If you've read this website even a little, you've heard us preach the gospel of baking:
But during the holiday season, no matter how vigilant you are about following these commandments, sometimes you still need a little help, some extra assurance, a few aces up your sleeve.
So we gathered 52 of our smartest tips—the tricks and techniques picked up from years of experience and experiments but that don't necessarily fall under the Great Baking Laws—and put them in one place.
May this collective wisdom make your holiday baking more fun than frantic.
This tip comes from our Test Kitchen Manager Allison Buford. When you're doing a lot of baking, it's easy to accidentally mix up the 1/4-, 1/2-, and 1/3-cup measures. To avoid confusion, stash your 1/3-cup measure (which you won't use as frequently, anyway) in another location. That way, you'll use it only when you need it (instead of by mistake).
Better yet, throw out all your measuring cups and use a scale instead.
When you're measuring sneakily messy ingredients like cocoa powder or sesame seeds (benne wafers, anyone?), do it over a kitchen towel. When they inevitably spill, shake the towel out over the sink, trash can, or large bowls. It makes counter cleanup easier and saves paper towels.
Maybe you're seeking out fresh eggs for an egg-heavy custard or ice cream (or because they're good for poaching!) or you need aged eggs because they whip into a better meringue for macarons or pavlova.
Either way, there's an easy way to tell the age: Place one, still in its shell, in a bowl of cold water. If it sinks, it's fresh; if it stands at an angle or on point, it's an older egg—good for meringue; and if it floats, it's rotten. Time to get a new dozen.
You will definitely get eggshell in your batter if you crack them directly into the batter—it's the way the world works. But if you this does happen to you and you're having trouble fishing them out, there's hope yet: The shells will sink to the bottom of the cake, so you can retrieve them once the cake is baked and cooled. Then cover up any pockmarks with frosting.
If you add your dry ingredients and then turn resume mixing as usual, you risk a flour eruption. To avoid the flour poof, Erin McDowell adds the dry ingredients, covers the area between the bowl of the stand mixer and the attachment with a kitchen towel, then pulses on and off until the flour is just barely incorporated. Otherwise, you'll find flour in every nook and cranny of your kitchen for the next two months.
To cut sticky dried fruit (like the dates in this Vegan Date Nut Loaf), use sharp kitchen scissors misted with nonstick spray. (Pssst: Oil or nonstick spray is also a savior when you're cutting strips of sticky marshmallow, or caramels. Erin oils the storage container, cutting board, and knife to keep frustration and cleanup to a minimum.)
No scissors? Spray your sharp chef's knife instead.
Avoid vanilla cake with l'eau de tomate by differentiating your sweet utensils and cutting surfaces from your savory ones. (Exception to the rule: tomato soup cake.)
All the chunks of date or marzipan want to cohere (in the filling for this chocolate-almond cinnamon bun cake or batter of the dark chocolate-cherry mandelbrot from Baking, for example) and form giant chunks of sweetness. Don't let them: Toss the pieces with a couple tablespoons of confectioners' sugar. It will matte their stickiness, thereby preserving their individuality.
Raisins, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, and frozen berries often end up glued to the bottom of your cake or cupcake. To suspend them, mix them with a small amount of cinnamon, cocoa powder, or confectioners' sugar, depending on your recipe. Or, try adding them in with the dry ingredients (be careful with frozen berries, as this will cause streaks!) or tossing them with a couple tablespoons of flour before incorporating.
Lots of recipes call for flouring your hands, the work surface, and the rolling pin when kneading and shaping yeast dough for cinnamon rolls or pizza. But if you lightly oil your hands with canola or another neutral oil instead, you'll avoid stickage without introducing any additional flour. (It's how Alexandra Stafford manages to shape no-knead pizza dough into a thin crust for her Apple Tart Flambée.)
If you're really having a time, shape the dough on a lightly oiled metal baking sheet. (But don't go Zoolander-crazy with the oil, or the outer surface of your dough might crisp up undesirably in the oven.)
A tip from keeper of all Genius tips, Kristen Miglore: To cool a custard or ice cream base stat, pour the hot liquid into a metal Bundt pan nested in a large bowl of ice water. The metal helps conduct the heat out and the cold in quickly, and the hole in the middle of the pan means more surface area for rapid chilling.
Have we mentioned that you should buy an oven thermometer? Jessica Fechtor has 7 good reasons to invest in one, some of which are: so you don't burn your food, so recipes turn out as intended, and so your cakes are level and crack-free.
