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A recent foray into recipe testing for Amanda & Merrill's new cookbook taught me much about myself (in addition to what I learned about cooking): I can eat pork every single day and will feel neither qualms nor regrets; I'm going to sleep very well on creamed greens and gnocchi; and I might be decent at baking if I actually had some gear.
Just a few months ago, my stock of bakeware included a rusted baking sheet, a partial set of measuring cups, an old sack of flour, and a bottle of "agave" that I think must have been a past roommate's. Some baking needs became quickly obvious—you can't use a measuring cup to weigh grams, no matter how hard you try—and for others (how do I get this mixing bowl to stop spinning while I mix in it??), I had to ask around.
By accumulating the following five tools, I went from baking-afraid to cruising down the proverbial blue slopes—or at least I felt that way.
1. A clean, preferably cold surface
For working with any dough—pizza, gnocchi, pie, biscuit, or otherwise—you're going to need a smooth, clean surface to work on. My counter, which is crafted from faux granite, would do the trick, but it's so speckled-y that I'm suspicious it's never really clean, and the added benefit of using a marble slab is that it will also stay a bit cooler, ensuring your butter doesn't melt too much before the baking begins.
You can also opt for a wooden cutting board—just turn it over if it has moat-like indentations around the edge. While it won't stay as cool as marble, it's got it's own advantage: It's safe for slicing on.
Here's what to make on them:
2. A dough scraper
At some point during the past year and chance that I've worked at Food52, I came home with a dough scraper—though up until recently I'd never put it to use. Besides being the very best thing to clean up baking's collateral damage (like flour and dough and butter everywhere), a dough scraper slices through dough as if it were designed to do that: Gnocchi slice off in plump little nubs, pizza dough can be halved and quartered without sticking to your chef's knife, etc. I keep mine in the front of the drawer now.
Here's how to put it to use:
3. Mixing bowls that aren't plastic
Resistance, it turns out, is as important in baking as grease. So many baked goods start with whipping butter and sugar into stiff peaks, or beating eggs—which might make you think that what you really need is a new hand mixer. But no—it's a better bowl that you need! A bowl that you can actually grip in your arms, or one that will sit still naturally on the counter while your beater whips around inside it: These are the heroes of any baked good—like the following 4, for example:
4. A pie dish
Here's the thing about pie: The pie dish is kind of what makes it a pie. Otherwise, it becomes a shallow galette or a deep-dish monstrosity. I have two pie dishes, each tin and about 50 years old, and the only times I've tried to cook with them the dough burned on the edges before cooking through.
Invest in a good pie plate and you're well on your way:
5. A kitchen scale
When I say that I first tried to measure out a pound of potatoes by weighing myself on my bathroom scale and then picking up potatoes until the number changed, I'm not kidding.
That kind of radical measuring might work for mashers, but not likely as well for cookies—a more delicate and specific craft. So many great baked-good recipes, like Merrill's Soft Chocolate Almond Cherry Cookies, will call for weight measurements: 125 grams almond flour or 50 grams all-purpose flour, and so forth. And rather than complain about it, just get a kitchen scale and start baking!
What are the tools a baker can't improvise? Share with us in the comments below!