A Beginner’s Guide to Baking: The essential basics

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

I only started baking last year. Prior to that, I didn't even want to try because I was convinced that I simply could not bake.

During the pre-internet days, we could only rely on books and recipes to guide us on a lot of things. When the first two cakes I attempted to bake in my teens fell flat and remained watery even after the required baking time, I was so discouraged because despite following the recipe stated to the letter, the end results looked nothing like the accompanying photo in the book. I don't even want to start on the taste, because I couldn't bring myself to sample the mushy mess.

Little did I know, back then, that baking involved a lot of other factors. It is almost a science, and ingredients mixed in the wrong sequence can result in a failed bake. Oven temperature, substitution of, the adding and subtracting of components also plays a part. There is a method in the madness, so to speak, and there are things like the way to beat eggs and butter, folding in egg whites and sifting the dry ingredients - that recipe books usually don't mention.

In May last year, I decided that I have to get over the 'cannot-bake' business, and try again. I owe this entirely to my good friend Diana, who can not only keep house and look after her kids, but cook and bake in her sleep. She maintains her award winning blog, The Domestic Goddess Wannabe, where she posts recipes with the accompanying method listed step by step in pictures, and always makes things look too easy!

So I tried. The first successful dessert I ever baked from scratch, without any help, was this.


Cranberry and White Chocolate Cookies from Diana's blog. It was a triumphant moment for me when I took them out of the oven. They were crispy on the edges, and chewy in the middle, just the way Caden likes it. With encouragement from the way the little one's eyes lit up when he first savoured that cookie, I was determined to bake, and bake well.

Prior to being hit by the baking bug, I didn't know where to start even if I wanted to bake. Like me, many people usually get discouraged when they read the list of ingredients required, and the unfamiliar methods used to bake a cake, Then they totally write off baking completely when they find out the list of tools required in order to prepare a baked good.

So because I really, really wanted to get over the fear of baking (and prove to myself that I can!) I went on to build my modest baking collection with a lot of help from Diana.

There are so many choices and different tools that it can be overwhelming, so I've shortlisted a few items that you would need if you're a beginner baker. Once you have these basic things, you can go on to make simple cakes and desserts, and when you get the hang of things - experience will tell you exactly what are the other enhancing items which will simplify and assist in baking more complicated cakes.

Trust me - you don't need that many stuff to produce drool-worthy bakes. Once you've started baking, you won't ever want to buy a muffin or a tea cake from anywhere else again.

The Baking Pantry

Essential Ingredients

Dry Ingredients
  • All purpose flour
  • Baking Powder
  • Baking Soda
  • Brown Sugar
  • Caster Sugar
  • Chocolate Chips (Semi-sweet)
  • Cocoa Powder, unsweetened
  • Salt
Wet Ingredients
  • Butter (unsalted)
  • Buttermilk (not essential, but does wonders in baking moist cakes!)
  • Eggs
  • Milk (whole)
  • Oil (Non-flavoured, vegetable is best)
  • Vanilla Extract (NOT essence!)

Once you have these in your arsenal, you're all set to bake! You'd be surprised that the base ingredients of most cakes, even the complicated ones, are listed here. Perhaps you may even have all these in the cupboard already.

Essential Tools and Equipment

Electrics

  • Oven
Different brands of oven differ from one another in many ways. Have you ever wondered why ovens can sell for between $80 - $3000, apart from the difference in capacity? Why is it that some people swear by a certain brand, while others are happy with an off the shelf basic model? 
Heat distribution, preheating, baking time and oven temperature are different from one model to the next. There is the fan assisted oven, and conventional ones. There are steam ovens, microwave ovens, and water ovens. Do read up about the type of oven which will suit your family's needs, because you wouldn't want to get a model which may be cheap but is not versatile enough to be used apart from baking desserts. A few hundred dollars can mean the difference between getting two appliances for the kitchen, and one which will serve two purposes. 
Whether you are new to the world of baking or adept at it, do remember that the more you use your oven, the more familiar you are with it. No oven is perfect, but after awhile, if you know your oven's temperament well enough, you can adjust baking temperatures or avoid areas of uneven heating so that you can produce that perfect bake. 
My oven is a Sharp Healsio. It can bake, grill, steam and roast effectively - and I have no complaints about it apart from its small interior, which has made it rather difficult for me to find muffin pans and cookie sheets off the shelf. Oh well... more excuse to shop online! :)
  • Mixer
I use a KitchenAid stand mixer, which was an early Christmas gift last year from the ever supportive husband. It's in a limited edition Raspberry Ice colour, and I love that it was produced by Meyer in support of Breast Cancer awareness.  
Having said that, you do NOT need a stand mixer to be a successful home baker. A simple handheld mixer will do, and will yield the same results. In fact, I prefer to use a hand held mixer for better batter control, especially when mixing icing and buttercreams. 
Most basic and simple cakes do not even need a mixer to begin with. Electric mixers are a muffin's worst enemy, because overmixing can cause the dry ingredients to react too much with the wet ones and produce gluten, which will render the muffins hard, doughy and dry.



