Baking Essentials

Baking Essentials

Baking Essentials

The holidays are for baking.  Here are my Baking Essentials that will ensure that your holiday baking goes smoothly. 

Alcohol: If you are baking with brandy or whiskey it is best to use good quality spirits to flavor your recipes.  I like to use brandy and whiskey to flavor cakes and cookies, plump raisins, and season fruitcakes and fruited tea breads.

Butter: When baking with butter I often like to use unsalted, or sweet butter, softened at room temperature.  I have no particular favorite brand, brand, but I always use organic butter.  Try to avoid salted butter for baking as its moisture content can affect the baking results. 

Margarine: Butter is better in my opinion. Nothing is better for the flavor, richness, texture and color of cakes and cookies than real dairy butter. However, if you prefer to use margarine it can be substituted for butter if it contains enough fat.  For best results, choose a stick margarine with at least 80 percent vegetable oil or one that contains at least 100 calories per tablespoon.  Substituting shortening for butter will give cookies a softer, more cakelike texture and a different flavor. 

Chocolate: When baking with chocolate try and use good quality chocolate.  When baking with cocoa, either American-style or Dutch, make sure to use the correct amount.  Always store chocolate and cocoa in a cool dry dark place.

Coffee: When baking with coffee I like to use instant coffee or espresso powder. 

Milk: Make sure to use whole milk when baking or buttermilk.  When I bake with ricotta cheese I always use whole-fat ricotta.  I always use whole-fat sour cream as well.  For cream, I use heavy cream or whipping cream – not half & half.  Occasionally I will use canned sweetened condensed milk and canned evaporated milk. 

Eggs: Eggs should always be at room temperature.  I always purchase U.S. graded jumbo eggs.  If using egg whites they should be at room temperature before being beaten. 

Recipes: Read each recipe several times.  It’s easy to miss an important ingredient.  Make certain that you understand the directions and know what ingredients are needed. 

Adjust oven racks before turning on the oven. 

Have all ingredients at room temperature, unless otherwise stated. 

Prepare baking pans and set out racks for cooling.

Assemble your ingredients and utensils. 

Combine ingredients in the order that they are listed. 

After your recipe is in the oven, set the timer. 

Allow baked cakes, pies, and cookies to cool completely, unless otherwise noted. 

Store baked items in appropriate containers or refrigerate. 

When using extracts and pure flavored oils use only pure extracts.  Never use imitations flavors.  Always use pure vanilla extract. 

Flour: Make sure to use organic all-purpose flour.  If a recipe calls for cake flour, self-rising or pastry flour make certain to use these flours.   If you need specific flour and cannot find it then try and order it online.  Make sure to measure flour by scooping a cup of flour and level it with a knife.  If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sifted flour, sift it and then measure it.  If a recipe calls for 1 cup flour, sifted, then measure the flour first and then sift it. 

Fruit: If you’re baking with fruit make sure to use the fruit called for in the original recipe whenever possible.  Use fresh fruit only when it is in season and buy dried fruit in small quantities.  If you need to plump dried fruit I like to plump them in orange juice, tea, or brandy before baking.  Doing this adds another level of flavor. 

Lard: Many pastry recipes often call for lard or a combination of lard and butter.  Some cookies and pie crusts are particularly flaky and tender when made from lard or a combination of lard and butter.  Often times using lard gives baked goods and “old-world” flavor and texture.

Citrus: When using lemon, limes, orange juice and/or zest use medium-sized lemons and oranges with firm, unblemished skins.  Use a microplane or a traditional grater to remove the zest or yellow part of the rind.  Leave behind the bitter white pith.  Make sure to wash citrus before grating.  Roll the fruit on a flat surface to break up the juice pockets first.  Cut the fruit in half and juice it on a reamer.  Strain the juice to remove any seeds.  A lemon weighting 4 1/2 ounces yields about 2 teaspoons of grated zest and 3 tablespoons lemon juice.  An orange weighing 6 1/4 ounces yields about 2 tablespoons grated zest and 4 tablespoons orange juice. 

Nuts: If you are baking with nuts purchase nuts in small quantities and store them in sealed plastic bags or covered plastic containers in the freezer to preserve their freshness.  Be mindful of those who may have nut allergies. 

Spices: The most popular baking spices are cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice.  Today we are very lucky to have access to these spices because in the past they were not easily accessible and were often expensive.  Purchase spices in small quantities and store them in a cool dark place. 

