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

March 25, 2016

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:

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.

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.  

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).

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Top Comment:
“Then you let the dough ferment (proof or prove), then you turn it out onto your prep table, fold, ferment again for some recipes, then weigh and shape, and do the final ferment, then bake. Shaping frequently calls for rolling into rounds, which is a very hard thing to teach someone, then flattening out, and then rolling like a jellyroll and place in bread pans. Ok, these aren't tips, and there is so much more about bread baking...”
— Heather Z.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Renee Degenhardt
    Renee Degenhardt
  • Matti Neustadt Storie
    Matti Neustadt Storie
  • Laura415
  • Jessie
  • RLiza
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Renee D. April 26, 2020
Warm water bath for rising dough. I just use my sink with a few inches of very warm tap water in it - then set the bowl in the water.

If you’re not going to weigh your ingredients, minimally use wet/dry measuring cups appropriately, and level off with a knife for accuracy.
Renee D. April 26, 2020
Warm water b
Matti N. August 7, 2017
I soak a kitchen towel in water and then microwave it for 2:00 to steam up the microwave. Then, remove the towel and put dough in to proof. Instant microwave proofing cabinet (just don't turn it on!)
Laura415 May 22, 2016
More like this please. I knew all these but I'm sure there are a lot of tricks I don't know. The ads for the products on this page are hilarious though. An old fashioned metal ice cube tray with a pull up handle for 30$. How embarrassing. Pick something like that up at thrift stores for 50 cents. Way to overprice something Food 52.
Kevin K. April 3, 2018
ALL of their stuff is ridiculously overpriced.
mdelgatty April 28, 2020
Someone must be buying it...
Jessie May 12, 2016
Someone asked johnnyglaze for a pound cake recipe. I too am wondering though for me ATK's is perfect every time. Those extra yolks are the secret. Making me think I wish my baking buddy were here to make one. It's been AGES! =(
RLiza May 11, 2016
I turn on the oven at 350 degrees F, count from 1 to 20, check if it's warm enough, about 110 degrees, turn the oven off, put in the dough for proofing for 2 hours. It usually double in size with this method.
Heather Z. May 11, 2016
As a professional artisan baker, I can tell you that kneading bread dough is just about not done. The gluten development is done by the mixer. Then you let the dough ferment (proof or prove), then you turn it out onto your prep table, fold, ferment again for some recipes, then weigh and shape, and do the final ferment, then bake. Shaping frequently calls for rolling into rounds, which is a very hard thing to teach someone, then flattening out, and then rolling like a jellyroll and place in bread pans.

Ok, these aren't tips, and there is so much more about bread baking...
Laura415 May 22, 2016
Thanks for that. I've changed a lot of my bread making techniques thanks to the Tartine cookbooks. I've almost stopped kneading bread altogether and if I do I often don't use flour but a bit of water on the counter or some butter if it's a buttery dough. That and my dough scraper works brilliantly This seems to stop the sticking better. Both on the counter and on my hands.
Also when using whole grain flours letting the dough sit and autolayse for 20 minutes allows the flour to soak up the water better which eliminates the temptation to add more flour or water to dough and improves the texture a lot.
Sue L. April 22, 2016
I never put the full amount of flour in a yeast bread recipe; I add flour until the dough reaches the right consistency.
mcs3000 April 21, 2016
Start whipping egg whites on low speed, even if you're impatient. Will try! So guilty of this.
Diane H. April 17, 2016
Love all these suggestions - used to wrap my dough in an old afghan. Have a new oven (Kitchen Aid double oven) which has a proofing setting - perfect l00 degrees - love it
Lisa K. April 13, 2016
Can I put a glass pie plate on a hot baking stone without it cracking?
Margaret W. April 13, 2016
Only if you heat it up first. You don't want cold on hot - that's what cracks.
Lisa K. April 21, 2016
"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." from the article-this doesn't make sense if using a glass pie plate as it will crack
Margaret W. April 11, 2016
I'm not sure what the fuss is about relative to dough rising. If I put a grapefruit-sized lump in the bowl, it's doubled when it reaches cauliflower size. If I put a cauliflower-sized ball in, it's doubled when it starts reaching the rim. I don't think the baking gods will care if it's only 90% raised, or even 110%.
Margaret W. April 11, 2016
When I forget to remove the butter from the fridge before baking, I put water in a Pyrex and bring it to a boil in the micro. Dump out the water and put the warm Pyrex over the stick of butter. Wait about five minutes. It should be soft enough that you can indent it with a finger.
Jessie April 9, 2016
Because of a chronic illness, my hands are always hot so I NEVER rub butter into flour for anything like pie crust or my quick breads. Instead I cut my butter into small cubes. It's what I've done since I began baking some 18 yrs ago and realized I kept melting the butter into the flour and creating dough. A wire pastry cutter or fork finishes the job. Crispy, flaky crusts, biscuits and tender quick breads my grandkids love are the results every time.
Ceallach T. April 9, 2016
I have an old heating pad that I put dough in the bowl or in pans to rise at Medium It is an old type that doesn't turn off automatically. Cover them with a double thick towel and let it go to town.
Kimberly B. April 7, 2016
One can microwave a Pyrex measuring cup of water & create warm moist riding place for dough. I heat 2 c. Water to a boil, leave cup in microwave, & set my rolls, or pan of dough inside, close door to rise. Can also let dough rise on top of a running dryer.
Elizabeth D. March 31, 2016
I put my dough in the cabinet that holds our DVR, DVD player, and cable box. It tends to be warm even when the house is cool (we usually keep it at 60). I've also placed a bowl right on a computer tower that tended to run warm. If you don't have an electronics that tend to be warm, try putting it in the oven with just the light on.
Missy March 30, 2016
Johnnyglaze, do you have a pound cake recipe to share?
J. F. March 25, 2016
Not really a 'trick' but a professional practice that will create consistent results: weight all your ingredients. Everything. There are always times when the dry goods will clump, or there is ambient humidity that will change the mass of the same volume of dry flour for example. The chemistry of cooking becomes vital when you are baking, and predicable results are key. Too much flour can create a heavy and dense cake or dry scone, not enough baking soda will make cornbread flat, but too much will give the flavour a metallic and salty result. Peter Reinhart's 'Breadbaker's Apprentice' goes into detail about this process and the baker's math that goes with it. Essential reading.
Smaug March 26, 2016
Humidity changing the mass of dry flour is exactly the sort of thing that makes weighing more fallible than people think.
Smaug March 25, 2016
I'm not at all sure that it's easier to tell if a bowl is twice the size of a lump of dough than to tell if a lump of dough is twice what it was, nor is it that likely that you have such a bowl. I've always taken the "doubled in size" with a grain of salt anyway- there are better ways to know if it's ready.
Elaine K. April 2, 2016
I too was wondering how one could know how much the doubled dough would measure. Glad to see it's not just me.
SweetMcCollum April 3, 2016
I was reading Julia Child and she mentioned those larger commercially used plastic containers that have straight sides, like a true cylinder. With one of those, a vertical rise would be clearly and consistently measurable. With a sloped bowl, you'll have to break out the conical math, which I never did learn, or take some time to measure and mark using water or maybe rolled oats. Four cups comes to here - make a mark on the outside of the bowl, and eight cups comes to here - make a mark.
Elaine K. April 5, 2016
Makes perfect sense. Thank you for explaining this.
Emily B. May 11, 2016
That's what I use. Without it I have no idea when a lump is doubled.