June 12th, 2008

10 rules for amateur bakers

sorry guys, no recipe or pictures this time. i just moved into my new place so i’m still getting everything set up to start baking again – but rest assured i’ll be back soon. but i didn’t want to leave everyone completely hanging, so…

i’ve never had any formal training in baking or cooking, but i’ve been doing this for fun for the past few years and have noticed mistakes that i’ve corrected as well as mistakes i continue to make. these are my thoughts on how to be successful at baking and have fun doing it.

1. don’t be intimidated by ingredients or techniques
people often consider baking overwhelming because it’s a science that requires precise measurements and temperatures. true, it is a science, but there’s no reason to think you can’t do it…and there’s plenty of wiggle room if you screw up. i’ll admit that i was afraid of using yeast the first time, but the sense of accomplishment i felt when my first bread came out of the oven more than made up for it. with the internet at our fingertips (not to mention the public library), there’s no excuse for ignorance when it comes to working with a specific ingredient. similarly, a lot of recipes call for fancy techniques – pie crusts are a common phobia. you can either a) try it, fail, and try again or b) find an easier alternative. you can’t go wrong.

2. bake often, bake cheap (at first) and pay attention
the only way to not fear baking is to do it. a lot. it could be gradual at first, but you will improve. you’ll be throwing together ingredients more quickly, you’ll know by smell when your cookies are done, you’ll improve on recipes by adding your own special touches. and you can still get great results from cheap ingredients, so if you’re afraid of failing, make sure you do it without breaking the bank. there’s plenty of time to try extravagant flours after you master a simple cake with simple ingredients. but if that simple cake doesn’t work out, do a little research and figure out WHY.

3. you don’t need gadgets
this is a hard one for most people to get over. if you’ve got an standing mixer or even a hand mixer, put it away for a week and try to make your favorite recipes. i promise: you can do it. heck, you don’t even need a real oven. i’ve made my chocolate chip coffee cake in a cardboard box tin foil oven while camping in the middle of nowhere. the two tools i rely on most are a bowl and a wooden spoon. sometimes you can even forgo the wooden spoon by using your hands. get creative and don’t rely on something expensive you need to plug in.

4. when it says preheat, PREHEAT!
i used to be guilty of this one. how many times have you gotten your cake all set to go and realized you forgot to heat up the oven? it’s easy to just throw it in there and let it slowly warm up, but for the love of all delicious baked goods, BE PATIENT! it is essential that baked goods be immediately exposed to the proper temperature. starting in a cold oven will not only extend your baking time to some indeterminate amount, but the consistency of your cake or bread will be off. oftentimes, the first 10 minutes of baking are the most important, and if your temperature is bad, it can mean hours of trying to fixed a botched recipe or starting from scratch.

5. use real butter
please. PLEASE. there is a difference between butter and oil; they are not exactly interchangeable in recipes. specifically, butter is only 80% fat, the rest being milk solids and water. there are recipes that specifically call for oil, and that’s fine, but if a recipe calls for butter, use butter. the consistency of your finished baked good depends on it. if you are concerned about health issues, moderation in everything you eat is the key. as long as you are not eating 12 cupcakes a day, you don’t need to sacrifice taste and consistency.

6. don’t open the oven until the minimum baking time has passed
i still break this rule. since i was a kid, i couldn’t wait to see when the cookies or the muffins would be done, so i’d open the oven door to check. bad move. i know it’s tempting, especially if you don’t have an oven light, but opening the oven door causes a sudden change in temperature, resulting in disaster. cheesecakes will crack, cakes will fall. you will weep.

7. the amount of love added is directly proportional to your final result
the more i bake, the more i am convinced of this. i believe it’s why my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, despite being the standard toll house recipe, surpass others using the exact same recipe. baking should be a pleasure. the process of baking itself, not just the eating part at the end. if you don’t have fun, it will carry all the way through the cookies you’re making and into the people that eat them. you can immediately tell when something is homemade instead of store-bought. maybe your cake has imperfections, but it’s those imperfections that make it special. i know it sounds sappy, but put love into your baking and you will be repaid in full.

8. uncooked dough can be delicious, but don’t eat uncooked yeast dough
you’ll get a tummy ache. trust me.

