They say there are two types of cooks — bakers and chefs. Bakers are generally thought to be methodical and rule-abiding, and they deal mainly in chemistry. Chefs are innovators and risk-takers, and they deal more in physics. I had always thought myself to be more of a chef than a baker (as evidenced by my complete inability to follow a recipe exactly) — but I believe one can learn to bake even if one’s heart sings a main-course song.
I’ve received lots of compliments and inquiries about my baked goods, and I think I’ve managed to put my finger on the specific chef-like risks that I’ve incorporated into my baking practices with great success. (This is not to say I haven’t had MANY failures — I just don’t blog about those!) So here’s a list of some of the specific tweaks I tend to apply to most baking recipes.
1) Add more vanilla. Everything always tastes better with about double the required vanilla. If making a mix from a box, add some more vanilla during the liquid/egg stage. Always use real vanilla extract, and if possible, incorporate a flayed vanilla bean’s caviar (seeds). Trader Joe’s has the best prices I’ve ever found in a store for real vanilla beans in a pinch, and Costco carries a surprisingly high-quality pure vanilla extract. Updated from comments — try buying organic vanilla beans online. I like to buy both Tahitian and Madagascar and include both in my products, since they do lend a distinct flavor. (Both flavors are clearly “vanilla” but if you smell one bean next to the other, you’ll get what I mean.)
2) If at first it comes you don’t succeed, adjust the fat content. I often find that cake recipes feel too dry, and cookie recipes too greasy. So I’ll add or cut about a half-stick of butter with each subsequent attempt, until I get a good ratio. More than a half-stick and you risk screwing up the structural integrity, but I’ve found a half stick (or quarter cup) to be the magical adjustment figure.
3) Replace oil or shortening with butter. Sure, it’s a tad pricier, but it’s worth it. Real butter makes for a smoother blend, and it can help baked goods hold up better. And it just tastes better — ESPECIALLY if a recipe calls for shortening. Ick! Some goods really do come out springier with a lighter oil, but in my opinion the flavor of butter is usually an improvement. Do a combo if you can’t compromise on texture.
4) Increase the chip-to-dough ratio for cookies. ‘Nuff said.
5) Use farm-fresh pastured eggs when possible, or even duck eggs. The crappy, wussy eggs you get in the normal grocery store just don’t cut it. Happy well-fed chickens lay eggs with bright orange, delicious and nutritious yolks with a smoother flavor and a higher protein white that lends more structure. And duck eggs tend to help fragile recipes hold up better, and are a tad richer. (Can you say wedding cake?) If you can’t get local, farm-fresh, pastured eggs, at least try for organic and cage-free. (Make sure to taste an egg before you use the storebought Omega-3 kind in baking recipes — I have no idea why, but I’ve found that the yolks of commercial Omega-3 eggs can have a weird and almost fishy flavor.)
6) Substitute brown sugar for white, and dark brown for light brown. This may just be my opinion, but I find that the depth and richness of molasses improves most baked goods. I usually make my own brown sugar, since it’s usually cheaper that way, and I make it darker than even the darkest stuff you can get in most grocery stores. I also sometimes cut the step of making it and just use white sugar but add molasses during the liquid/egg stage. See here for DIY brown sugar tips.
7) Don’t skimp on the lining. I almost always bake cookies on parchment paper, and it insures them against even my temperamental crappy oven. And I always make muffins/cupcakes with liners, even though I could probably get away with skipping them sometimes. It just lowers the likelihood of burnt bottoms. I use an all-natural unbleached parchment so nothing creepy seeps into my creations. I also use insulated cookie sheets when possible, and I want to start using my silicone liner more often.
8) Know thy oven. Pay attention to how your oven bakes up — for example, is your bottom element much hotter than the top one? If so, try turning your oven to broil for half of the cycle. (Jen and I discovered that this was the trick to our shitty oven in our old house, and it worked like a charm!) Also, watch for hot spots in the front/back, and try to adjust the placement of your goods accordingly (or even rotate them mid-cycle). My oven now is gas and can either be convection or not, and I find that both of these factors mean that I have to shift recipe times and temperatures slightly. Experiment on lower-risk recipes, not public potluck dishes!
