I grew up in an icebox cake family. On birthdays, my mother made the traditional treat, or what she lovingly called, “the birthday log,” which consisted of whipped cream and chocolate wafers, carefully pressed together to form — you guessed it — a log shape.
This was the extent of my baking exposure, which involved no baking at all. Sure, we made out-of-the-box brownies for bake sales and, when guests came over, a very special concoction of pre-made angel food cake reheated with a topping of butter and powdered sugar. But my childhood contained few memories of sifting or rising or cutting chilled butter into dough.
So when I grew up and decided to venture out on my own in the kitchen, the precision needed to turn butter, sugar, and flour into chewy chocolate chip cookies (versus chocolate chip hockey pucks) came as a big shock. I swore off ambitions of the cupcake, cookie, or bread variety. And as a self-proclaimed non-baker, if you had a birthday, you better believe you got a no-bake cake or a meatloaf.
There comes a point, though, when one must face fears head on. And when I looked closer at what I disliked about baking — practice, precision, and patience — I realized it had less to do with the act and more to do with my attitude and preparation (aka lack of measuring cups). With the right tools and adjusted approach, making cupcakes or even sourdough bread started to feel as effortless as painting chocolate wafer cookies with whipped cream. And as my friend Natalie says, unlike undercooking or overcooking a piece of meat, a failed dessert recipe is still “sugary and carby and overall delicious, so what is there to lose?” Amen, Natalie.
So here’s the deal: For anyone who, like me, shares a dread of baking, you can choose to live a life filled with birthday logs or boxed brownies. Or today, you can face fears head-on and use these eight tips to nurture your confidence and release your inner baker. Or at the very least, enjoy literal brownie points for trying.
1. Set aside time.
Now that you’ve decided to give baking a chance, make sure to also give yourself time to focus on those new recipes. Trying something for the first time under pressure — on a busy weeknight, or while trying to do the laundry — is a recipe for disaster, not cake. So carve out space and time, and make it special. Put on some good music and maybe even a fancy apron to get in the mood.
2. Start simple.
Before you tackle a soufflé or a croquembouche, begin building confidence and technique with recipes low on the difficulty scale. This means picking dishes which use simple ingredients, simple instructions, and simple utensils (don’t get out the flame torch just yet). Try this two-ingredient brownie or this banana bread to practice the basics of measuring and mixing. Then, make them over and over again until they feel like second nature. This repetition is especially helpful when making bread or pizza dough — at some point you’ll be able to tell when dough is ready just by the way it looks and feels.
As for the next step, try recipes that use more complicated techniques, like meringues and popovers and creme brûlée (you can get the flame torch out now). Again, once you’ve practiced these more involved procedures a few times, you’ll be able to literally whip them up without needing a guide. And soon, nothing will scare you.
3. Use a trustworthy resource.
While we all love a passed-down recipe, unless grandma took serious notes, there may be a few instructions or measurements missing. I know my Nana’s recipes often include the words “splash” and “glass-full,” which might work for the aforementioned birthday meatloaf, but might not turn out so well for a tiramisu.
So as you nurture those skills, be sure to use trustworthy resources (cookbooks, websites, and classes) as your guide.
4. Get the right tools.
Exactitude is the name of the game with baking, so be sure to get the tools that make precise measurements easy. This includes thermometers and scales and most definitely dry and liquid measuring cups (which are different!). Also, if a recipe calls for a sifter or a special size of pan, you’ll want those too. And it’s also a good idea to calibrate your oven at least a few times a year, because if you need to bake cookies at 375°F, but the internal temperature reads lower or higher, those cookies are in trouble.
As for what tools you do not need? Well, for now, your baking adventures most likely will not require a chocolate mold or madeleine pans. Or really any specialty tools. Just stick to the basics and then let your kitchen accessories expand with your skills.
5. Get the right ingredients.
While you can get away with some baking substitutions (which we will get to below), give yourself the best chance at success by paying close attention to the ingredient list. And by actually buying all the items you need.
6. Follow instructions.
This starts with reading the directions all the way through before you touch a single ingredient. That way, you will know if you have to chill the dough, separate eggs, or save half of that lemon juice for later. Following instructions also means doing things in the exact order they are listed. And paying close attention to wording. For example, there is a big difference between mixing and folding. So read the recipe and make sure you understand the instructions. If you have any questions about a product or procedure, turn to Google (or that Kitchn search bar!) for help.
7. Know what will screw things up.
A change in altitude, weird weather, and a toddler throwing a tantrum — these are all natural occurrences that will mess with your best-laid baking plans. The good news is that there are usually simple adjustments you can make to compensate for the issue at hand. Just use Google (or a babysitter) to find advice and solutions. Also, do note, that baking powder and baking soda go bad and when past their prime, and will alter the results.
8. Don’t substitute ... yet.
Transforming a recipe from its original state to one that is gluten-free or vegan takes precision and a lot of experimentation, which luckily someone else on the blogosphere most likely already mastered. So before you switch coconut flour for white flour, make a recipe as is. Or find one that specifically fits your food and ingredient needs.
But before you start to feel like a baking robot, here’s the good news: At some point, you can experiment and substitute and still get good results. It takes an extra level of understanding about the role each ingredient plays in a recipe (i.e., chemical reactions, flavor, and color), but by constantly reading and educating yourself, this too can become second nature.
Start with primers like BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking or anything by Cooks Illustrated. Then start your own experimentation with simple alterations (and these eight rules). And when you’re in a pinch, use this guide for some common ingredient substitutions.
Want to Learn More About Baking?
- Sign up for The Kitchn's Baking School: 20 Days, 20 Lessons to Become a Better Baker — starting October 5, 2015!