Equipment

Pans

You will go broke and run out of storage space if you were to buy the entire range of baking tins and pans available. Most recipes call for some standard sizes, and here is a general guide of some of the pan sizes useful to have on hand.

I like to use stainless steel ones (all of the dark coloured pans I have were gifts or handed down) because I find that cakes baked in them tend to brown and cook more evenly.

  • 9 x 5-inch loaf pan
  • 8 x 8-inch square pan (or a 9 x 9-inch, or both!)
  • 9 x 3-inch round pans (you need at least 2 if you intend to bake layer cakes)
  • 10 x 10-inch sheet pan (2 of these, so they can be used as a cookie sheet)
  • 10-inch bundt pan
  • 12-cup standard muffin pan
The Wiltshire loaf pan is 20 odd years old. It belonged to my Mum!

Some 'burn' marks are inevitable with stainless steel pans. I love that it looks 'rustic' after repeated usage, though.
I LOVE this set of muffin pans from Nordic Ware. Due to the high sides, it gives me straight sided, fluffy, bakery style muffins!

Tools

There are some tools that will not only assist you in baking, but are essential to ensure even mixing and uniform ingredient distribution. These items are what I had when I first started baking, and the collection hasn't expanded all that much, apart from a rolling pin, a pretty spatula (which I won!)a microplane zester and measuring cup and spoon set which an indulgent friend (thanks, D!) gifted me last Christmas!

  • Cooling Rack
I use a large cooling rack for cakes and muffins, and a Wilton three tier condo cooling rack (thanks again, D!!) for cookies. It's important that muffins and cakes get cooled all round, otherwise you'd end up with soggy cake bottoms due to the moisture released as it cools.

  • Digital Scale
A Digital scale is a worthwhile investment, especially in baking where every ingredient needs to be in precise quantities. Get a mid-range scale which measures in grams and ounces. Most recipes state the measures either in metrics or in cups (which you can easily convert to grams if you do a Google search)
  • Liquid Measuring Cup
A liquid measuring cup measures wet ingredients effectively. I use a Pyrex measuring cup, but this angled set from OxO is on my wish list!
  • Measuring Cups
Most American recipes call for the dry ingredients measured in cups. A set comes in 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/4 cup and 1/3 cup measurements. Just be sure to scoop the dry ingredient into the cup and level it off with a knife or a spatula for optimum results and to ensure accuracy.
  • Measuring Spoons
A set of these range from 1/8 of a teaspoon (tsp) to 1 tablespoon (tbs). These are used to apportion out things like baking powder, soda, salt, flavourings and colourings. I have two sets which I use concurrently, one for measuring dry ingredients, and the other for liquids. Only because I'm too lazy to wash and dry and reuse while I'm in the baking process.

I love the spoons and cups from Farberware. My digital scale is from IKEA and it's well worth the price I paid because it measures in grams and ounces!
  • Mixing bowls
Stainless steel bowls are the most versatile, because they warm up and cool down quite quickly, especially useful when you are using them to melt chocolates over simmering water, or whipping up buttercreams over ice, bain marie style. Have a few different sizes on hand - nested bowls sold in a set of 3 is great if you're starting out.