9) Go organic whenever possible. This may seem like common sense, but I just believe organic products to be more flavorful and authentic-tasting. It may not seem like a big difference, but I think it adds up if you use mostly or all organic ingredients. In particular, butter that isn’t just organic but is also local and hand-churned (with higher fat content and more nutritious fats from grass-fed cows) is a HUGE distinction.
11) Decorate. I find that making my baked goods look adorable often helps make up for any icing boo-boos or weird recipe issues. It’s all about distraction!
12) Take calculated risks. Sure, they say you should never let a chef bake, and sometimes with good reason: too much innovation can wreak havoc on a baking recipe. But certain small tweaks (like all the ones I’ve listed here) can make a big difference. Think your recipe is too sweet? Take out a chunk of sugar and replace that chunk with flour. Too dry? We already covered that in #2. Too bland? Add some nutmeg or cloves to that carrot cake recipe (but go easy — start with 1/8 tsp — hence the “calculated” part). Don’t be a risk-taker if you’re baking for a big event — save the experimentation for a random, “just because” plate of brownies for your family.
13) Never underestimate the power of salt. I always use salted butter, no matter what my recipes call for, and I sometimes add extra salt on top of that. In my experience, salt tends to “bake out”, and is much less noticeable in a final product. But it helps cut the sickly-sweet taste that some baked goods can take on — a little juxtaposition never hurt anyone. I particularly like to go salt-happy with items like chopped nuts (toast them with a bit of salt and butter before incorporating them), or pie crusts — anything that’s savory but next to something sweet. Note that salt kills yeast, so you may need to be cautious if you are baking a yeast-based item like bread.
14) Ditch the extract in favor of essential oil. Sure, some extracts (like vanilla) are necessary, as it would cost an arm and a leg to replace them with essential oil in every recipe. But others, like mint and orange, are better off when left to the oil. Instead of using whatever your recipe calls for, I say just go by taste — add just a few drops of EO until you get the desired effect. You’ll have less crappy cheap alcohol floating around in your confections, which is extra-helpful if you’re making something non-baked like a mousse (where texture is key) — the less extra liquid, the better. Be VERY sparing.
15) Go easy on distinctive flavors. It took me a long time to learn this one, but nobody wants to eat a lavender-iced cupcake that smells more like a hand soap than a homemade treat. “Trend” flavors like herbal notes in sugary foods need to be very delicate, or else they just overwhelm the item completely. Strong spices like nutmeg, cardamom and saffron should also be kept minimal — a whiff is much better than a total noseful. That said…
16) Play with unexpected substitutions. Instead of regular sugar, I sometimes use honey or maple syrup for certain dishes. (Maple syrup makes an excellent glaze for the berry part of strawberry shortcake, and honey-tinged frosting can be a fascinating detail to an otherwise simple vanilla cupcake.) As long as you don’t go nuts with any given item (see #15!), shaking things up a bit can be a welcome change.
17) X(anthan) marks the spot. Xanthan gum is a deeply creepy substance, but it’s quite effective at improving the texture of cakes and brownies. It’s an inert bacterium that helps bind particles together, and it gives cake batters an icky, slimy, stringy quality… but once it bakes up, it makes for a smoother, moister dessert. It’s worth it in the end, and it’s also VERY useful in gluten-free recipes.
Edited on September 17, 2013, to add:
Here are a few updates to my baking tweaks from the past couple years:
-Don’t ALWAYS replace oil with butter; it depends on the consistency of the final product. Some fluffy cakes require a lighter fat. But experiment (when your confection is not required for a big event) and see what works!
-Organic sugar is often coarser grained. Try making it supafine with a grinder if you want the best consistency.
-I no longer always use salted butter, because I learned that sweet cream butter tends to be fresher—salt helps preserve butter, so stores can keep the salted stuff on the shelves for longer. However, I do add extra salt to make up for my sweet cream butter, because I still dig that salty flavor.
-Freeze your extra frosting and use it to start new batches, like you would with sourdough bread starters.
-Grass fed dairy.