Cake

9 Smarty-Pants Baking Tricks for Perfect Pies, Cookies & Cakes Every Time

Forget baked goods. Make baked greats.

November  6, 2018
Photo by James Ransom

We expect a lot from Thanksgiving: crispy-topped casseroles, golden-juicy turkeys, tart cranberry sauce, the fluffiest potatoes. And then there’s dessert. Whether you’re opting for traditional pumpkin or pecan pie, branching out with a towering showstopper, or keeping hangries at bay with a sheet pan of cookies, dessert is usually the course that gets the most thanks.

And, thus, the Thanksgiving dilemma—yes, you want the sweet finish to be perfect, and yes, with all of those other great expectations, you’re stretched for time. But don’t stress. We’ve scoured our archives to find some of our favorite baking tricks, shortcuts, and hacks to ensure your treats go above and beyond.

(Psst—looking for more holiday help? Our Test Kitchen Chef Josh Cohen is answering all of your questions over at Dear Test Kitchen, our new Thanksgiving video series.)


Picture-Perfect Pies

Avoid soggy bottoms with a trick from pizza.

We already love baking stones (and baking steels, and pizza steels, and pizza stones...) for getting the crispiest pizza crusts, but here’s a sweeter way to put them to use: Baking extraordinaire Erin McDowell suggests using a stone to prevent soggy pie bottoms. Simply bake (or par-bake) your pie in its plate on a preheated baking stone to heat from the bottom up. And if you’re looking to reheat already cooked fruit-filled pies, 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 the bottom has become nice and crispy again.

How to handle your crust.

For the flakiest pie crust, McDowell says to rub butter into the dough with the heels of your hands, not your fingertips. “Press your hands against the butter in opposite directions to get small, flat sheets of butter without overworking the dough or warming everything up,” she says. “Continue to toss the butter with the flour as you work in order to re-coat the shingled pieces.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“A Mary Berry (Great British Baking Show) tip for softening butter in a hurry: cut your measured out fridge-cold butter into 1cm/half-inch cubes and put them in a bowl of water "as hot as a baby's bath" (as she charmingly puts it) for 10 minutes. Gently pour the water off and your butter is ready to use.”
— Ann W.
Comment

You want large pieces of fat—about the size of walnut halves—in the dough. That way, when the pie goes into the hot oven, the water in the fat evaporates, creating steam and air pockets in the crust, resulting in a flaky texture.

The very best pie weight is already in your pantry.

Forget beans, we’re using sugar for our pie weights. Our Baking Club discovered this hack while working through Stella Parks’ smash hit, BraveTart. Curious to learn more, we checked out Parks’ blind baking process over at Serious Eats, where she explains her reasoning for swapping in sugar in place of other types of pie weights:

My kitchen and budget are too tight to accommodate a bag of ceramic pie weights or marbles, and I'd rather save rice and beans for dinner. It's not that weights aren't essential, only that my go-to choice is far less traditional: plain white sugar. For one thing, it's something that any baker has in abundance, and, at seven ounces per cup, it's wonderfully heavy. As a pie weight, sugar completely eliminates the risk of slumping, shrinking, or puffing, and obviates the need for docking. The result? A laissez-faire method that gives me a crust deep and flat enough to hold every last drop of filling.


Take the Cake

A more spirited swap for vanilla.

Food writer and recipe developer Emma Laperruque shared this smart substitute for vanilla extract earlier this year: bourbon. Not only is it cheaper—most vanilla extract you’ll find in a supermarket costs between $2.50 and $6 per ounce—but it’s an easy swap. “My go-tos are dark rum and bourbon,” Laperruque says. “Simply swap out the vanilla extract and replace with 1 to 2 times that amount in alcohol.”

The speediest way to get eggs to room temperature.

When you have 50 million things (give or take) on your to-do list, getting ingredients to room temperature can fall to the wayside. Expert baker (and shortcut queen!) Alice Medrich has a solution:

You can put them, still in their shells, in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes, or you can break them into a bowl and set the bowl in a larger pan or bowl of hot tap water. I like the latter method because I can stir—to equalize the temperature—and then check the temperature of the eggs by dipping a finger or using a thermometer. If eggs are in a stainless steel (rather than glass) bowl, it will only take one minute to get three eggs to 70°F.

A Tip For Your Drips.

How does McDowell get the most tempting-looking drips and drops on her cakes? A toothpick or skewer. Yep, she shared this trick from her book, The Fearless Baker. Not only is a pointed tip the perfect way to guiding a drip to where you most want it to be, but it also helps smooth out any imperfections or glaze bubbles. And if a drip goes rogue, a clean toothpick or skewer can help lift the drip away.


Be a Smarter Cookie

Chill out, fast.

We all know that refrigerated dough makes better cookies, right? But don't fret if you’ve run out of time. Back in 2015, we shared cv’s smarty-pants trick to chill dough quickly:

Stick the dough in a Ziplock bag, removing all of the air, then place in an ice water bath and stick the whole thing in the fridge. You won't risk ice crystals like you would in the freezer, and you're still allowing time for the flavors to meld together—which is one of the reasons why you want dough to sit overnight, in addition to getting the dough firm.

An even chocolatier coat.

Writer Embry Roberts learned a lot of tricks while working in one of D.C.’s most popular bakeries Baked & Wired, like this technique for even more chocolate-y cookies. “Instead of rolling out chocolate breads and cookies in flour, use cocoa powder,” she says. “It’s equally nonstick—but instead of giving the dough a dull, chalky finish, it will just make it…more chocolate-y.”

Consistency is key.

If you dream of perfectly circular, not-conjoined cookies, then follow this trick from F52er butter-sugar-flowers: Drop the balls into a muffin tin (or a mini muffin tin) before baking. Uniform size, uniform thickness, and no risk of pancaked cookies.

What's your best baking trick for the holidays? Share them all in the comments section below.

7 Comments

Ann W. November 9, 2018
A Mary Berry (Great British Baking Show) tip for softening butter in a hurry: cut your measured out fridge-cold butter into 1cm/half-inch cubes and put them in a bowl of water "as hot as a baby's bath" (as she charmingly puts it) for 10 minutes. Gently pour the water off and your butter is ready to use.
 
Lisa P. November 6, 2018
Instead of using flour when preparing a cake pan, use plain bread crumbs, gives a much nicer finish to the outside of the cake.
 
Eric K. November 6, 2018
Very cool trick, Lisa. Never thought to do that.
 
Author Comment
Katie M. November 7, 2018
Thanks! Great tip :)
 
Smaug November 7, 2018
Yet another classic from the great Maida Heatter.
 
Joan S. November 8, 2018
I always use the cake mix if I’m cheating and taking a shortcut or cocoa in chocolate cakes.
 
Eric K. November 6, 2018
Can't wait to make some "baked greats." ;)