes tell you what something should look like when it’s done vs. just giving you a bake time so you know exactly when something is ready to leave the oven.
- Take Notes: Wherever you keep your recipes – annotate them. My mom used to scribble notes in her cookbook margins. I keep track of all the recipes I bake in a Word doc, and I always add comments about what I would change next time or any lessons I learned. If I want to make something again or share it with you online, I have an easy reference for what I learned about the recipe and how it works. I also keep track of what I did with each recipe – did I bring it to a party, a picnic, etc. But that’s just for my own sentimental reasons. I’m a sucker for memories!
- Be Kind to Yourself: Ok, I lied. There are 6 tips here today. Look – no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you respect the recipe, not everything is going to turn out perfectly. That’s ok! If something turns out less than perfect, or even outright gross – be kind to yourself. Trying new recipes means that some won’t work out. Take notes, and try it again. Or just move on and try something else. Baked goods are far too delicious to be the source of tears!