How to CookBaking

5 Tips Obvious to Baking Experts, Surprising to the Rest of Us

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Spend some time in the kitchen with a baking expert and you're bound to have many facepalm! moments: You'll notice small gestures (the way they handle the dough or clean the pan or sprinkle the flour) and smart tricks (the way they melt the chocolate or dry their whisk) that are obvious on second thought but that you would have never thought of yourself.

Here, we've collected five of those duh-but-wow tips from our resident baking expert Erin McDowell, who teaches us something new in the kitchen, no matter what she's making:

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1) To figure out when your dough has doubled in size, use a bowl that's twice the size of your dough.

Lots of recipes for yeasted doughs instruct you to let the dough rise for a certain amount of time "until doubled in size."

But depending on the temperature of your house (and whether the dough is near the window or a preheating oven, that time can vary, and it can be hard to see whether your dough has truly times-two'd. To judge whether your dough is ready to rock, either use a bowl that's twice the size or use a piece of tape on the outside of the bowl to mark the level that your dough reaches pre-rise.

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And how do you figure out whether your shaped rolls or babka or buns are ready to go into the oven after the second rise? Press it gently with your finger. This should leave a dent in the dough but mostly spring back to shape.  

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2) Baking stones (and baking steels, and pizza steels, and pizza stones...) are not just for pizza.

Their ability to retain heat means that they make the perfect surface for crisping up the bottom of your baked goods and they keep your oven very hot (even if you're opening and closing the door).

To ensure even baking and a crisp bottom crust on her ciabatta, Erin McDowell places the dough on a baking sheet, then puts that sheet on a preheated baking stone on a rack in the top third of the oven.

And they're good for pie, too! To prevent a soggy bottom, bake (and/or par-bake) your pie (in its plate) on a preheated baking stone. And to reheat a fruit-filled pie you've let cool completely (you obviously let every pie cool completely, right?), start it on a baking stone at 425° F, then lower the temperature to 375° F and bake until the pie is heated through and ready for a scoop of ice cream. The baking stone will re-crisp the bottom crust. Heat from the bottom up is your friend.

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3) Start whipping egg whites on low speed, even if you're impatient.

When you want egg whites at stiff peaks (bright white, shiny, and shape-holding), you're probably anxious to get there fast. But start whipping slowly: This breaks up the proteins in the eggs and starts to create the foam.

Then, once the mixture appears foamy, raise the speed to medium and begin to add the other ingredients (sugar, cornstarch, cream of tartar, vinegar, whatever else you're using) slowly so that they don't clump up or crush the foamy base you've so patiently created.

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4) Rub butter into pie dough with the heels of your hands, not your fingertips.

Flaky pie crusts are the result of large pieces of fat—the size of walnuts halves or a little smaller—in the dough. When the pie goes into the hot oven, the water in the fat begins to evaporate, which creates steam, which in turn creates air pockets in the crust—and a flaky texture. To get small, flat sheets of butter without overworking the dough or warming everything up, press the butter pieces between the heels of your hands by pressing your hands against the butter in opposite directions. Continue to toss the butter with the flour as you work in order to re-coat the shingled pieces.

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5) Chill everything before you start.

Five to ten minutes before making a temperature-sensitive recipe, like pie or biscuit dough, chill everything: Even the mixing bowl! Even the flour! And then run your hands under ice water! Working with cold ingredients and equipment makes it less likely that your butter will start to melt as you incorporate it into your dry mixture.

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On the other hand, it's just as important that ingredients that are supposed to be at room temperature (butter and eggs for a pound cake, say) are truly at room temperature—and that those that are supposed to be warm (water or milk for activating yeast) be warm.

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Share a tip that's changed the way you bake in the comments below!