November 8, 2012

Becoming A Better Baker

From my first job as a baker to my final days as a catering chef, I made hundreds of thousands of cookies over my professional cooking career. Leading up to the holiday season, the pace was punishing. If I ever develop carpal tunnel syndrome, I will blame the million and one gingerbread men I’ve rolled, cut and decorated. With nearly two decades of yuletide baking under my belt, here are some tips on becoming a better baker.

Once you’ve mapped out your cookie blitz, sit down, make a shopping list and check it twice. Stock up on the basics like flour, sugar and butter at the supermarket then head to a bulk store for the rest. Not only are the ingredients generally fresher and cheaper in bulk, you can bring your measuring cups to buy exactly what you need. Why waste $7 on a jar of cardamom when you only need half a teaspoon? It also pays to splurge on the best ingredients you can afford. Using high quality European chocolate, real vanilla extract and freshly grated nutmeg make the difference between a good cookie and a great one.

In terms of equipment, a stand mixer is essential for any serious baker. (I haven’t used a hand mixer since Trudeau was Prime Minister.) A good stand mixer costs around $300, but they always seem to be on sale somewhere, and they’ll last for decades. I’m also a big fan of heavy-duty aluminum sheet pans, which are less prone to buckling than typically thin cookie trays. Aluminum also doesn’t retain heat very well, so cookies are less likely to burn. These pans can be found at restaurant supply shops. Finally, I like to use a lot of citrus zest in my cookies (including the lemon squares pictured above) and a rasp grater (a.k.a. Microplane) is the only tool that removes all the good stuff and none of the bitter white pith. It’s also handy for grating nutmeg.

When you’re ready to start baking, always read the recipe through before you start. Then measure everything out into bowls and ramekins. Chefs call this mise en place, which is French for “everything in its place.” It avoids unpleasant scenarios like discovering that you’re out of eggs mid mix.

Before you start portioning cookies on trays, get to know your oven. First, check the temperature with a gauge to make sure it’s in synch with the dial. (The oven I grew up on was 50°F off.) Some ovens have hot spots in corners, which necessitate rotating the trays halfway through for even baking. Avoid opening the door as much as possible, because once the heat rushes out, the bottom element goes on to compensate, increasing the likelihood of scorched cookie bottoms. So when you go in and out of the oven, move like Bruce Lee.

My final tip is to store cookies in airtight containers that are only used for this purpose. Put cookies into a plastic tub that recently held French onion soup, and within a day your cookies will taste like French onion soup.

Happy baking!

Get Eric Vellend’s Beef Wellington instructions.

Photo Credits:
1. Eric Vellend