Dessert

10 Tips from One Week as a Professional Baker

November  9, 2016

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!

32 Comments

Leif A. October 1, 2018
Nothing I didn’t know.<br />I thought it was all common knowledge
 
Deb S. September 17, 2018
Using your hands is key, but wear gloves please. I realize the raw product does get baked at a high temp, but it does save the wear and tear on my hands and nails.
 
Nancy K. September 15, 2018
Best advice: check to see if the cake/brownies are done 5 minutes before the recipe indicates. Nothing ever dries out that way. Thanks for an interesting article. I wonder if the author is still in the same job.
 
spiffypaws November 10, 2016
Lifting 40# sacks of flour is my upper body workout!
 
sydney November 9, 2016
That's a lot of really, SERIOUSLY great advice. Chef's hat off to the chef-author. Thanks for rerunning it. I never saw it the first time around.
 
Ginger S. September 16, 2016
Everything tastes better with a little cardamom. Also fresh citrus zest and juice. Can't wait to get my<br />cookbook!
 
dharma C. September 16, 2016
My best baking tip is having a dedicated plastic tablecloth for baking,(the flannel backed kind). I cover my counter with it and measure, roll out pie crust with ease and then just shake it out afterwards. It lives in a ziplock bag in my baking drawer. Get a big one, cut it in half and give half to a baking buddy!
 
Deb S. September 17, 2018
Good idea, I use my silpats on the counter,
 
Skylar K. December 7, 2015
When making bread and rolling out doughs, my college professor always said "flour is your friend". I think of him and his mantra every time I make a rolled or kneaded dough.
 
Chef D. November 27, 2015
Sweet baking tips!
 
Kathy October 9, 2015
Love your writing style; makes me want to don an apron and start baking!
 
Ileana M. September 29, 2015
Loved this!
 
natalia H. September 23, 2015
I've never been to this website before but I loved this article so much, I'm going to browse the night away. Wonderful tips and I loved your writing style so thank you!
 
Nancy M. September 22, 2015
Oh I envy you! I would love working in a professional kitchen. These are great tips, I especially concur with letting cookie dough rest and cleaning as you go. Thanks for this fun read!
 
Mary O. September 22, 2015
Truth in every word! I remember the cinnamon and sugar pie scraps from my mother were the ultimate prize, or the frosting leftovers used to frost graham crackers. This is all good advise, now I need to get baking!
 
Patricia L. September 22, 2015
Best advice from my dad, the baker....read that recipe several times, take your eggs out the night before, use your hands, bake with love! Thanks, pop!
 
Haute I. September 22, 2015
This is truly my goal in life. My blog is my outlet for now, but the more I bake the more I know it's something I want to pursue.
 
Two T. September 22, 2015
Love the last line...the last minute intuitive snip of Rosemary or teaspoon cardamom in a dough is your signature!
 
Kevin M. September 21, 2015
Hope I was clear earlier about my recommendation on fat. I meant to substitute the entirety of the butter amount with 55% butter and 45% leaf lard. So if the recipe calls for 8 tablespoons butter, use about 4.5 tablespoons butter and 3.5 tablespoons leaf lard. Reading it again I wasn't sure how clear my comment was.
 
SugahPop September 21, 2015
Let your cookies rest on the pan - some recipes mention it, others don't - but almost every cookie can benefit from a few minutes on the cookie sheet, making for crispy bottoms and tender centers!
 
jemofthesouth September 21, 2015
Awesome tips! I had the pleasure of visiting Baked and Wired a few years back. The guys there were awesome!