9. don’t keep your baking secrets a secret
i don’t understand why some bakers keep their recipes a secret. unless you’re planning on selling it or are worried about plagiarism, spread the word! the more good recipes and techniques we can get out there, the better all of our baked goods will be. got a “secret” ingredient? tell your friends! help each other out – baking can be a scary endeavor sometimes, so if you’ve got knowledge, drop it on us.

10. try anything (at least) once
once when i was making a layer cake, i was afraid that my layers would come out with domed tops and not stack correctly. i came across this tip on the internet: “wrap a damp towel around your cake pan when you put it in the oven. the water will lower the temperature around the edges of the pan, so it will take the same amount of time to cook as the center.” it seemed a little crazy, putting a wet towel in a 400 degree oven, and yes, i did burn myself several times trying to maneuver the whole thing, but it WORKED. my cakes were perfectly flat and even all around.

don’t fear anything. in fact, go out of your way to use ingredients and techniques you’ve never tried. you probably won’t master everything the first time, but you can add it to your list of things you’ve accomplished. go forth and experience everything baking has to offer and don’t ever turn down a recipe because it looks too complicated or takes you out of your comfort zone. thrive on recipes that challenge you and make you a better baker.

13 Comments for 10 rules for amateur bakers - why not leave some love?

  1. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m an amateur baker myself and I still just can’t help opening the oven every five minutes to watch the progress.

  2. Lindsey says:

    I found this article while searching google for “the science of baking.” I’m glad I found it because your recipes are great and I like your writing style.

    It’s also nice to find food blogs by people in a similar walk of life to myself. The recipes generally seem more attainable if for no other reason than I know I can get the ingredients. I too am 23, but living in NOVA and working in Washington, DC.

  3. Y says:

    Great list. Must say, I’m guilty of breaking a few of those unspoken rules sometimes.

  4. Robin says:

    Going with the doomed domed layer cake, I’ve also discovered when making brownies, to avoid the same effect, pouring the mix in the pan around the edges and letting it gravitate towards the center helps them bake beautifully flat.

  5. Aisha says:

    Great tips! Thank you!

  6. Helen says:

    Hey Pete!
    I just found your site and am attempting your pancakes as I type. I’m pretty new to all things baked and am very grateful for your info and recipes. Thanks!

  7. Mimi says:

    thank u for these great tips 🙂

  8. Angela Merisso says:

    My sister makes an Italian Anise Easter bread every year following our mother’s recipie. She forms them round loaves. However,the texture is sometimes crumbly and the centers are not fully cooked and are a little doughy. Can you give us some tips on what she is doing wrong?
    Thank you

  9. lockbow says:

    What’s the recipe?
    I’m not after your family’s secret recipe as such (although I wouldn’t refuse it =) but it sounds like a poor gluten structure (if I’m correct and you do not want the end result to be crumbly) either from poor kneading or mixing in the fat (if there is any) too early.

    Mixing in any fat will coat the flour and prevent the later formed strands of gluten from hooking into each other and the result will be crumbly and flakey. This is the reason why you start with mixing flour and fat when making scones or pie crusts where you want the result to be really flakey and crumbly.

    As for them being doughy, I guess it’s all coming down to minute variations in oven temperature (all hail the holy thermostat and all that, but it is not the German wonder of precision we sometimes wish for) or the size of the loaves.
    Tell your sister to use a digital thermometer. Depending on the recipe anything between 200-205 F seem to be OK according to “Bread Baker’s Apprentice” but some breads (Pane Siciliano and Panettone) go even lower, down to 185 F.

    Simply put: YMMV.

  10. joyce says:

    Hi Pete,

    I really enjoyed reading your tips. They are super helpful! I hope you don’t mind me re-blogging your post. I also referred it back to your blog.

    You can check it out here:

    Thank you!

  11. Reserve noticeable, I really enjoy your blog!affiliatespam

  12. […] 10 Rules For Amateur Bakers from Pete Bakes […]

  13. more says:

    Hello there! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My blog looks weird when browsing from my iphone. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to fix this issue. If you have any suggestions, please share. Thank you!

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