Once your oven does appear to be at the right temp, leave it there for 10 to 20 minutes, says Dorie Greenspan: It stabilizes the temperature and guarantees that it won't dip too dramatically the instant you open the oven door.
If the cookies bake for 8 to 12 minutes, check them at 6 or 7. If a cake bakes for 35 to 40 minutes, take a look-see at 30. And don't leave the room while your baked goods are in the oven. As soon as you start to smell good smells, you'll want to investigate. Your nose is a great resource.
Cookie Conundrums, Solved
"Shiny pans are better than dark ones and plain are better than nonstick," says cookie expert Dorie Greenspan. To get cookies to the exact right shade of beautiful deliciousness, stick with light-colored pans: It "helps the cookies not to color too deeply before they're baked through."
While they're "great as liners for long-baking pound cakes" they're bad for cookies that are in the oven for a short time, advises Dorie: You won't get enough color.
Rules 13 and 14 apply for square and rectangular pans for brownies and bars, too.
For cookies with burnt bottoms and undercooked tops (the worst of both worlds), line the sheet with parchment paper and try again. Or, stack two baking sheets to make a sturdier, thicker one with better heat retention.
And the next step? "Buy a better quality baking sheet in the morning, or as soon as possible," says expert baker Alice Medrich.
That is, make sure to cool the baking sheets between batches. Adding dough to a hot pan will immediately begin to melt the cookies, distorting their shape and increasing the likelihood of burnt bottoms.
To speed up this process, we use a handy trick from Cook's Illustrated: After you've transferred the finished batch of cookies from your baking sheet to a cooling rack, run the sheet under cold tap water to accelerate the cooling process.
Alice Medrich has found another clever workaround: While one batch of cookies is in the oven, prepare another sheet of parchment paper (it helps if you've cut these out ahead of time!) with balls of dough.
When the first set comes out of the oven, lift them—parchment paper and all—onto a cooling rack, then slide the parchment with the raw dough onto the empty, hot pans and immediately into the oven. "If you can put all of the shaped cookies on the pan at one time and put the pan into the oven immediately, there’s no harm, no foul," says Alice. (Do note that your baking time might be 1 to 2 minutes shorter than usual.)
And as the first cookies cool, slide them off the cooling racks to make room for more parchment sheets of warm cookies.
Once your cookies (or scones or biscuits or macaroons) are cool, you can slide them off the parchment and then start preparing the next round right on those same sheets.
Store the used sheets flat on a rimmed baking sheet for more batches later in the week. "Vintage" parchment paper does go rancid with time, so throw it away after a week or two (or if you notice any suspicious smells).
Dorie Greenspan rolls out the sugar cookie dough between two sheets of parchment before she chills it. It's softer and more pliable—much easier than trying to hammer out a hard-from-the-fridge dough rock.
The caveat to tip 20 is that warm dough is sticky. The solution is to sandwich the dough between two sheets of parchment and roll from there. (Dorie recommends using a French rolling pin—it gives you adequate control and a light touch, so you can really feel what you're doing.)
After rolling out the dough between the two sheets, remove the top piece of parchment, transfer the bottom layer, with the dough, to a baking sheet, and chill thoroughly before cutting out shapes.
To avoid transferring any fragile or sticky shapes, use cookie cutters directly on the baking sheet, then tear away any excess dough, leaving the delicate cookie shapes in place. In other words, you want to tear away the negative space instead of transferring the positive space. Freeze the baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up the cookies (so that they'll keep their shape), then pop into the oven.
Want to avoid the hassle of shapes (and of rerolling dough scraps) entirely? Do like Erin McDowell and use a pizza cutter to shape square cookies. No waste, no re-rolling, no tough, overworked (and underpaid) cookies.
This tip comes from Martha Stewart, who obviously has perfectly round cookies every time: "Slip the parchment-wrapped rolled dough [editors' note: you can also use wax paper or plastic wrap] into an empty paper-towel tube to maintain its shape as it chills."
The key to flaky, tender pie crust (and other pastry dough) can be summarized in two words: Cold fat. Many recipes call for working cold cubed butter into the dough until you have pea- and lima bean-sized pieces.
But Amanda Hesser has found that grating a frozen stick butter on the coarse side of a box grater allows you to work with butter straight from the freezer and it produces little butter curls that are easy to incorporate into the flour. And the less you work the butter into the flour, the less likely you are to melt the fat—thereby increasing the likelihood of a great-textured crust.
Amanda dog-eared this tip in The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. "While this method quashes the romanticism of this activity," says Amanda, "it works much better than a rolling pin directly on dough. The dough doesn't stick."
