There are no magic secrets to being a baker. It’s entertaining to watch the fashionable Food Network cooks, if only to tell ourselves, “I would never make that,” or “I don’t know where to begin to find fish oil or French frou-frou paste.” But baking doesn’t necessitate years of training in Europe or a prestigious culinary school. All it really takes is some patience, preparation and the right tools. For the most part, if you can read a recipe, you can learn to bake. With that basis, I present a few simple baking suggestions.
For one, don’t let the recipe ingredients get you confused or immobile. Don’t make the mistake of substituting baking powder with baking soda or vice versa. Particularly in those recipes where food has to have a ingredient substitute for a leavening agent (such as yeast), the amounts are critical and must be respected. This is also true of salt and a few other touchy components such as vinegar, oil and some cheeses that should be right on the recipe quantities or there are potential chemical misfires.
But don’t anguish over the friendlier ingredients. If a recipe calls for one teaspoon of cinnamon and you happen to love the taste of cinnamon, an extra dash won’t hurt a bit. The same is for vanilla and other seasonings. Use what you love, within the bounds of not overpowering your baking with such aromas as lemon zest or ginger. Also, use substitutes when appropriate. For instance, if a recipe calls for raisins, very often you can easily substitute dried cranberries, nuts, chocolate chips or chopped dates, for change of pace and taste.
Another hint concerns having the appropriate supplies available. My methodology for baking includes having all of my apparatus assembled before I start mixing anything. So if you need eggs, flour, baking powder and sugar, salt, oatmeal or other ingredients that will be needed, put them all in your workspace. If you need to grease pans, do that in advance. Do the same to preheating your stove. That way, once everything is ready to assemble, you’ll mix it, put it in its pans, muffin tins or cookie sheets and start baking.
The one skill that will take the greatest amount of practice is getting to know how your batter or dough is supposed to feel. If you live at altitude, for instance, you’ll very likely to need an extra one-quarter cup of flour in order to create dough that’s not runny or gooey. You’ll also learn how to thin dough that’s too thick. Don’t arbitrarily add another egg because that may be too much liquid for the needed consistency. But I have made orange and lemon juice my friends because adding a quarter cup or so of one or the other does magical things to a dough or batter that is just too stiff. Keep in mind that you have to respect the rest of your ingredients. If you’re making something that is strongly almond flavored, for instance, you would choose a little almond extract and the lower profile of water or lemon juice as a thinner, rather than overpowering your almond essence.
Don’t get stuck on the rules. By no means should you stick with one or two squirts for a baking pan because that’s what the recipe indicates when you see that your pan is not completely covered. And be sure to experiment with healthier alternatives. Very often you can use egg substitute or egg whites in lieu of whole eggs without negative consequences. The same is true of milk and cream cheese – using non-fat or low-fat ingredients will rarely have negative effects on your baking and it may very well make it a little lighter, a little easier to digest and much friendlier for your heart.
My final morsel of advice is to take chances. Don’t begin by attempting recipes that require sophisticated techniques such as candy thermometers or flaming butter. You’ll get to that later. But instead of the boring, khaki cookies like chocolate chip (no offense to the traditionalists) or sugar cookies, live dangerously and attempt something that you love and have always wanted to make. Thanks to the internet and thousands of cookbooks on the market, you have no limits. The worst that can happen is that your baked goodies aren’t terrific on the first attempt and you have to try again.
Baking is a fun event and something to do with a child, a friend or significant other. If you’re still timid, take a baking class. But the process is invigorating, creative, fulfilling and produces excellent products. Don’t be intimidated by Emeril or anyone else. Just jump in, dedicate an afternoon to exploration and see what emerges from your oven.
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