When it comes to at-home baking, precision matters

A glance at Google Trends will show a classic "hockey stick curve" for the term "baking" in Canada. After a small spike in searches for baking around Christmas time, the curve jumped dramatically in March.  

Baking is a science that requires organization and precision

Baking can require a hotter oven than you might expect. (Submitted by Andrew Coppolino)

A glance at Google Trends will show a classic "hockey stick curve" for the term "baking" in Canada. After a small spike in searches for baking around Christmas time, the curve jumped dramatically in March.  

People who are staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic have become keenly interested in learning more about baking.  

And with shortages of flour and yeast at grocery stores, it's clear that people have indeed started baking more.  

Whether you're refreshing forgotten skills or are a novice baker, here are a few baking tips from professional cooks. 

Understand some theory

Something as basic and elemental as making bread with flour, water and yeast seems simple enough to pull off. There are certainly millions of Internet recipes on the topic. 

However, baking is a science as well as an art. Knowing some theory can help, according to Conestoga College culinary instructor Tim Simpson. 

"I think the most important thing with pastry is putting as much time into learning the theory behind what you are doing as the skills," said Simpson.  

"Not understanding the science of what is happening can lead to inconsistencies and failures, without ever knowing why it happened and how to correct it next time." 

Read the recipe – twice

Rather than trying several different recipes, become a master of one. Work with a recipe a few times to get an understanding of what worked and what didn't.  

The first step is very basic. Understand the ingredients and the method that's written down, according to Ambrosia Corner Bakery owner Aura Hertzog.  

"Thoroughly read the recipe over once or twice, at least, before you start. Make sure you have the ingredients and you understand the steps," Hertzog said. 

Baking bread may seem simple, but there's a lot of theory that goes into it. (Submitted by Andrew Coppolino)

Have the right equipment 

Your oven might say that it's 350 F, but is it? You can purchase an oven-safe thermometer, placed on the centre rack, to check the real temperature of your oven.  

That's a pro move, according to Crumb Bakehouse co-owner Martha Borys. 

"My oven at home is 25 F cooler than it says. That could lead to some disappointing results if you don't adjust for the temperature difference," Borys said. 

She also recommends getting a kitchen scale: "A number one baking tip is always measuring by weight instead of volume. Quality and consistency go up, but it's also cleaner because there's fewer dishes." 

Get organized: divide and conquer 

A clean, organized chef is a better chef, Hertzog says. "Organize all your ingredients before you start so you're not looking for something midway through." 

Hertzog also likes to divide and conquer.

"I like to put all my ingredients on my left side. After I've used them, they go on the right side of my prep area. Then I know I've added everything and don't need to wonder if I put the salt in," she said. 

Part of the organization should include preparing ingredients in advance: there's a reason the pastry-crust recipe asks for cold or even frozen cubes of butter. "You won't get flakey layers with room-temperature butter. You'll have a tougher crust," said Borys. 

Temperatures can mean the difference between a properly emulsified batter and one that is "split," or a tough crumb as opposed to a tender one, according to Borys. 

"If your dairy and eggs are cold instead of room temperature, your cake will have a tough crumb with tunnels," she added. 

This cake features no egg and no dairy. Substitutions include instant coffee powder and vinegar. (Submitted by Andrew Coppolino)

Watch how you use substitutions  

Cecelia Johnston is the owner-operator of CE Food Experience and The Bakery. She says when it comes to cooking gluten-free or vegan (or really any kind of cooking), there's a tendency, almost an instinct, to add too much of an ingredient. 

"Making gluten-free and vegan dishes and baking doesn't mean you have to load up on the sugar. Adding too much sweetness only muddles flavours. Let the ingredients speak for themselves," said Johnston. 

She adds that ingredient substitutions that try to make something gluten-free and vegan taste "like it's not gluten free or vegan" are usually why those items get a bad reputation.  

"Stop using avocado and apple sauce as an egg substitute in vegan baking," she emphasized. "Nine times out of 10, a teaspoon of baking powder and a tablespoon of water is the best egg replacement." 

Get some experience and break some rules 

Unlike, say, casually tossing together some chili or a vegetarian stew, baking requires more precision. Quantities, ratios and temperatures are all important for a good result. 

However, as an experienced baker, Bergen at City Café makes a bread dough from a recipe he knows well and has used many times. While your recipe might call for a specific temperature, you might find that you have to boost your oven. 

"You'll find you tend to need to bake hotter than you think," Bergen said. 

For his recipe of four cups of flour, one tablespoon of salt and one tablespoon of yeast, Bergen changes the hydration (amount of water) as he "feels" the dough, adjusting it to be wetter or drier, firmer or looser. That takes some experience baking. 

"You want a ball of dough you can knead," he said. "It's a golden ratio. It works brilliantly." 


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