I figured it was about time to attempt to answer the age-old question, “Just what makes a good baker?” I’m technically no authority, and I’m certainly not perfect myself. On top of that, I’ve been having a bit of a rough patch when it comes to baking. I’ve come to realize that we all make mistakes. Mine just come in a 9X13 pan. Burning cookies and altogether forgetting ingredients was just the start of it.
These hardships made me realize just what it takes to be a truly good baker. Some of this list is a matter of opinion. And some of it is not. I’ve always thought that taste is not necessarily subjective. I mean, who wouldn’t like one of these?
1. An ability (and willingness) to follow directions
This is absolutely one of the main fundamentals of baking, and anyone who tells you different is completely lying to you. I would never do that, even for the last scoop of Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream. Just leaving out a teaspoon of an ingredient can break your recipe. Salt, baking powder, baking soda – these are all crucial ingredients that you absolutely cannot leave out or mis-measure. As it happens, I am extremely bad at following written directions, and it causes me so many problems in the kitchen. However, that leads me to #2…
A wise man once said, if you know how to bake one thing well, you’re golden. While this is actually sort of true (especially if you’re a guy), that doesn’t make you a good baker. Let’s take my grandma for example (don’t worry, she doesn’t know how to use the internet so it’s okay). She makes some killer homemade brownies. They’re chocolatey, just fudgy enough and have at least an inch of powdered sugar on top. She makes them so well, yet she has tricked us all into thinking she’s a serious baker. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her bake anything else in my life. Yet she’s just so cute that it really doesn’t matter. I, on the other hand, do not have such a luxury. I’ve put chocolate covered potato chips in cookies and baked brownies with a pretzel crust. Some of it has worked…and some of it really hasn’t. But you need to dare to try.
3. Keeping calm and…substituting
In a perfect world, you have all the ingredients you need at all times. You’re always fully stocked with plenty of flour, spices, eggs, brown sugar and (seriously don’t forget the) butter. I hate to break it to you, but this world is not a perfect place. The other day in the middle of making doughnuts I realized I had NO OIL. In case you weren’t aware of how frying works, oil is fairly necessary. I had to force myself to remove my apron, change into workout clothes and head over to my gym simply because I couldn’t face the shame of going to CVS yet again that day for baking ingredients.
Most of the time I find myself using orange juice for milk in my pancakes, sweetening with maple syrup or honey instead of brown sugar and using whatever fruit I have on hand. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. One time I legitmately cried because I messed up my pancakes (twice). Hunger can do that to you. But other times you find a fix that works better than the original recipe.
4. A Baker’s Intuition
I’m pretty sure there is a term called “Mother’s Intuition”, and it may or may not be diaper-related. I’m slightly unclear. Well, Baker’s Intuition is more or less the same. Sometimes you just get the feeling that something is wrong. You feel like you left out an ingredient…or it actually looks like you may have. This happens to me all the time. I look at my batter and think, “Last time I made this it was much creamier. Did I do something wrong?” I often finish my recipe without a second thought, and only when I put my pan in the oven do I realize that the butter I was supposed to add in is sitting in the microwave.
It’s a sad day when you ruin an entire batch of something by forgetting one simple step. Double check your recipe, and even if you are making substitutions be sure that your proportions are still right. When I made my doughnuts I thought that the batter was far too running and then realized I left out an entire cup of flour. Look at what you’re making and taste before it hits the oven.
5. Learn the Basics
To be not just a good baker, but a great baker, you have to learn some of the basics, or really the secrets, of the trade. Here are a few of mine:
- If your cookies keep burning around the edges, that’s because your butter isn’t cold enough. I swear by freezing my dough for at least 30 minutes before baking.
- No matter what the recipe says, always spray or butter your pan. Unless you own a Silpat baking mat (which you should), and in that case never spray your pan because it will damage the silicone.
- That cake might seem pretty much cooled, but you’ll realize that it isn’t as soon as you start to frost it. Seriously cool that thing before even attempting to frost it or you’ll have one hot mess. I’d even say to briefly freeze it to prevent any crumbs from getting mixed into the frosting.
- Listen to Ina Garten because she’s basically always right. When you have that many gay men fawning over you, I will believe everything you say, too.
- Make your cookies the same size if they are on the same pan, or some will burn and others will be undercooked.
- Cupcake wrappers are always a good idea.
- Buy good quality chocolate. It makes a tremendous difference in whatever you make.
- You will not get salmonella from eating raw cookie dough. Ignore what your mom said. Just do it.