Small, Medium, and Large mixing bowls. 
  • Parchment (Baking) Paper
Parchment paper is necessary for lining tins and trays if you want a mess free, non-oily baked product. It's especially useful for cookies because it saves you the trouble of having to scrape cookies off the tray and risk breaking them in the process. Get a good quality one - I swear by Glad Bake - because the cheaper ones aren't lined with silicone and are not grease-proof.
Similarly, do get good quality, grease proof muffin liners. They make a difference between muffins and cupcakes encased in cups with greasy blotches and pretty bakes! In addition to that, cheaper ones can impart a 'burnt paper' smell onto the muffins and cupcakes.
  • Scoops (Ice-cream)
I don't know how I survived the first two months baking without my ice cream scoops! I use them to apportion out batters so that I get an equal amount in each muffin liner, and to ensure that cookies are of a uniform size (yes, I'm OCD that way). A spoon or a ladle works fine, but it's much easier to use a scoop with a mechanical bail that easily slides the batter out from the scoop to the cases or trays. I have three sizes - a small one for cookies, a medium one for cupcakes, and a large one for sky high muffins!
  • Spatula / Spoonula
A spatula is used for folding ingredients and / or scraping batters off the sides of bowls. I personally prefer silicone ones which are pliant and scrapes easily, yet remains firm enough to fold batters. My set of three is from Oxo, and I use them for practically everything! The spoon shaped silicon scraper (spoonula) is especially useful for folding in egg whites in batters, while the small sized one is great for scraping contents from odd shaped jars with narrow necks.
  • Sieve
A sieve is necessary for sifting flour and cocoa powder (which tends to get lumpy in storage). Get a fine meshed one, so that air is incorporated evenly and particles get effectively siphoned out.
  • Whisk
You will most probably need two. A long handled narrow whisk (also called a French whisk) and a balloon whisk. The narrow whisk is great for sauces as you mix it over a stove top, while the balloon whisk is used for whipping creams and egg whites (things which need to be creamed and frothy, with as much air introduced in as possible).
  • Wooden Spoon
Useful, but not necessary if you have a spoonula. It's used to mix batters lightly, especially for muffins.

These are always within reach in the kitchen!

Get sturdy, grease proof liners. The thinner ones do not hold their shape very well and does not peel off muffins and cakes easily!

That's it! You don't need more than what's listed for simple bakes. There will come a time, however, when you have baked often enough to know what other items will simplify the process, and invest in other items which will suit your purpose. That's when you build your "I'm a baker, I've earned these" collection!

Baking is not as daunting as it looks. The most important thing is to believe that you CAN, because that's when you would have won half the baking battle. Always, always read through a recipe before deciding on baking a particular product - you would not want to be caught in the process missing an ingredient. Along the same vein, do your misc en place (preparations), measure and lay out your ingredients before you start the mixing, because it's no fun to have a cake in the oven and the required eggs or sugar still on the counter!

Point to note: NEVER start a baking process believing that you would fail, because that's when you WILL fail. Baking, like cooking, is best done with heart and soul - people can always tell when your passion goes into even the simplest product you've baked.

***

When I first started baking, my Mum-in-law lent me her Philips hand held mixer, and I've had countless of successful bakes with its help. Even now (yep, she's given it to me!) I use the mixer for simple butter and sugar creaming, because it's extremely handy and easy to clean.

The start to a baking journey begins with a simple step - so if you're thinking of starting to bake, here's a little motivation to help you along!

TWO lucky readers stand a chance to win this Philips Hand held mixer! (model HR 1459)


I'm also holding a joint giveaway with Diana of The Domestic Goddess Wannabe, and if you hop over to her blog, you will also stand a chance to win a set of bakeware!

Please click on the picture to be directed to the giveaway post
There's also a recipe for a banana cake when you follow the link, It's so simple to do, but will yield the most perfectly moist banana cake ever. It's the perfect cake to bake to not only impress your friends and family, but will also get them begging for seconds! If you're hoping to win one of the mixers up for grabs, this is a cake you can bake in the meantime because you do not need a mixer to prepare it!

The Philips mixer giveaway is only open to readers residing in Singapore, and prize has to be self collected from VivoCity. To participate, leave me a comment detailing what's your worst fear when it comes to baking, along with your name and email address. Do carry out the rest of the options in the Rafflecopter to increase your chances of winning!


Good Luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway


*Contest ends on Friday, 10 October 2014, at 2359hrs. Winners will be selected via Rafflecopter, and notified via email. They have up to Tuesday, 14 October 2014 to respond to the notification email. Should there be no response, the winning entry will be rendered null and void, and another winner will be chosen.

Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post. I'd like to share how happy baking has made me, and hope that you will find the same simple joys in baking for the ones you love - as I have!
 

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