- Today's Topic: Baking
- The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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It would be impossible to encompass all of baking in one lesson, but we didn't want to close our Cooking School without giving you at least an introduction to sweet and savory baking. We'll talk through some baking basics that are helpful for all home cooks, and then it's time for a little party because today is the last day of our Cooking School!
Congratulations to everyone who has participated in The Kitchn's Cooking School. We hope you've had fun this past month and learned a few things to help you in the kitchen. Let's bake a cake to celebrate!
Day 20 Lesson: Bake
What makes baking different than other kinds of cooking? Both sweet and savory baked dishes tend to start out with a fair amount of liquid. Think of cake batter or a lasagna, which start off very liquidy and need a baking pan to hold them together, but then firm up during baking. Baked dishes are also usually an assembly of different ingredients all mixed together (unlike a roast, which is usually one food or ingredient cooked alone).
What's happening during baking? During baking, the loose, unformed structure of whatever is being baked becomes set and firm. This is true whether we're talking about baking cookies or a pizza. Some of firming up happens due to evaporation in the heat of the oven, but it can also happen thanks to things like eggs setting and starches gelatinizing. If the dish includes yeast, baking soda, or baking powder, the food will also gain some lift as these ingredients become activated in the heat of the oven.
Choosing the right baking dish: Since baked goods are so dependent on their pans to hold them together during baking, the size of that pan is very important. Specific pans are also important because they increase the surface area of a dish and allow liquid to evaporate more easily, or because they have high sides that will help support a cake or loaf of bread as it rises. Use the size dish that your recipe calls for and be mindful when substituting pans or doubling recipes. Today's Homework, below, has a quick reference guide for pan sizes and how much food each one will hold.
Baking and oven temperature: Precise oven temperature is extremely important when baking. This is what make cakes rise, breads brown, and casseroles become cheesy and delicious. Since most ovens run slightly warmer or cooler than what the dial might indicate, I highly recommend picking up an inexpensive oven thermometer and leaving it in the back of your oven so you can keep a close eye on the oven temperature.
Baking at low temperatures, baking at high temperatures: Delicate recipes like cakes, cookies, and pastries usually bake at the lower end of the spectrum: between 300°F and 350°F. Besides needing a bit gentler treatment, the butters and dairy in these recipes can make them burn at higher temperatures. Leaner breads, pizzas, and the like are often baked at 450°F or even higher. Casseroles often fall in the middle and are baked between 350°F and 425°F. Be aware that some recipes start at a higher temperature to kick-start the baking process and then the oven temperature is lowered later in baking.
Preheating the oven: Your oven is a big space, and it can take time for it to come fully up to temperature. Start preheating the oven at least 15 minutes before you plan to bake. If you're baking with a baking stone or inside a pre-heated Dutch oven, add an extra 15 minutes to the preheating time to make sure those things have fully warmed. Also, avoid opening the oven too often during baking or leaving the oven door open for too long — this lets a surprising amount of heat out of the oven and can affect baking times.
A lot of baked goods recipes call for eggs and dairy products like butter, milk, or cream cheese to be softened— this means taking them out of the refrigerator and letting them come up to room temperature before you use them. Room temperature ingredients incorporate more evenly into batters and doughs, and this is especially important when recipes call for creaming, which means beating butter and sugar together until everything is aerated and very uniform.
Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you've already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.
Study: Take a few minutes tonight to memorize pan sizes by dimensions and volume. Boring, yes — but very useful! If you have these memorized, you'll have an easier time substituting one pan for another in a recipe and when scaling recipes up or down. Here's what you need to know:
Pan Sizes by Dimension and Volume
- 9-inch pie pan = 4 cups
- 8x4-inch loaf pan = 6 cups
- 9x5-inch loaf pan = 8 cups
- 8-inch square pan = 2 quarts (8 cups)
- 9-inch square pan = 2 1/2 quarts (10 cups)
- 13x9-inch pan = 3 quarts (12 cups)
Practice: Make a free-form pasta casserole for dinner. You can throw any combination of ingredients into this, so use whatever you have in your pantry or leftover in your fridge. Here's what to do: Make a Free-Form Pasta Casserole.
Improve: Bake a cake! Hey, you finished The Kitchn's Cooking School! You definitely deserve a cake. Besides being a sweet treat for yourself, baking a cake is your last lesson for practicing your baking skills. Pick one of these basic cakes:
The Kitchn Cookbook & Baking
The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook— and there's plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.
Today's tip: If you want to dive deep into the ways that a single baked good can vary, then you have to check out our recipes for Brownies — Three Ways in The Kitchn Cookbook. On page 272 we give you distinct recipes for chewy, fudgy, and cakey brownies. If you parse each recipe out you'll start to understand what makes a baked good's texture a certain way.
Also? Brownies are delicious. Which kind is your favorite? Bake all three and find out!
5 Recipes to Practice Baking
- How To Make No-Knead Bread
- Prosciutto & Arugula Pizza
- Grown-Up Tuna Noodle Casserole
- Warm & Gooey Deep Dish Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Brown Butter Apple Loaf
The Kitchn's Cooking School
The Kitchn's Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we'll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!