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Be prepared to get your hands dirty and apply sprinkles liberally.
Have you ever fantasized about quitting your 9-to-5 to bake cookies all day? Well, folks, I’m here to tell you the dream is alive and well. After spending three years in a publishing job where I covered food but never touched it, I left seeking a hands-on experience in a kitchen other than my own. A bold cover letter and a link to my food blog somehow landed me a job at Baked & Wired, one of D.C.’s most popular bakeries…with no formal training or professional kitchen experience.
One week later, I’m basically ready for Food Network (or at least a Lifetime original movie). But really, I’m learning a ton: Some are things I knew but now recite in my sleep like a trauma victim (just kidding: I love my job); others are new revelations with game-changing potential. All will help you bake like a pro—no culinary degree required.
1. Beware of gluten. But not for the reason your gluten-free friend does. Gluten is the Kanye of the baking world*: Once it shows up to the party, things get real. Found in wheat and other grains, this protein composite helps bind the ingredients into one harmonious whole—but if you push it around too much, it gets aggressive and will ruin your baked goods (and also your V.M.A. speech).
Here’s a good rule of thumb for conventional baking: Once the flour is in, handle the mixture as little as possible (unless your dough is yeast-leavened, in which case you’ll need the gluten for structure—that’s what kneading is for). This is Baking 101: Make it your mantra when mixing cookies, cupcakes, and brownies. Kanye will almost certainly boost your ratings, but don’t let him in until you’re ready—and once you do, don’t make him mad.
*Gluten for President 2020!
2. Waste not anything, ever. Get hip to what your grandma already knows: Baking waste is so 1928. The folks at Baked & Wired are brilliant at transforming bits and pieces into marketable products. Got leveled-off cake tops? Stack them into makeshift mini layer cakes (as a frosting lover, I’d frankly rather eat this than the cake itself). And your coworkers will love your overworked pie dough scraps if they’re rolled up with jam or dipped in cinnamon-sugar.
Don’t forget to scrape your bowl, either. A tablespoon or two of leftover batter could easily become a brownie, which is key when profits hinge on maximizing output (and, for those not selling their wares, it also keeps ingredient ratios and bake times on point). Be like Martha Stewart, who once proudly proclaimed of her bowl-scraping ways, “I never save anything for the children.”
3. Accessorize with gusto. Baked & Wired’s cupcakes have a distinct and lovely swirl on top. Being the new kid, I haven’t yet graduated to frosting duty—but I did spend an afternoon practicing on the carrot cake, since a finishing sprinkle of pecans could mask an inexpert icing job. It was an “A-ha!” moment: How many times have you nicked a cake or wound up with unsightly cracks in your quick bread? Instead of lamenting these “mistakes,” see them as opportunities to whip out the sprinkles or add a glaze. Not only will you mask any trouble spots, but you’ll likely wind up with a more visually compelling final product. Win, win.
4. Roll out your dough in a brand-new way. Transform your chocolate baked goods with this one weird trick! Instead of rolling out chocolate breads and cookies in flour, use cocoa powder. It’s equally nonstick—but instead of giving the dough a dull, chalky finish, it will just make it…more chocolate-y. No one has ever complained about that.
5. Clean as you go. I used to think there was a certain type of “clean-as-you-go person,” kind of like there’s a type of person who doesn’t emerge from the kitchen with flour in her hair. But no. It’s a skill that can and should be mastered. Now that I’m working at high speeds in limited space, saving the mess for one big cleanup dance party at the end isn’t an option; I need to contain my sprawl—and someone else needs my bowl as soon as it goes through the dishwashing station. I do my mise en place, I wipe down the counter between steps, and I toss things in the sink as I finish with them. When I put my pan in the oven, I am done! DONE! Life is beautiful. I am changed. And you know what else makes cleanup easier? (See tip #6.)
6. Line everything. Make parchment paper your B.F.F. If you bake often, invest in pre-cut slips for springform and sheet pans. You might still have to scrub the pans later, but you probably won’t have to soak them for six hours only to wind up with MORE flour in your hair.
7. Give it a rest. The cookie dough. You have to rest it. Really. Really, really. You can bake it off instantly and wind up with something that is functionally a cookie, but you won’t achieve the same flavor poetry or crisp-edged, chewy-middled contrast unless you fridge (or freeze) it first. We give most of our cookies a double rest—immediately after mixing, and again once they’re shaped into balls—which makes them not only tastier, but also more uniform in size and shape. If you’re worried about answering to last-minute cravings, I fully support keeping a pre-rolled batch of your favorite cookie dough in your freezer at all times.
8. Get handsy. “Use the spatula God gave you,” a coworker advised, watching me awkwardly try to maneuver a rubber spatula between the prongs of a cookie-dough-covered beater. Uh, yeah—my hands wiped it clean better and faster. They’re also the best tool for separating eggs or working fat into pie dough. I’m as tempted by fancy gadgets as the next person, but the world’s most high-tech kitchen won’t make me a better baker. My hands are a powerful all-purpose tool that can be dampened or floured to work more effectively. I’m learning to embrace the excuse to get messy (and to always keep a damp towel within arm’s reach).
9. Fitness is crucial. Until you’ve tried to beat 20 eggs into nine pounds of melted chocolate, you cannot possibly understand the muscle that large-scale baking demands. I find myself weight-training just to balance my one giant bicep and doing toe lifts to ease the ache of standing for hours. Factor in that nothing makes one want to eat a salad like being elbow-deep in shortening all day, and baking may well be the world’s most effective fitness regime.
So yeah, you’re going to have really nice guns! Unfortunately, you’re going to have short, bare nails and forearms covered in burns. Luckily no one will judge you with their mouths full.
10. Bake what you crave. “I try to always think about what I would want to eat,” my boss said while illustrating the thickness of jam topping on a bar cookie. It’s simple yet excellent advice—while recipes can tell us a lot, sometimes our gut instincts will guide us to something truly transcendent. That could mean doubling the crumb topping for your coffee cake or adding bacon bits to your favorite chocolate-chip cookie recipe. Yes, baking is a precision game, but taking minor liberties is how signature recipes are made, and the secret to baking with love.
This article originally appeared on September 17, 2015. We're re-running because Thanksgiving is coming (and lots of pie and baked goods)!
What’s the best—or worst!—baking advice you’ve ever received? Share your favorite tips in the comments!