It also makes transferring the pie dough to the tin easy-as-you-know-what: "The plastic wrap keeps the dough intact as you invert it into the pan, and then you can just peel off the plastic wrap."
This is pie crust rolling for the risk averse.
News flash: Glass is transparent (metal and ceramic are not). Use glass baking dishes to more closely monitor whether your pie crust is browning or the outside of your loaf cake is set.
When you're par-baking pie crust and you need to weigh it down to prevent puffing, you can use pie weights, or you can use another heavy object: dried beans, dried popcorn, uncooked rice or lentils, or coins or metal washers.
Or, try this mind-boggling technique from Jacques Pepin, which we've seen on Chowhound and Serious Eats: Place a second pie tin into the one lined with dough, creating a tin-dough-tin sandwich. Trim excess dough, then invert this whole apparatus onto a baking sheet and bake for the first 15 minutes. Gravity and the weight of the pie plate work in your favor to prevent puffing or shrinking.
If you're worried about getting a crisp bottom using a glass pie plate (which doesn't conduct heat like a metal one), bake it on a surface that's hot to begin with. You can even use a preheated baking stone! (But if you're moving a glass pie plate straight from the freezer to the baking stone, give the dish a few minutes at room temperature to avoid cracks.)
To fight against a mushy bottomed-pie, brush the dough with egg white for the last couple minutes of par-baking. (Rose Levy Beranbaum moisture-proofs by brushing half an egg white onto the blind-baked crust 3 minutes after it's removed from the oven.)
Or, if you're not par-baking, sprinkle the bottom of the dough with a little bit of flour, cornstarch, or instant tapioca to act as a liquid absorber.
For fruit fillings, mix the ingredients together (apples, sugar, lemon, for example) and let it sit. Before adding the filling to the pie crust, strain out the juices and reduce them on the stovetop until thick and syrupy. Add the liquid back into the chopped fruit, let cool, then pour into prepared crust. Runny filling, begone!
David Lebovitz taught us to reserve a small knob of dough for spackling any cracks. Use it to patch any splits—no need to even bake the crust again.
Mix some flour and water in a bowl to make a small, spackle-like paste. With a spatula or the back of a spoon, spread the paste across the fault line, then send the crust back into the oven to bake until the paste has just dried.
When you're shaping a butter-rich dough with your hands (be it tart dough or cookie dough or the like), your warm palms can cause the dough to melt, making it difficult to work with and changing its texture. Martha Stewart recommends keeping a bowl of ice water nearby: "If dough gets too soft, dip hands in the cold liquid, dry them, and continue shaping."
Cake is a Cakewalk
When a recipe calls for eggs and butter at room temperature, it's not a joke (same goes for cold butter for pie crust—see tip 25): Take these cues seriously. You won't be able to achieve the proper texture, and cold dairy products and eggs won't form the proper emulsion. Read: heavy cakes, lumpy cheesecakes, pancaked cookies.
To get eggs to room temperature (between 68 and 70° F) fast, there are two methods. You can put the cold eggs into a bowl of warm water, but you'll never know exactly when to take them out, which means you risk warm eggs. (If the recipe is finicky, eggs that are too warm can be as detrimental as eggs that are too cold.)
The more precise way to get eggs up to snuff is to break them into a stainless steel bowl, set the bowl in warm water, and monitor their temperature with your finger from time to time over the next 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the bowl from the water as soon as the eggs feel neither cool nor warm to the touch.
Set an unwrapped stick of cold butter on a piece of plastic wrap on the counter, cover with another piece of plastic, and whack with a rolling pin to flatten it somewhat. Flip the butter and plastic wrap over, and keep hitting it until the butter is about 1/2 inch-thick all over.
If all you need is pliable butter, stop now. For softened butter at room temperature, continue whacking it. Uncover and fold it onto itself, then cover again and either knead it with your fist or continue to hammer, repeating until the butter is suitably pliable. It will still be quite cool.
Now flatten the thin butter with the rolling pin to make it slightly thinner. Let it rest for 5 minutes. Flip it over to a new spot on the counter and let it rest for another 5 minutes. Now it can go in the mixing bowl! It will be in a matter of minutes.
Important (!!) memo: For old-fashioned pound cakes and butter cakes that call for room temperature butter (68 to 70° F), both the temperature and texture of the butter are very important. In this case, wait until it reaches that range au naturel. It's the only way the butter can form a perfect emulsion with other ingredients.
