Bake It Up a Notch is a column by Resident Baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell. Each month, she'll help take our baking game to the next level, teaching us all the need-to-know tips and techniques and showing us all the mistakes we might make along the way.
Back when Food52 first started, you could find my recipes under the username apartmentcooker—a nod to my then-blog, The Apartment Kitchen. I started the blog when I first graduated pastry school. I had spent years in well equipped professional kitchens, but in my first apartment, I was armed only with a single bowl, a single fork, and a strong desire to build my ultimate kitchen collection. Back then, I documented my purchases—what was worthy and why. Now, after many years of baking, buying, and even re-buying tools, I’m sharing all my favorites in the newest episode of Bake it Up a Notch.
I divided this episode into three categories: Budding Baker, the intermediate Baker on the Rise, and a more advanced tool set for anyone ready to Bake it Up Many Notches. I’ve pulled the most essential tools from our episode, and explained exactly why I love them so much; you'll see a list below my mainstays of other items you can pick up, too. We dive more into all of these tools in the full episode, so be sure to check it out there.
For the Budding Baker
The budding baker is just getting started. They’re interested in baking and eager to learn more, but maybe not ready to devote too much drawer and counter space to their new hobby (yet).
The most important tool any baker can have. If you are just getting started, it may seem intimidating. But a good quality kitchen scale won’t set you back more than $30, and can help prevent measuring mistakes—one of the most common errors in baking! Measuring by weight is more accurate, and you can measure right in the bowl you’re mixing in (less dishes, anyone)?
My most used hand tool is a flexible, heat-safe silicone spatula. Look for spatulas that are all one piece rather than a separate handle and head, which are flimsier and harder to clean. I keep two sets of spatula colors in my kitchen: one color for sweet, and one for savory (no garlicky whipped cream on my watch)!
Offset spatulas are like an extension of a baker’s hand, and can be used for everything from transferring cookies to a baking sheet to swiping some icing on top of them after they cool. I like to keep two sizes of offset spatulas on hand: small (about a 4-inch blade) and medium (about an 8-inch blade).
A good whisk is a must for mixing simple batters, whipping cream, and even aerating dry ingredients if you don’t have a sifter handy! It can be helpful to have larger whisks for most mixing jobs, but I love to keep a mini one on hand for smaller quantities.
One of my first baking jobs was as a bread baker, which is where I fell in love with this tool. There, we used it to portion yeasted doughs—but I also love it for cutting cold butter into cubes for pie dough, and cleaning off a floury work surface in just a few swipes.
It is unfortunately quite common for home ovens to fall out of calibration, and if your oven is running hotter or colder than the temperature you set it at, it could yield disastrous results. An oven thermometer is an easy and inexpensive solution. Try placing it in a few different places in your oven, leaving it for 30 minutes before reading the temperature.
Parchment paper is a great way to prevent baked goods from sticking, and can even help keep browning of the base of a baked good more even than baking directly on a baking sheet. I also use parchment paper to line cake and loaf pans, or cut square pieces to use as makeshift muffin liners.
Rolling pins are a personal choice, but I love French style pins (no handles, often slightly tapered at the ends). I’m also partial to the Five Two by Food52 rolling pin, which comes with silicone rings that can be used to guide you to an even thickness when rolling.
A pastry cutter is a made up of a series of rounded metal blades attached to handle. It’s perfect for “cutting” fat into flour in recipes like pie dough, biscuits, streusel, and more. It’s especially ideal for anyone with warm hands!
An electric mixer makes faster work of mixing just about any recipe, but is especially useful for longer mixing tasks, like whipping meringue or kneading brioche dough. A hand mixer is a great, less expensive option that also easily fits into a drawer or cabinet. It’s also ideal for tasks that require more flexibility, like whipping 7 minute frosting over a double boiler. But a good quality stand mixer is my go to for just about any baking project.
A lot of bakers I know prefer pastry brushes with natural bristles, but I love silicone brushes. They are easy to clean (and keep clean!), and there’s no worry about the bristles falling out and getting stuck in or on the food.
A good digital thermometer is wonderful for so many tasks. You might think of it for checking oil temperature before frying doughnuts, or cooking a sugar syrup to the perfect stage. But my most common use for a thermometer in my kitchen is taking the internal temperature of bread—it’s the easiest way to determine doneness!
A pastry wheel is a wonderful cutting tool that makes easy work of cutting dough before baking (like lattice strips), or even slicing something like pizza after baking! My favorite kind has two sides: a straight edge, and a decorative fluted one.
Sure, a scoop is great for getting ice cream into a bowl, but it can do so much more! Scoops come in an array of sizes and can be used to portion doughs, batters, and even frostings evenly. My favorite sizes for home use are ¼ cup (#16), 2 tablespoon (#30), and 1 tablespoon (#60).
Piping bags are a useful tool all on their own—not only for piping frosting onto cookies or cakes, but also as a portioning tool for things like éclairs or cream puffs. Paired with tips, they are capable of making beautiful decor effects from simple (rosettes) to advanced (basket weave).
A cake turntable provides a rotating surface to decorate your cake on. While this is a tool usually specific to finishing and decorating cakes, it makes the job so much easier. I couldn’t live without it now!
If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bake it Up a Notch, you’ll know I love my kitchen torch. I buy mine at the hardware store, rather than the kitchen supply store. It’s larger and bulkier, but it also lasts longer and is easy to use.
I started using this flexible, oversized spatula as a food stylist to help me move delicate final items around the set. It provides a wide base of support and plenty of flexibility to make easy work of lifting and moving any baked good!
I’m not a fan of measuring cups for dry ingredients, but I love this adjustable liquid measuring cup. It is especially great for sticky items like honey or peanut butter—you can push the base straight upwards, then easily scrape the edge to remove the full quantity with minimal effort.
I use these as simple cookie cutters, but also for a million other baking tasks. I trace around them onto parchment paper to make guides for myself when making macarons, or use them to cut dough when making mini pies, or even to create mini layer cakes!
I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!
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