I’m not a pro in any of this baking stuff, but there are a few tricks of the trade I’ve picked up along the way that help me create better treats. I have mentioned, and will continue to mention, these in my recipes without going into detail. So, this page can be used as a reference. I apply these techniques to almost everything I make, whether the recipe instructs me to do so or not.
Sift – you know how some recipes tell you to combine your dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, etc.) and then mix them in to the wet stuff? Even if the original recipe doesn’t tell you to do so, I recommend you sift this stuff. If you don’t have a sifter, passing it through a sieve or whipping it with a whisk is better than nothing. This aerates the dry ingredients, making it fluffy and your cookies or cake will be light and fluffy too!
Cake Flour – Cake flour is made from the endosperm of wheat, which is the softest part. On top of that, it’s bleached and milled more than All Purpose (AP) flour, so it has less protein (gluten, which is a binding agent) and is high in starch. The lightness of this flour gives cakes and cookies a better rise than AP flour. If a recipe calls for cake flour and you don’t have any, you can make your own quite easily: put 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into a 1 cup measuring cup, spoon enough AP flour to fill cup, and sift together at least 3 times. Now, in reverse, I almost always use cake flour even when a recipe calls AP flour. This is, of course, at my own risk. But knowing that AP flour is so much “stronger” than cake flour (since it has more protein), use your judgment to decide when you can substitute and when you may not want to. Supposedly you need to use an additional 2 tablespoons of cake flour when doing this, but I’ve done it 1:1 and have had fine results. I don’t want to be responsible for your catastrophes if you substitute flours, but I can tell you that in my experience, so far so good. More info on flour.
Simple Sugar Syrup – want to add some moisture to your cake and lock it in? Prepare a batch of simple sugar syrup and generously paint it on the cake after it has cooled. Immediately after doing so, move on to the crumb coat (see below) to lock in the moisture. Simple Sugar Syrup is equal parts water and sugar, boiled for about 3 minutes and then cooled in the fridge. About ½ c of each will provide sufficient syrup for two 9” round cakes.
Crumb Coat – you know those pesky crumbs that get all mixed up in your frosting when trying to ice a cake? No more! I found out about doing a “crumb coat” which is basically a thin primer coat of icing before doing the real icing. You’re supposed to water it down (add milk or water), but I don’t necessarily do that. After a thin coat of frosting, refrigerate the cake for at least 30 minutes and then have at it. It will be much easier to frost your cake now. More about Crumb Coats.
Parchment Paper – this really only applies to cake recipes. Don’t you hate when you tip over your pan to release the cake and it sticks? UGH! Line the bottom of your cake pan with parchment. First grease the bottom, then stick the parchment to that, then grease & flour the parchment. I’m telling you, the cake will fall right out next time if you do this. *For round cakes, don’t try to cut a circle. Just cut a square the approximate size of the round pan, then fold as if you’re making a paper snowflake. All you have to do is trim the top and you’ve got a nearly perfect circle.*
Temperature – every ingredient should be at room temperature. This includes butter, milk, and eggs. There are two exceptions to this. First, whipping cream should be cold unless otherwise instructed. Second, if you are making pie crust and certain breads, all ingredients (including flour) should be cold. But, for your standard cookie/cake type recipe, work at room temperature if you have the time to do so. Butter at room temperature should be soft, not mushy. Mushy butter can make your cookies spread out into flat little pancakes in the oven. Trust me, I know.
Speaking of temperature, I recommend investing in an oven thermometer. They are only a few bucks and you may be surprised at how inaccurate your oven dial is. Mine is routinely off by 25-35 degrees. Granted, I have a cheap-o rental apartment oven, but you really never know what your temperature is if you’re relying on your oven dial.