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Notes to First-Time Bakers

by Jane Wangersky | June 20th, 2014 | Cooking Basics
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file2391298506940Today my kitchen was borrowed for someone’s first attempt at from-scratch baking. The finished product tasted pretty good (though I didn’t get to taste much of it, it’s mostly for a party on Monday), and that’s what matters most. But I saw a few . . . outcomes . . . today that could’ve been better. If you’re about to bake something for the first time, read on, and learn a thing or two that’ll make it easier.

Make your first baked goods the quick kind — cookies, quick bread, something with baking powder, baking soda, or no leaven at all. Tackling yeast is not a job for someone who’s barely used to handling flour.

After reading the ingredient list, make sure you not only have everything, but have enough of everything. If you’re not sure you have enough butter and don’t know how to measure it, take a quick look here.

Stick to the recipe. By that I mean don’t try to double it, or halve it, or make any quantity other than what it says. In the heat of the moment in the kitchen, it’s too easy to forget you’re doing that and put in way too much or too little of something.

Choose something that comes in one large portion — cake rather than cupcakes, in other words. Dividing dough or batter into dozens of pieces can suck up all your energy.

Now, I know I said not to try anything with yeast just yet, but if you’re going to do it anyway, please read this. Especially the part about rapid rise yeast — figure out if that’s what you’ve got, and plan accordingly.

Still want to use yeast? Then maybe it’s time to break another one of my rules and depart from the recipe. Especially if it’s an older recipe, it may give elaborate instructions about the temperature of the water you mix the yeast with, long rising times, and punching down the dough only to let it rise again. If you have access to a bread machine, forget all this. Just pour your ingredients into it — wet first, then dry, finally the yeast on top — and start the dough cycle. When it’s over, proceed from the point in the recipe where all the rising is finished.

If you don’t have a bread machine and need to let the dough rise the old way, do it in an unheated oven. It’s warm enough in there, and more importantly, draft-free. (Keep this in mind when you’ve got the dough out on the counter, too, and close the window if it’s breezy.)

Once it’s actually baking, keep an eye on it. Baking times in recipes aren’t necessarily precise. If your oven door doesn’t have a window, open it for a quick glance every 10 minutes or so. If your dish starts to smell like it’s done, definitely pull it out and test the center with a knife or toothpick.

Last but not least, clean up thoroughly. Then look around and clean up again.

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