There are somethings I find tremendously inspiring and I wish I could learn them. Photography and gardening for example. But as I read articles or blogs about them, I end up feeling quite confused. For the very obvious reasons that I don't know the basest of the basics or where to make a start as a complete newbie. The amazing world of baking beckons so many, but an intimidating thought for most of us as beginners. Do you see lots of people around baking and wish you could bake as well? As you take baby-steps into this world, some of the below things may help make a start. Especially in the absence of any prior exposure to baking. Queries posted on my blog, queries and reactions from wanna be bakers around me and the way I feel about photography and gardening are what inspired me to put up this post.
Baking is a science : In my opinion, cooking is more of an art, we don't need to follow precise measurements or stick to lot of rules to cook or create something tasty. But baking is a science, where different ingredients come together in certain proportions or measures, following certain methods of baking, resulting in chemical reactions in order to get a certain end product. The product needs to have the right texture along with taste. For example, crunchy cookies are welcome, whereas a rock-hard muffin or cup-cake (I am exaggerating, I know!) may not be highly appreciated. So, even the best of cooks, beginning baking, have to stick to measures and methods recommended to get the best baking results. It may surprise you to know that even the best of pastry chefs measure and bake, may be exceptions I am not aware of though.
Accurate measurements : Accurate measurements among other things, are critical to the success of any recipe in baking. While it may not be completely disastrous to add a wee bit more or less sugar or nuts in a cake, less of baking powder may not give your cake enough rise and the texture you are aiming for. So, no eyeballing here please! An acquaintance of mine who has never baked before and is incidentally a very good cook, asked me for a recipe for brownies. When I told her that I would email her the recipe, she was amused and asked me to just list out the ingredients and she would put them together herself!
Measuring cups and spoons: Cups and spoons, mentioned in baking recipes, always refer to standard measuring cups and spoons. Very certainly, these are not the tea cups we drink from or the spoons we eat out of. One teaspoon is 5 ml, one tablespoon is 15 ml, one cup is 240 ml and so on. It is really, seriously important that you get yourself these before you begin. Use one cup to measure a cup, 1/2 cup to measure half a cup and so on.
Unless otherwise specified one measure of anything, for example, one teaspoon of baking powder, always means a level teaspoon. A scant teaspoon means a 'little less than' a heaping teaspoon means a 'little more than' of that particular ingredient. Unless otherwise specified in the recipe as warm, hot or cold, all ingredients must be at room temperature.
Measuring methods : The best and the most accurate way to measure ingredients is to weigh them using kitchen scales, I prefer digital ones to analog. Measuring using cups, with special importance to flour could be either by the scoop and level method or dip and scoop method. Scoop and level method refers to stirring the flour (using a large spoon) in the container to incorporate air , taking flour in the spoon and placing it in the measuring cup placed on a level surface, level with a spatula. Here is a video which shows how.
Dip and scoop method is dipping your measuring cup directly into the container of flour lifting it and then leveling it. Flour measured using the scoop and level method weighs less than that measured using dip and scoop method. When following a recipe, make sure to check what method is followed by the author or book.
Appropriate pans : Baking tins meant for baking, in appropriate sizes as recommended in the recipe, are a must. A pan too big and your cake may be overcooked, hard and shorter. A pan too small and your cake may not be well cooked or the batter could over-flow from the pan! If you would be using pans of different sizes, the baking time will vary too, you should be able to tell when the cake is done. Please refer this post for more on tins.
Your baking ingredients: This deserves a whole lot more detail, but in short, use fresh ingredients. Baking powder, baking soda and yeast must always be fresh and properly stored in order to give the best results. The best brands of yeast or leaveners will be of little use if they are old or improperly stored. Buy small boxes of these if you do not bake very often. Buy from larger stores which sell stuff faster. For more on yeast refer this post.
To test the effectiveness of baking powder, mix 1 teaspoon baking powder with 1/2 cup (120 ml) hot water . The mixture should bubble immediately. To test the effectiveness of baking soda, mix 1/4 teaspoon baking soda with 2 teaspoons vinegar, the mixture should bubble immediately. If not, discard and get fresh packs.
Following recipes: Please choose recipes from well known, reliable sources, be it books or websites. And yes, please do follow the recipe! Try not to knock off ingredients or substitute too many unless of course you know what you are doing! Baking at home gives you innumerable options to customize your baked goods, but within limits.
Noting down. As you bake and measure out ingredients, note down any changes you have made, the time you baked them for, your observations about the taste or texture. This will help you create the same result again or improvise to your taste the next time you bake.
Practice, practice! Learning baking requires some amount of patience, perseverance and practice! No amount of watching videos or reading up equals hands-on experience. You will get the hang of it if you practice enough with your heart in it. So where are your guinea pigs? :)
Is baking unhealthy? Egg less baking and Savory baking : Contrary to popular belief, baking is not always unhealthy as there are loads of healthy stuff you can bake. In fact, home baked 'junk' is far healthier than store-bought junk! There is plenty of healthy, lower fat and whole grain baking you could do.
Baking is not always about cakes, cookies and brownies. If savory is your thing, you could bake a whole lot of breads, crackers, tarts, puffs, muffins, appetizers etc to tickle your taste buds.
If you do not consume eggs, check Eggless Cooking, Versatile Kitchen and Divine Taste for some egg less recipes you could try. What you can bake at home, can't be bought at any store ( most of the times at least!).
Home-baking allows you to bake to your taste and need, tastes much fresher than store bought and is infinitely rewarding and satisfying. So get your paraphernalia, don your aprons and have fun!