If you've ever gone off book while following a baking recipe, you know the results can be disastrous. The chemistry of baking doesn't lend itself as naturally to experimentation as cooking does — so how do the professionals do it? To answer that question we turned to Jenny McCoy, an awarding-winning pastry chef, baking instructor, and the author of Jenny McCoy's Desserts for Every Season, who shared her advice for becoming a better, more intuitive baker.
For bakers who are comfortable with making everyday baked goods (cakes, cookies, pies), what are the skills you recommend mastering to take their baking to the next level?
Once a baker understands the techniques behind making everyday baked goods, I think the next best step to mastering their craft is to understand the functions of each of the ingredients in a recipes. I spend a lot of time with the students I teach at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, explaining finer points about the chemical reactions that occur when baking. For example: how different levels of gluten in flour can change the texture of a dough; how eggs add protein to dough to soften them and create structure; or why using a European butter with a higher fat makes for better sugar and egg emulsions when creaming batters.
Why is this knowledge important?
This information is incredibly helpful because it create a depth of knowledge that is common among most professional bakers — who often need to troubleshoot or adjust a recipe to work around different equipment, tools, or ingredients that might not be at the ready. It’s fairly often that I begin a recipe at home and realize about a quarter of the way through that I’m out of baking powder. But because I understand what baking powder is made of, I don’t need to run to the store; instead I can use baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch. Or if I need dark brown sugar and only have light, I can add a bit of molasses to my recipe for a richer flavor. And if I’m using a conventional oven, and not convection, I might increase the temperature of my oven so my desserts bake better.
Can you recommend any resources for learning professional baking skills?
As the former pastry chef of Chez Panisse, David Lebovitz is one of my go-tos for professional and seasonal baking tips. He does a great job of peppering his weekly blog posts with loads of information. I love reading baking and pastry cookbooks that have been published by culinary schools in the US and Europe— Frozen Desserts by Francisco Migoya and The Culinary Institute of America changed my entire perspective on ice creams, sorbets, and semifreddos. I also love the cake decorating courses at Craftsy.com, which are incredibly affordable and taught by some of the best bakers in the country, like Colette Peters. And I’ve been reading Cook's Illustrated magazine for years, which tends to get pretty geeky with ways to perfect recipes.
What's your best piece of advice for someone who wants to become a better baker?
Bake. Every. Day. Bake the same thing over and over until you get it just right. And when it doesn’t come out as well as you would like, remember that failure is just an early attempt at success. (That’s Theodore Roosevelt, speaking, by the way!)
Then bake that same recipe some more — making minor tweaks as you go along — so you can make it even better. And can truly call it your own.
Thank you, Jenny!
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(Images: Pernille Pedersen/Rizzoli)