Sugar: I use white granulated sugar unless a recipe calls for a specific type of sugar, such as brown sugar, powdered sugar (confectioners’ sugar), or sanding sugar.  Often dark brown sugar can be too assertive for recipes that call for light brown sugar due to the molasses content.  If you like the more assertive flavor then by all means use dark brown sugar.  Other sweeteners with additional flavors include maple syrup, molasses, honey, and dark corn syrup.  Store powdered sugar in a sealed plastic bag so that it’s easier to measure.  Sift it after measuring to make sure to remove any lumps. 

Oil: I use either pure vegetable oil (such as peanut oil or corn oil) or olive oil for baking.  Always use fresh oil. 

Vegetable Shortening:  I use solid vegetable shortening for recipes that call for shortening. Purchase in small containers to ensure freshness and store it according to manufacturer’s instructions.  Whenever there is a choice given in a recipe I use butter. 

Yeast: I use active dry yeast in recipes that call for a raised dough.  I do not use cake yeast.  When proofing your yeast, proof in water that has been warmed to 110 degrees.

Baking Pans: Many recipes will note the size, weight, and material of bakeware to use.  Standard sizes are the norm.  For pies, I use 9 inch ovenproof glass pie pans without handles or ruffles.  Manufacturers of glass baking products often suggest a lower temperature when using their products.  I suggest that you follow the instructions that come with any product you use.  If you need to purchase bakeware, I suggest that you explore all the options.  Your best bet is sturdy, single-wall aluminum pans. Keep in mind that shiny bakeware (aluminum, tin, and stainless steel) reflects heat and results in cakes with thin, golden crusts.  Dark or dull-finish bakeware (tin, glass, and many nonstick pans) absorbs more heat, increasing the amount of browning.  If you use a pan with a dark or dull finish, follow the manufacturer’s directions.  Most suggest reducing the oven temperature by 25 degrees and checking doneness 3 to 5 minutes before the minimum recommended baking time.  Silicone pans are increasing in popularity.  These pans may be used in the oven, microwave, and freezer.  Follow the manufacturer’s directions for baking and cooling when using silicone pans.  Purchase brand names, and keep instructions on how to use them in a file folder in a handy place. 

Preparing the Pan:  Unless specified otherwise, grease and lightly flour baking pans or use parchment paper if baking cookies.  For cakes use a paper towel or pastry brush to evenly spread the shortening in the pan and add a little flour.  Tilt the pan, and tap it so the flour covers all the greased surfaces.  Tap out the excess flour.  You can use cocoa powder instead of flour for chocolate cakes.  Some recipes may direct you to line the bottoms of pans with parchment paper.  Cut pieces of parchment paper to the size of the pans.  Line the bottoms of the lightly greased pans with paper, then grease and flour as describe by the recipe. 

Mixers and Food Processors:  I use a KitchenAid standing mixer for most of my baking.  It saves time and is extremely convenient.  A handheld mixer will work for most recipes, as will a wooden spoon or whisk, but will take more time and effort.  The texture and result may also vary.  Be careful to note that some recipes require gentle hand mixing.  Using a food processor for mixing pastry or cookie dough or grating carrots and oranges saves a lot of time and provides a uniform result. 

Stoves & Ovens:  I use a gas stove and oven.  Some people have gas and some have electric.  I suggest that you honor the idiosyncrasies of your own stove and oven because every appliance is different.  Using an oven thermometer is key.  Turn baking sheets with cookies halfway through the baking time.  I usually bake one sheet of cookies at a time, but if you do multiples, switch the baking sheets from rack to rack and turn them front to back halfway through baking, especially if your oven doesn’t bake evenly.  A microwave oven is also helpful to melt butter and chocolate.  Be sure to use the lowest setting.  Always be sure to bake cakes at the correct temperature.  If the oven temperature is too hot, the cake may develop tunnels and cracks.  If the oven temperature is too low, the cake may have a texture that is too coarse.  Allow your oven to preheat while you prepare your batter.  Check cakes for doneness after the minimum baking time.  To test a butter-type cake insert a wooden toothpick near the center.  If it comes out clean, the cake is done.  If it comes out wet, bake the cake for a few more minutes, then test in another spot near the center.  To test whether a foam cake (such as angel food, sponge, or chiffon cake) is done, touch the top lightly.  If it springs back, the cake is finished baking. 

