TIPS FOR MAKING THE PERFECT COOKIES, BARS, MUFFINS AND QUICK BREADS
I am a self-taught baker. I’ve been baking since I was 11 years old using an Toaster Oven. When I turned 14 years old I became decently good at baking (this means that the cookies and mini muffins I baked in our toaster oven were no longer like that of flat stones and cute hard weapons for throwing whenever I had those teenage tantrums) I was permitted to use a Turbo-Broiler (this baking/roasting appliance is now on display at the Smithsonian I believe! joke!). Then when I finally got my baking mojo at the age of 17 years old, my father bought me a mighty fine Italian made oven large enough to fit two baking sheets. I became more confident and have started modifying and creating my own recipes of cookies, cakes, muffins, tarts, candies and even flavor combinations (some were a success, others were absolutely, Yuck!)
I learned through Trial and Error. If the product came out not tasting and looking like I want it to taste and look like, I would analyze it and tweak at the ingredients, I add and deduct one or three ingredients and start over with the whole baking project again.
I also relied on as many baking books and magazines as I can learn and get techniques from. It was my absolute passion for baking that also lead me to pursue a culinary career.
Some people are quite intimidated with baking, and I believe it’s because most of them just look at the recipes and go through the whole ingredients list and procedure without having the proper understanding of the certain “behaviors” of some flours, the temperament, size, material of various cookie sheets and baking pans, and the “sensitivity” of different batters.
So I decided to share with you some mish mash of baking wiz I learned through the years.
On Baking/Cookie Sheets
- Look for shiny, heavy-gauge cookie sheets with very low or no sides, this will ensure even browning of cookies.
- Avoid using dark cookie sheets (those teflon finished baking sheets), these kind tends to make the bottom of the cookies to overbrown.
- Instead of spraying your sheets with vegetable spray to avoid cookies from sticking, use either baking parchment or silicone mats (silpats) to line your cookie sheets. You will never have a problem taking out your baked cookies, plus you also don’t need to add fat (from vegetable sprays).
- Always let hot cookie sheets cool before you place another batch of cookie dough on it, otherwise the butter in the dough will instantly melt and separate.
- To avoid having your cookies fall apart when you take them off the cookie sheet, let them cool for a good minute to firm up on the sheet before removing them.
How come your cookies came out perfect and mine did not?
- Never substitute margarine or shortening when the recipe calls for butter. Because nothing beats the flavor and richness that butter adds to cookies and mostly other baked products. It also contributes to the texture and browning properties of cookies.
- When your cookie dough or baked cookies turned out dry, you may have been too heavy handed when measuring the flour. To measure properly, stir flour in the container to lighten it. Gently spoon the flour into a dry measuring cup and level the top with an off-set spatula or the back of a knife. Never pack the flour into the cup or tap the cup with the spatula or on the counter to level.
- Do not substitute baking soda for baking powder and vice versa.
Do not omit when the recipe calls for both or either of them.
Although it is true that both baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents and produce carbon dioxide which causes baked products to rise, each do not react the same way because they differ chemically.
- Do not replace a cup and a half of sugar in a standard recipe with 3-4 packets of sugar substitute. It will never work! Instead, find another low-sugar and/or sugar free recipe of the same kind of cookie or any baked product.
- Most if not all cookie recipe uses large eggs.
- I use an ice cream scooper to make my cookies in uniform shape and size… this might also tell you that I suffer from acute OCD! :)
- Most types of cookies keep at room temperature for up to 3 days.
- Make sure cookies have completely cooled on a wire rack before storing them, otherwise they will stick together.
- Never store crisp cookies and soft cookies on the same container. As crisp cookies will absorb moisture from the soft cookies.
- Most drop, sliced, bar and shaped cookies freeze well. Place cookies in flat containers. Place the cookies in layers separated by parchment or wax paper so they won’t stick.
Bars or Slices:
- Use the right size baking tin for your bars. A tin that is too small will make a thicker and more cake-like base, not a chewy one. A tin that is too large will make the base dry or brittle. And tins with dark color are usually non-stick, these make your bars cook faster and brown more quickly, so check the bar for doneness 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
- It is always the best idea to line your tins with baking parchment, doing so will prevent the bar from sticking to the tin and provide handles so you can lift the whole product out of the tin.
- Most bar recipes have a pastry base. When making pastry, butter should always be diced and well chilled. I find that the easiest way to make pastry and not make the butter melt is to just use a food processor.
- Blind baking - when a recipe ask for pastry base to be partially baked before the topping or filling is added. This ensures that the base is cooked and firm and not made soggy once the filling is added and baked in the oven. Method: once the uncooked pastry is in the tin, cover with a sheet of baking paper, then fill the top of the sheet with either uncooked rice or baking beans (this weighs down the pastry and prevents it from puffing up) and bake. Remove the beans or rice and cook the pastry again until lightly brown and firm.
Muffins and Quick Breads:
- The most important thing to remember about muffin and quick bread batter is that it requires minimum mixing and SHOULD look coarse and lumpy. A large spoon or serving fork is the best implement for mixing.
- Muffins and quick breads are cooked when they are browned, risen, firm to touch and beginning to shrink from the sides of the pan. You can also insert a wooden skewer in the center. When skewer comes out clean then it is done.
- I always bake my muffins in cupcake liners just to avoid the fuss and to just easily take them out of the tin once they come out of the oven. And for quick breads, I always use a baking parchment paper to line the inside of my loaf pan so that I can just easily lift out the whole bread out of the pan.
- Muffins and quick breads freeze well. Just wrap them really well with cling wrap and place inside a ziploc bag and can be kept in the freezer for 3 months.
- I find the use of sour cream or buttermilk in muffins and quick breads makes them more tender, moist and flavorful. :)
Ingredient Substitutes that works just as great:
No Buttermilk: I add the juice of half a lemon to evaporated milk to make a cup. Let stand for 5 minutes to curdle a bit and lightly stir.
No Self-Rising flour: Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to every cup of all-purpose flour. Sift thrice to blend.
No Cake flour: Add 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to every cup of all-purpose flour. Sift 3 times.
Article and Food Photography Credit: Jeannie Maristela (August 6, 2011)