Becoming a Better Baker

Five years ago, if you had asked, I would’ve said that I was a good cook but not a good baker.

What I meant was that I was a confident cook and an insecure baker. Cooking, on top of the stove, or even baking casseroles or pasta dishes, I felt secure in my knowledge of putting together recipes. I wasn’t afraid to experiment or substitute ingredients; I wasn’t afraid to try new things. And after adopting new recipes, after one or two times, I was comfortable making it from memory.

On the other hand, if I was going to bake cookies or muffins, I would obsess over a recipe. I had to double check every step and every ingredient. How much sugar again? How much flour? Baking powder or baking soda? Or both? And how much? I hovered over the oven, worried about cooking something too long and burning it.

Over the years, though, and especially starting about two years ago, I started baking more. A lot more. Currently, I bake almost every weekend.

And I love it.

Part of loving it, of course, is the fact that I know what is going into the baked goods. I’m not a rabid whole-foods, clean-eating kinda mom, but it’s nice to be able to pronounce all the ingredients in the cookies I’m giving my children.

Another factor is cost: almost three dozen chocolate chip cookies are super cheap when I’m baking them from scratch. All they cost is time, and if I can manage that well (not always a given), I’d rather bake the cookies or brownies than buy a giant box of granola bars from Costco.

This is what I’ve learned over the past two years.

1. The formula for baked goods is pretty much the same: butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla; flour and baking soda. Sometimes baking powder, too. Then, just pick the flavor: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin? Applesauce muffins? Vanilla cupcakes with orange frosting; chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting?

2. Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable. I didn’t learn this the hard way, thank goodness, but I was curious at some point, so I looked it up.

3. Keeping a well-stocked baking pantry just takes some attention. Like I said, flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs, baking soda, baking powder. Baking chocolate or cocoa. Confectioner’s sugar for icing and frosting. A hand mixer is great to have.

4. Brown sugar gets rock hard. I haven’t tried this tip yet, but keeping a slice of white bread in a ziploc bag with the open sugar is supposed to keep that from happening. Otherwise, stick it in the microwave with a damp paper towel for a minute or so. It’ll soften up.

5. Butter cream frosting is stupid easy to make. So is whipped cream.

6. Shortbread cookies aren’t stupid easy, but they are probably the easiest cookies to make. Although I’m still working on making them look pretty.

7. Parchment paper.

8. Sometimes I bake with whole wheat flour. The key to this is to not use 100% whole wheat flour. It can be up to 50% of the flour used. After that, it makes things too dense.

I sent homemade chocolate chip cookies to school with Flora for her birthday on Tuesday, and man, I really felt like Super Mom. (It doesn’t take much, people.) She said that everyone really liked them.

I’ve even gotten to the point that I’m willing to experiment a little bit. One of my recent brownie experiments didn’t really work the way I wanted (although they did *taste* good), so I’m going to try version B this weekend.

I never would’ve done that five years ago.

image sourcechocchipcookies

What new skill have you developed over the past five years?