10 Baking Rules Everyone Should Know, According to a Pastry Chef and Cooking Teacher

published Jul 14, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

I’ve worked as a pastry chef, wedding-cake maker, and cooking instructor, and I’m always surprised when I hear that people don’t like baking. When I ask further questions I almost always find that this aversion could be avoided, if only they knew these 10 tips that can instantly make absolutely anyone a better baker. Here’s my holy grail of baking secrets.  

A Pro’s Baking Secrets

1. Check your oven.

It’s your number-one tool when it comes to baking, so be sure it’s accurate. Purchase an oven thermometer and check your oven periodically to make sure it’s calibrated. (A dial thermometer is cheapest, but a digital thermometer with a probe tends to be more accurate.) If the thermometer reads 365°F and you’ve set the oven to 350°F, you’re going to run into problems. If the temp is way off, call an appliance service person. Otherwise, consult the manual and do it yourself; some ovens are easy to recalibrate with the push of a few buttons and your trusty oven thermometer. 

2. Invest in quality sheet pans (with edges).

I love these Nordic Ware golden baking sheets because they are sturdy enough not to buckle under very high heat and they conduct heat evenly without hot spots. Plus, their light color means you get even results and the pebbled surface helps when it’s time to remove your baked goods.

3. Be prepared.

Not to sound like a Girl Scout leader, but really, get out all your ingredients before you bake.  Read all the way through the recipe, too. Better to realize you don’t have enough of an ingredient and need to run to the store before you start mixing. Pastry chefs do this — you should too.

4. Weigh dry ingredients.

When I teach cooking classes, I have students measure out one cup of flour for me and then weigh it. They’re always amazed at the wide range of weights they get using different methods like scoop and sweep, spoon and sweep, and dunk and shake. Such are the vagaries of measuring by volume. This is my way of saying that you should buy a scale and weigh your dry ingredients! You’ll get consistent results and it’s much easier, as you can add multiple ingredients to one bowl without dirtying measuring cups. I recommend this easy-to-clean glass-topped scale from Sur La Table.

5. Measure liquids with a liquid measuring cup.

The same tenet of “use the right equipment for the job” applies to measuring liquids, too. Use a liquid measuring cup to measure any water, milk, oil, or other liquid you are adding to your baking. I like these nifty OXO angled measuring cups, as well as good old-fashioned Pyrex glass measuring cups. Make sure to put the cup on a flat surface (not in your hand) and with the Pyrex, bend over to make sure the liquid comes all the way up to the amount line you’re after.  

5. Wrap butter up.

Fats tend to pick up off-flavors in the fridge, and nobody likes a cupcake with the essence of last night’s leftovers in it. Wrap partially used sticks of butter well and keep them in the cardboard box it came in; otherwise it will be tainted with other essences that are guaranteed to mess up your baking.   

6. Choose the right size eggs and poke out all the whites.

For the best baked goods, use the size of eggs called for in the recipe (that’s typically large eggs in U.S. baking and pastry recipes). And then take it one step further: A great pastry chef once chastised me for not getting the last bit of egg white out of each shell. I rolled my eyes at the time, but since then I’ve experimented and have found that if you use your finger to poke out that bit of egg white that is still clinging to the egg shell, it adds up to better, fluffier baked goods.

7. Try this hack to bring your eggs up to room temp quickly.

In pastry shops, we’d take flats of eggs out first thing in the morning and use them throughout the day. I often don’t plan ahead at home, so to bring eggs up to room temperature fast, I put eggs (still in shell, of course) in a bowl of hot tap water. They’ll be ready in about five minutes, and they will emulsify better in batter.

8. Don’t forget salt.

Not only does salt enhance and balance the flavors in baked goods, but it also helps gluten hold more water and carbon dioxide, which affects the texture of your bake. I once worked with a chef who quipped, “Don’t trust a baking recipe if it doesn’t contain salt; they don’t know what the h*ll they’re talking about.”

9. Get a quality cooking spray. 

I have this cooking spray Vegalene on hand and it’s been a fixture in every bakery I’ve ever had the privilege to work in for one reason: It works. It features canola, sunflower, and soybean oils with heat-resistant lecithin, and it leaves no gunky residue on pans or aftertaste. Cakes and muffins fall out of the pan when I use this stuff. Whether you’re baking and frosting 20 cakes for a wedding and you need the exterior to be crumb-free or you’re just making your grandma’s Bundt cake recipe, Vegalene is your friend.

10. Learn to fold like a pro.

Time and again I’ve seen students work hard to whip butter and sugar or egg whites up to a frothy delight, only to see them knock the air out instantly by stirring incorrectly in the next step. When a recipe calls for folding an ingredient into another, use a rubber spatula and gently plunge it into the center of the batter and, scooping upwards with a flick of the wrist, fold the batter over onto itself. Turn the bowl slightly as you fold, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl as you work. Be gentle and stop when everything is just blended and you’ll be rewarded with light, fluffy bakes.