Tips & Techniques

5 Grandma-Approved (Non-Chef-y) Baking Tips

February 13, 2017

I know you watch and emulate the chefs on TV. You have better knife skills (and knives) than your grandma did and probably know how to use a pastry bag. But have you thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

I have years of professional baking experience and the skills to match, but some of my best techniques for home baking—those at I use myself and/or write into my recipes—seem less “professional chef” and more “granny”. I swear by them because they produce superb results. Here are a few of my favorite “homey” techniques:

Breaking instead of chopping nuts for cookies:

Chopping is fast, but if you need nice chunks and minimal “dust” for your, chocolate chip cookies, breaking the nuts with your hands gets you more pieces with less dust—actually a very professional result, as chefs often sift out the dust and use it for something else. Breaking requires less counter space and no need to get out the cutting board. It’s not practical for large quantity baking, but perfectly good for a typical recipe that calls for a cup or two of nut pieces.

Pan prep for cookies:

Parchment paper liners are used universally in professional kitchens because no one has time to take individual cookies off of hot pans. In truth, some cookies—such as chocolate chip, oatmeal, and some (but not all) butter cookies— are much tastier and more caramelized on the bottom and edges when baked directly on an aluminum pan (or the dull side of a sheet of foil). This is why my recipes (and those in my cookie book, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your Mouth Cookies) call for different pan preparation depending on the cookie.

Shaping cookies:

Cookie scoops are fast and accurate and pastry bags are fancy, but some cookies just look more delicious—and more artisanal/handmade—if you drop the dough from two spoons or forks the way granny used to do. I use the two-spoon method for most of my meringues and macaroons (but not French macarons). Cookies shaped by the scoop—and even some that are piped— look a little too mass-produced!

Rolling out cookie dough/pie dough/pastry:

Pastry chefs rarely roll dough between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or a cut open Ziploc bags, but I do it all of the time and I call for it in recipes. I’m that fuss budget who cringes at the idea of incorporating extra flour into an otherwise perfect cookie or pastry dough just to keep it from sticking to the pastry board and rolling pin. I also love knowing when a rich sweet dough gets too soft to handle while rolling it out, I can simply slide a cookie sheet under the paper or plastic encased dough and slip it into the fridge until it’s firm enough to handle again. Rolling between paper or plastic also allows me to roll out dough that would otherwise be too soft to roll naked. At home, my idea of production is to roll out several sheets of dough between parchment or plastic and stack them in the fridge until I’m ready to cut and bake later or even tomorrow. I do this for freshly made soft dough, letting it rest after rolling it out, rather than before.

Paring apples for pie:

I maintain “granny” skills as well as professional knife skills—new or young cooks should learn both! If apples wedges are needed, I don’t always get out the chef’s knife and board. I pare the apple in hand with a paring knife—halving, quartering, coring, and cutting the slices. My mom pared all of the apples for multiple Thanksgiving pies this way, with no chef’s knife and board in site. It might be faster with the latter two, but in small spaces (a New York kitchen, student apartment…) or when you’re without chef’s knife, it’s something to consider!

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Do you have a favorite non-chef-y baking tip? Tell us about it in the comments!

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

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  • Fresh Tomatoes
    Fresh Tomatoes
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My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Fresh T. February 16, 2017
love Alice techniques! always a treasure
sammy February 13, 2017
Re: nuts, I bash mine a few times in my mortar/pestle to get those big chunks with minimal effort. As Alice notes, not great for a recipe that requires a huge amount of nuts, but perfect for when you need a handful for topping buns, cookies, or your morning oatmeal!