It took me well into adulthood to become a proficient baker (G still affectionately recalls the hockey puck-like brownies I made for him our first Valentine's Day). What I'd failed to realize was just how scientific the process of baking truly is—that even the smallest misstep can ruin an entire dessert. But that shouldn't make it intimidating, or keep you from trying. On the contrary, I find that if you follow the directions carefully and avoid some of the most common mistakes, which I've listed below, you're well on your way to perfecting baked goods at home. Here are my top ten mistakes to avoid while baking:
1. Know your limitations. If you're new to baking, pick things you can handle. Look for recipes that are deemed "easy" or "for beginners," since attempting your own puff pastry will only result in disaster.
2. Read everything ahead of time. Before you begin, thoroughly read through the list of ingredients and instructions. I used to skip this step because it felt unnecessary and boring, but it will help you avoid issues in the middle of baking. You can gauge how long the process will take (there's nothing worse than getting halfway through a recipe only to realize your dough needs to rest overnight) and prepare accordingly if things need to be chilled or warmed to room temperature in advance.
3. Details matter. In baking, everything needs to be precise. If a recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups of flour, make sure that's exactly the amount you've measured. In the case of pancakes, if it says to whisk until just incorporated, mixing for any longer will result in tough, dense flapjacks. The closer you adhere to the directions, the better.
4. Watch out for ingredient quantities. One of the mistakes I make most frequently is adding the entirety of an ingredient at one time when it's supposed to be incorporated in stages. For example, last week when I was making a galette, the recipe called for 5 tablespoons of butter—4 tablespoons at one point, 1 tablespoons for later (not all at once, which is what I did). Keep an eye out any time you see an amount specified in the instructions since that sometimes means that you're supposed to be divvying it up in some capacity.
5. Use the right vessels. If you're using a pie or cake tin that's smaller than what's specified in a recipe (even one inch can make a huge difference!), that will affect how things bake. If you're making banana bread in a tin that's glass or metal or it's deeper than what's called for, it can be the difference between a baked good that's extraordinary or one that's dry and overcooked.
6. Learn your oven. Most ovens aren't perfect, which is to say that if you set it to 350°F, there's a good chance it's either too hot or too cold. Invest in an oven thermometer to ensure that you get the temperature as close to what's called for in a recipe as possible. Additionally, pay attention to where you're supposed to place things, as the top rack or the bottom rack affect cooking time. It's important not to overcrowd the oven as well, so if a recipe specifies to only cook one baking sheet at a time, adding in another may change the results.
7. Always use a timer. Even if you've just checked on a batch of cookies and they only need 2 more minutes in the oven, set a timer. My friend who worked in a restaurant kitchen said that the things that burnt most frequently were things like pieces of bread that were being warmed because people assumed they'd remember to take them out. You'll never be annoyed if you set a timer—but you'll be seriously bummed if you burn an entire batch of cookies.
8. Get everything prepped in advance. Beyond the fact that baking is a more relaxing experience when everything's laid out, it will also help you realize if you're low on an ingredient before you begin. If you're extra-ambitious, I also suggest measuring everything out and placing things into bowls and ramekins so you don't risk forgetting an ingredient (or adding it twice). Since ingredients are meant to be added in the order in which they appear, you can even set things up in chronological order, which cuts down on active time after prep.
9. Do your research. Whenever applicable, read reviews, as they're your best bet for ensuring you get the results you want. Oftentimes other bakers will tell you if a cookie is too sweet/chewy/crumbly, if the bake time is significantly longer/shorter than described, or even if the yield is less than expected. I occasionally make little tweaks based on reviews that I read in order to tailor things to my taste. In the instance that you're reading a cook book or attempting something for the first time, do a little research ahead of time. I find that even watching a quick tutorial online or reading an article on the "10 things to avoid when making bread" can be enormously helpful.
10. Clean as you go. While this step doesn't necessarily ensure better brownies, I find that the cleaner the workspace, the easier it is to focus on what's in front of you. Before I begin baking, I fill my sink with warm, soapy water. I simply throw dirty dishes inside as I go so that once I'm done, there's minimal effort required to finish the cleaning process.
A few of my all-time favorite recipes:
The best salted chocolate chip cookies (pictures above)