Macheesmo

Cooking with Confidence
A Better Baker
Musings

Becoming a Better Baker

by Nick

The saying goes that cooking is an art and baking is a science. While it’s cool (and encouraged) to experiment with substitutions and different amounts when making, say, tacos. It’s maybe not the best idea to try too many crazy things the first time you try croissants.

When I started Macheesmo, baking was my weakness by far. I just couldn’t really wrap my head around how things worked. What’s the difference between instant yeast and dry yeast? How about bread flour and all-purpose flour?

I thought laminating had to do with making fake IDs.

In fact, in the early days of Macheesmo I posted very few baked goods just because I wasn’t sure they were good enough to post. But as I did it more, I realized that I could completely handle baked goods and started getting more confident.

So I thought I’d take a post and go over some tips that I wish someone would’ve told me two years ago!

Let me start this list by saying I’m very far from a professional baker. I’ve never been to culinary school. I’ve only been to the airport in Paris.

That said, I’d firmly put myself in the advanced home baker category. I frequently make homemade bread that I’m really proud of. I’ve done enriched breads, donuts, pretzels, bagels, and even experimented with a sourdough starter. The one area that has eluded me so far is laminated items. I just can’t get croissants down, but mastering them is in my future. I can feel it.

Here’s a few things, in no particular order, that might help you become a better baker.

Weight Matters

This was probably the biggest change I made to my baking. I got a cheap digital kitchen scale and started weighing my ingredients instead of measuring them by volume. In reality, I only weigh flour and sugar really, but it makes a huge difference in making sure you get the same results time after time.

The other nice thing about having a scale on hand is that it makes it a lot easier to half recipes. Say you want to halve a recipe with 3 eggs in it. This would be a guessing game without a scale, but with one it becomes pretty easy to weigh three eggs, scramble them together, then weigh out half the amount.

Fresh Ingredients

There are some ingredients in the baker’s arsenal that I never really realized could go bad. And the thing is, they don’t really go bad, but they do lose their potency. What this means is that you could use them and they will seemingly perform okay, but they won’t have the same power as fresh ingredients.

Yeast is the most obvious ingredient that can become inactive. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to test your yeast by putting it in some water with sugar before baking. If it bubbles and foams, then you’re in business. The harder ingredients are things like baking powder and baking soda. Those really need to be replaced every six months or so.

Strong Hands

I love my stand mixer as much as the next person, but I still make bread by hand pretty frequently. I think it’s really important if you want to learn to make bread to know how it feels. It may sounds cheesy, but as you work with the dough, you start being able to tell subtle things about it. Is it too dry? Too wet? Is it ready to rise or does it need to be kneaded more?

These things are kind of hard to tell in a stand mixer as it whips the dough around at 90 miles an hour. Making bread is an old school hobby and sometimes you need to go old school on it. So unplug the stand mixer and start kneading! Not only will you become a better baker, but you’ll get a bit of a workout also.

Learn

If you’re new to cooking/baking, you’re going to need to learn a bit about baking essentials before you can really become a proficient baker. Have no fear though. This isn’t organic chemistry (although there is some chemistry).

Eventually, you might want to graduate to an actual baking textbook (I’m almost there), but for starters, here’s a few great books that not only give solid recipes, but explain the processes and science behind baking.

Baking From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

My Bread by Jim Lahey (probably the easiest of the three)

What You Don’t Need

You’ll notice that I didn’t include in this list that you need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment. Of course, you’ll need some equipment, but nothing too expensive. Good bread was being made before professional mixers and gadgets so I encourage you to give it a shot without those things first!

My Five Favorite Baked Things

To finish off this post, here are my five favorite baked things I’ve made on Macheesmo to date:

Kaiser Rolls

English Muffins

Homemade Pretzels

Olive Bread

Gougeres

What are your tips? I know I have a number of really good bakers that read Macheesmo, some are professionals. What are your tips for people that want to become better bakers?