Most bakers—even Amanda Hesser, who offered this tip—think of butter and sugar as a step meant to combine the two ingredients. "But the real purpose of creaming butter and sugar is to beat air into the butter, and therefore to work as leavening for your baked good. Bakers often don't cream the two quite well enough—when a recipe says 'until light,' it means as light as you can get it. This is especially important with cakes."
For cookies, on the other hand, cream only when the recipe specifies. "Don't beat the butter, sugar and eggs until fluffy," unless instructed, says Dorie. "All the air you beat into the dough will make the cookies rise and then sink in the oven."
With any flour-based baked good, the dough can begin to develop too much gluten if it's mixed for too long. To avoid tough cookies that shrink in the oven or cakes you really have to chew on, only mix the flour until just combined (unless otherwise indicated).
For most quick breads, you pour liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and gently stir the two together. There's no beating and no worrying about lumpy batter—it will take care of itself as it bakes (and the light mixing will produce a bread with a fluffy, open texture).
The extra insulation keeps the bottom of the bread from overbaking (plus, you'll catch any possible overflow).
Follow the recipe's instructions for preparing the sides of the pan (here's a rundown of why some pans are left bare while others are greased and floured), but always line the bottom with parchment paper.
"It ensures that your cake will always come out of the pan without sticking," says Alice. You don't have to grease under the paper unless your parchment is too crumpled to lie flat, and there's never a reason to grease the parchment itself.
*Okay, you can make an exception for a tube pan with a removable bottoms or a tube pan that will be suspended or hung upside down while the cake cools (this applies almost exclusively to angel food and other sponges).
For getting butter into pans with curves and crevices, use a pastry brush smeared with softened butter.
If you're making a batch of cupcakes or muffins and don't have enough batter to fill every cup, use a liquid measuring cup to fill the empty spaces with a little bit (about 1/2 inch) of water. This helps with even cooking and prevents the pan from warping (which could happen if it gets too hot in certain areas).
A dark-colored pan absorbs more of the energy from the oven, thereby becoming hotter and transmitting heat faster than a light-colored one. Reduce the oven temperature slightly—from 350° to 325° F—to compensate, says of JoyofBaking.com.
Metal testers are slippery, which means they don’t reveal as much of what is really going on inside the cake as a toothpick or a thin skewer. It's easier to see the moisture levels on a wooden tester, as the batter and crumbs are more likely to cling.
The key to beautiful layer cakes is straight, even layers, and this often requires using sawing off any uneven mounds with a serrated knife. For fewer mounds, invert the layers onto wire racks to cool in order to smush the rounded side against the rack. (You can even leave the cakes in the pans, yet turned upside down against the rack, to cool fully.)
But don't be tempted to cool the cake on the stovetop (or on top of the refrigerator). "Cooling a cake in the hottest spot in town just doesn’t make sense," says Alice. Cool the cake on a cooling rack, where air can circulate underneath and if you don't have enough space in your kitchen, move it to the dining or living room (just make sure any animals—or children—are kept at bay).
And if you need the cakes to cool quickly (because you shouldn't wrap, store, slice, or assemble a warm cake), put it near an open window or a fan to speed up the process.
If you're frosting a cake directly on the serving platter, put a generous dab of frosting on the center of the plate before you set down the bottom layer. It'll prevent cake from moving around while you frost it.
Before you frost a cake, spread a thin layer of frosting over the top and sides to form a crumb layer, a protective cover that picks up any crumbs, sacrificing itself for a cleaner finished product. Put the cake in the freezer for 15 minutes before applying your final frosting coat.
Serving, Devouring, Storing, Devouring
We found this smart serving tip on A Spicy Perspective. For the cleanest slices, use a hot knife (run it under hot water, then wipe dry) to cut cold desserts and a chilled knife (placed in the freezer for a few minutes) for warm desserts. Wipe the knife with a wet paper towel between each slice to ensure sharp, neat cuts.
If you seal warm cookies in an airtight container, you might end up with soggy (or worse, moldy!) and misshapen cookies. Same goes for cake: Wrap it in plastic before it's fully cool, and you'll trap the heat close to the cake's surface, leading to unpleasant condensation and a surprising (in a bad way) texture.
If you thaw cakes, muffins, or other baked goods quickly and exposed to the air, condensation will form on the surface. (Not cool.)
Instead, thaw them in a container or a plastic bag in the refrigerator (even if the dessert is meant to be served at room temperature) for several hours or overnight. Afterwards, let the baked good come to room temperature on the counter, still in the container, for another few hours.
Phew! That was a lot. But you can do it! What would you add to our list?