21 tips that will make you a better baker
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Food and drink editor Charlotte Smith-Jarvis shares some of her favourite ways to improve your cakes, biscuits and desserts.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Or so the saying goes. And that’s exactly what I say to people when they complain their cake hasn’t risen, their biscuits have spread all over the place, or their meringues turned out flat as pancakes. Baking is about more than chucking a few ingredients in a bowl. It goes beyond the recipe. Often being successful is about intuition and ‘knowing’ whether something looks, feels or tastes right – and that only comes with practise.
Keep my handy guide in the kitchen. Hopefully it will have the ‘magic’ answer you need for one of your bakes.
1. Always add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to your scones or cakes. You won’t taste it but it will sure help them rise!
2. Before baking a cake depending on a raising agent, pop a little in some warm water. If it doesn’t fizz I’m afraid you’ll have to head to the shops to buy some more – or eat a flat cake.
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3. When it comes to bread dough the saying goes ‘the wetter the better’. The more flour you add during the kneading process, the worse your bread will be. Persevere and the dough will soon come away from the surface if you followed the recipe. Try oiling your hands instead.
4. Making a vanilla sponge? Replacing a quarter of the flour with custard powder will give you a bouncier, fluffier finish.
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5. Always, always, always chill pastry and biscuit dough. No exceptions.
6. If you dust cake inclusions like chocolate chips and cherries in flour before stirring them through your mix it’ll stop them dropping to the bottom.
7. Want perfect bread with minimal effort? Follow baker extraordinaire Dan Lepard’s folding kneading method. Search online to see how.
8. Avoid a soggy bottom when you make tarts. After blind baking always brush the base with beaten egg then pop back in the oven to create a waterproof seal. For particularly wet fillings add a thin layer of dried breadcrumbs to the bottom too.
9. For a super-short, extra-tasty caramel shortbread base replace half the flour with peanuts ground to a powder in a food processor.
10. Short of eggs? You can replace one egg with one finely mashed medium banana in a cake recipe.
11. Cake ingredients must be room temperature before baking – don’t go storing those eggs in the fridge.
12. Never overknead scones because they’ll turn to rubber. Just bring the mixture together until it’s in one compact ball. And never roll it out thinner than an inch.
13. If you mix 1tsp of bicarbonate of soda and 2tsps cream of tartare voila, you have baking powder.
14. Not sure your cake is cooked? Invest in a decent culinary thermometer. The centre of most cakes will read 90C when ready. Higher sugar cakes vary from 90C to 100C.
15. Do your cakes always dome in the middle? Often it’s because the mix is too dry. If it’s not dropping consistency, add a little milk to soften it. You could also be using the wrong sized eggs. The total weight of your eggs in a pound cake should make up a quarter of your mixture’s weight.
16. Try using strong white bread flour for scone making – Paul Hollywood swears by it…and I do too having tried it myself.
17. Making bread? Your dough is properly kneaded when it’s smooth, bounces back when you push on it, and when it forms a stretchy film when pulled, without breaking coarsely.
18. Always use butter for pastry. Margarine is too high in water and will make the structure of your pastry too fragile.
19. A scrupulously clean bowl is the secret to amazing meringues – along with room temperature eggs of course. Even if you bowl looks clean, give it a wipe out with hot water and a spot of vinegar then dry thoroughly.
20. We’ve all seen the Bake Off contestants squirm as their caramel crystallises. Why? Because they flipping stirred it. When making caramel cook it on a very very low heat until every single sugar crystal is dissolved. Turn the heat up to bubble but keep a bowl of water and pastry brush to hand to dissolve any crystals that creep up the sides. One rogue teensy piece of sugar could ruin the whole batch.
21. Tempering chocolate can be a right pain. As an easy rule of thumb, melt chocolate in a bowl over gently simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water). Retain a quarter of the chocolate. Once it’s melted add the remaining solid chocolate and stir to combine and melt. This should give you good results in a home kitchen.