Cooling:  Cooling is an important process in baking.  Before removing a layer cake from its baking pan, allow it ot cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack.  To remove the layer, loosen cake edges from pan using a metal spatula or knife.  Place an inverted cake rack on the cake layer, turn the cake and the rack over, and lift off the pan.  If the pans were lined with parchment paper, gently peel off the paper.  Place a second inverted rack on the cake layer and turn it over again so the baked cake is upright; cool completely.  A butter-type cake that will be served in its pan should cool on a wire rack.  Angel food and sponge cakes baked in tube pans should be cooled upside down to set their structures.  Use a long metal spatula to loosen the cooled cake from the pan.  Press the spatula against the pan in a continuous motion to avoid tearing the cake. 

Tricks of the Trade:

Microplane Graters: This super sharp device grates the peel off citrus fruit in seconds, leaving you with mounds of zest and time to spare.  It’s also great for ginger.  Fine, medium, and coarse graters are available.

Nut Chopper: Tired of chopping nuts with a knife and watching them roll all over? With this device, nuts are contained and can be chopped in seconds.  It also works for onions and garlic. 

Nonstick Baking Mat: Prevent cookies from sticking to cookie sheets by lining the sheets with this reusable mat.  It’s also perfect for kneading and rolling dough. 

To the Freezer: If you are concerned that you’ll have no time for last-minute holiday cookie baking you can get a head start by freezing baked and cooled cookies.  Most cookies can be frozen for months, ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. 

* Use airtight plastic bags and containers specifically labeled for freezer storage.  Separate layers of cookies with sheets of waxed paper. 

* Tightly seal filled bags and containers and freeze for up to three months.  For best results, don’t frost or glaze cookie before freezing.  Instead, freeze unfrosted cookies, thaw, then frost before serving. 

* Most cookie dough (except bar batters and meringue or macaroon mixtures) can be frozen in an airtight freezer container for up to six months.  Thaw dough in its container in the refrigerator.  Shape and bake as directed. 

Shipping Out: Sending cookies, not crumbs, to loved ones through the mail is possible with a little care.  For best results, send crisp or firm varieties including most slice & bake, bar, and drop cookies.  Avoid frosted, moist, thin, or filled types.  Wrap baked and cooled cookies individually, in back to back pairs, or in stacks in plastic wrap.  Line a sturdy box with bubble wrap and pack cookies in layers of packing peanuts or tissue paper so they won’t have room to shift.  Write “perishable” on the box and ship early in the week so your package won’t be delayed over a weekend. 

Baking Pans I Find Useful:

9x13x1 inch jelly roll or half sheet pan

14×16 inch metal baking sheets

8 cup Bundt pan

10 cup Bundt pan

9 inch tart pan

8 inch metal springform pan

9 inch metal springform pan

10 inch metal springform pan

7 inch metal round cake pan

8 inch metal round cake pan

9 inch metal round cake pan

8x8x2 inch pan for bar cookies and brownies

9x5x3 inch metal loaf pan

9x13x2 inch metal or glass pan

9 inch ovenproof glass pie plate

Metal pudding molds

10 inch angel food cake or tube pan

8 cup tube pan

1 1/2 quart ovenproof glass or ceramic baking dish

Large metal pan for water bath

8 inch frying pan

Heavy bottomed frying pan

Heavy bottomed saucepan

Ovenproof custard cups

Baking Aids I Can’t Live Without

Standing mixer with paddle, whisk, and dough-hook attachments

Food processor with metal blade and grating blade

Microplanes (to grate zest)

Offset spatulas (to smooth batters and frost cakes and cookies)

Oven thermometer

Candy thermometer to test sugar syrup and oil

Instant-read thermometer to test water temperature

Scale (for weighing ingredients)

Disposable gloves

Disposable piping bags

Strainers (for sifting, removing seeds from juice, and dusting with powdered sugar)

Cooling racks in a variety of sizes

Parchment Paper

Wax Paper

Silicone baking liners

Measuring cups for measuring dry ingredients

Measuring spoons for measuring dry and liquid ingredients

Measuring cups for measuring liquid ingredients



    Victoria has been cooking and writing recipes since she was a a young girl. Originally from Nebraska, her appreciation for culinary technique took off when she moved to Lyon, France. Victoria is published in Hearst Newspapers, Greenwich Free Press, New Canaanite, and more.

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