Baking is a skill that requires precision, and for a novice, that can be intimidating. But these 10 essential tips from expert bakers will ease the pressure—and hone your techniques even if you’re an accomplished cook.
1. Use the right measuring cup
. Liquid measuring cups have pouring spouts and are marked with a range of volumes on the outside; you can find them in glass or plastic. Dry measuring cups come in graduated sizes—each cup holds a specific volume when filled to the top. Available in metal, plastic and ceramic, dry measuring cups can be levelled off once they’re filled to ensure accurate measurements.
For dry ingredients (except for sticky ones, like brown sugar), give the contents of the bag or canister a stir, spoon them into the cup until they’re overflowing, and then level the top using a straight edge, such as the back of a knife—never shake or tap the cup to level, as you might pack the contents down and end up with more than you need. Exception: Many recipes call for firmly packed brown sugar. Spoon it into a dry measuring cup or measuring spoon, and pack it down with the back of a spoon until it’s level with the rim.
For liquids, fill up the cup to the marking on the outside, and then bend down to check at eye level. Hint: Measuring liquids in dry measuring cups is OK. But when it comes to accuracy, measuring dry ingredients in liquid measuring cups doesn’t work. Measuring spoons, on the other hand, work fine for both dry and wet ingredients.
Want specifics? Our handy chart helps you measure right every time.
2. You can switch up the pan. While it’s usually best to stick to whatever baking pan a recipe calls for, your favourite layer cake batter might just work in a bundt pan. Our pan substitution guide removes the guesswork. Remember to leave room for rising; only fill pans two-thirds to three-quarters full. And don’t scrimp when buying baking pans—good-quality, heavy ones bake more evenly. Glass and dark metal versions conduct heat more efficiently; if you’re using one, reduce the oven temperature by 25°F (10°C)—for example, from 375°F (190°F) to 350°F (180°C).
3. Know when to fold ‘em. Folding is a gentler technique than stirring. It’s used when the goal is to create a light, airy texture. Using a spatula, ingredients are gently turned over. For tender results, fold just until ingredients are combined.
4. Adding air is essential. One of the most common baking instructions is to cream butter and sugar together or beat them until light and fluffy. Using a mixer on high speed (or a wooden spoon and a little elbow grease), whip the two ingredients together for several minutes until the sugar dissolves and the fat becomes lighter-coloured and forms soft peaks. Technically speaking, you’re beating air into the fat, which creates a tender structure in cakes and helps cookies spread more evenly during baking.
5. Prep properly for a clean release. There are no smiles when cakes, loaves or muffins stick to the pan. Use cooking spray or brush your pan with oil to help baked goods slide out—milk solids in butter can encourage sticking. Or line cake and loaf pans with parchment paper, and muffin cups with paper liners. (Greased and floured pans can leave a residue on your cake, which is OK if you’re icing over it.) Decorative bundt pans can be tricky to grease. Use one with a good non-stick finish, and spray it well with oil immediately before pouring in the batter so the fat doesn’t have time to slide down the surface. Parchment paper and silicone mats are excellent for cookies.
6. Mind your ingredient temperatures. Butter and eggs beat up lighter and fluffier, and contain more air bubbles, when they’re at room temperature. That’s ideal for baking chocolate chip cookies or a moist, tender cake; cold fat can congeal and form lumps in the batter. In a pinch, you can soften butter carefully in a microwave (don’t let it melt) and put eggs in warm water to take off the chill. On the other hand, cold fat is a must to guarantee a flaky crust in pie and tart pastry. Chilling dough—like icebox cookies and pastry—solidifies the fat, so cookies won’t spread too much and pastry will bake into flaky layers.
7. Don’t guess at sugar temperatures. Some buttercream icings require sugar to be cooked to the soft ball stage, so a candy thermometer is a must. It accurately measures the temperature and tells you when you’ve reached various cooking stages. It comes encased in a metal frame to prevent the bulb from touching the bottom of the pan and clips securely to the pot to keep your fingers safe.
8. Sift to break up lumps. Some dry ingredients, including cocoa powder, icing sugar and cornstarch, are lumpier than others. Sifting before adding them to recipes breaks up any clumps so they disperse more evenly in the mixture. There’s no need for a fancy sifter, though; a fine-mesh sieve works wonders. Don’t have one? In a pinch, just whisk your dry ingredients together to break up any lumps.
9. Keep your cool for better results. Patience is important when it comes to cooling. It’s the final critical step in creating structure. Baked goods stored warm will sweat and fall apart, so metal cooling racks are an essential tool. Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, most cakes are cooled slowly in the pan on a rack. Angel food pans have feet so the cake can cool upside down for a light-as-a-cloud texture. And don’t forget to let your baking sheets cool down between batches of cookies—unbaked dough will begin to melt on a hot pan.
10. Oven temperature is critical. You can tell a lot about your oven temperature by how baked goods look when they come out. If it’s too hot, cakes will have domed or cracked tops, or will shrink in the pan; cookies won’t spread and will burn on the bottom. Too cool, and cake centres will sag and crumble; cookies will spread too much and come out overly thin and crisp. Use an oven thermometer to get the heat just right.