These Bakers Were Once Beginners, Too—Here’s What They Learned

January 16, 2018

I’m no baker. There’s something about the precision of measuring and spooning and proofing and timing that has me all sorts of intimated. Throw me a recipe for pasta sauce, a braised lentil stew, even a juicy pink steak, and I’ll sniff, prod, and taste my way through it. Breads and cakes, however, leave me confounded.

This year, I vowed to test my aversion. 2018 would be the year I got elbow deep in flour, and start a devoted courtship with my sourdough starter. I planned to bake boules and challahs, pastries and pies. But it’s January 16 and I’m no further along than I was on the 1st. My freshly bought bag of flour remains unfurled in my pantry. In desperate need of inspiration, I reached out to a few bakers about their humble beginnings. Maybe, I could even pick up a tip or two along the way. Here are three cooks and bakers on their early forays into the kitchen:

Erin McDowell, Baker and author of The Fearless Baker

I decided I wanted to try baking my junior year of high school in response to my burning urge to go to college at an art school (with no real artistic talent to speak of). My first creations were, in a word, messy. I infuriated my mother (a very good cook with a lovely kitchen) by leaving smears and smudges everywhere I worked. It was one of the most valuable things I learned, ultimately, in pastry school—how much easier it is to work clean (plus the subsequent lessons of careful practice and planning ahead).

Shop the Story

After my first semester, I came home for spring break. My mom tasked me with making lemon bars while she hit the grocery store. I made them, cleaned up, and headed out to lunch with friends. She called me, irate, because the kitchen was spotless—a sure sign that I'd ignored my task. When she discovered I was actually finished and just less of a mess now, she officially declared school "worth it.”

Esteban Castillo, Cook and founder of Chicano Eats

When I first started baking, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember trying to make a batch of cupcakes for a get together and trying to wing a recipe that sounded good in my head, but failed so hard because at the time I didn’t realize that there was an actual science to baking! If you’re new to it, start by following easy recipes. The “New Cook Book” by Better Homes and Gardens was a great starting point for me because their recipes were so easy to follow. Make sure you thoroughly read the recipe at least twice, and take your time!

Lexie Smith, Artist and Baker

When I started baking I was futzing with a lot of vegan and macrobiotic recipes, and had already begun making up my own by dropping conventional ingredients and subbing in alternates. This, of course, leads to plenty of disasters when executed by a greenhorn. Puddles instead of muffins, entire sheet trays covered in one thin layer of sticky goo, when I'd actually been aiming for cookies. This is how I learned—I screwed around until I understood the fundamentals and somehow didn't get too downtrodden by the scourge.

That route isn't totally necessary now that the internet is so full of tips and videos, but I always preach the lesson I gleaned from it: Learn the basic ratios and foundational science behind baking (what's a batter or dough supposed to look/sound/feel/taste like, the many gifted parts of eggs, baking soda vs. baking powder etc., what actually is yeast, etc.) and then let your intuition take over. Really!! Read as many recipes as you can but do not marry yourself to any of them, ever. And always remember that trying to learn how to bake by eating is like trying to learn the violin by listening. You have to get in the kitchen and do it.

In conversation, these bakers preach a gospel of persistent experimentation. It sounds dirty, but kind of fun. With some gumption and a good apron, it seems about time I get started. First stop, sourdough!

What advice would you share with an uneasy baker? Feel free to chime in below!


Hayley E. January 20, 2018
I’m the baker in my family, though I haven’t experimented much with bread. My husband however has developed a vocation of sorts in breadmaking for the Family. He has started a sourdough starter this year, and it’s quite a slow and dedicated process. He’s made excellent breads from part of the starter so far, but no sourdough yet. The starter hasn't developed enough for that.<br />He’s following this book that he got for Christmas: “Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza” by Ken Forkish<br />He discovered upon reading the intro that the author Ken has a bakery and also an artisan pizza restaurant in Portland (home to us), and we already knew about the pizza place and love it!
Niknud January 17, 2018
It's not really advice but I think the best tip to success in baking is having a kitchen scale. Because baking is (as you mention) much more particular about ratios of fats to flours to leavening and so on, taking away the guess work and going by weight instead of volume really allowed me much more confidence and success. No more breaking out a knife and leveling out the top of the measuring cup after carefully spooning my flour into something that may or may not be the same size as the recipe-developer's something. Plus, it goes much quicker and generally uses less dishes. Bonus! Good luck.
Hayley E. January 20, 2018
I agree! The kitchen scale is one of my absolute musts while baking. We travel with it when staying in a place with a kitchen even!