Baking is a science and a form of art. No-one is perfect in the beginning, but with a little patience, knowledge, and practice on the craft, you can become your own best baker at home.
Over the years, my mother taught me valuable skills in the kitchen, everything from the most obvious rules like safety, to little helpful things that most people may not think twice about, such as running cold water while you cut onions to ease their stinging aroma.
On my own, I have researched information, thumbed through cooking magazines while waiting in grocery store lines, and watched various cooking shows on television. Educating yourself on cooking and baking techniques is a good way to begin, and I am here to help!
Clean hands are the best tools
Whether you are baking or cooking, your own clean hands surpass any fancy kitchen tool, or at least most. Now, don't go mixing cake batter with your hands, but when it comes to kneading bread dough, some cookie dough, and even meat mixtures, nothing is easier than using your hands. Release your inner child and dig them right in! It is believed your bare hands are cleaner than plastic gloves, but give them a super good wash first.
You can always add, but you can never subtract
This was one of the first tips my mother taught me. When adding any ingredient, add it slowly and do not overdo it. For example, if you are adding confectioner's sugar to thicken a frosting, add it little by little, mixing it in as you go along. Don't add too much at first, because once it's incorporated, you cannot go back and take it out. This goes for wet ingredients as well.
Bonus tip: Always crack eggs outside of your dough or batter in a separate dish, in case one is bad and that way you won't ruin everything.
Do not over mix certain batters
When making cakes or muffins, do not over mix the batter. Many times, you will have to add multiple ingredients at different stages. The recipe might instruct you to add eggs, then mix, add sugar, then mix, add vanilla extract, then mix, and so on. As you add these ingredients, mix them until they are just combined. Over mixing batter will yield a much denser consistency, when you are aiming for a light, airy cake.
Always sift dry ingredients before measuring
It's a good practice to sift dry ingredients such as flour and cocoa powder for your recipes. Sifting creates a lighter texture of the powder, thus making it easier to combine into wet ingredients, and to be more evenly distributed. Lumps that would form due to the density of flour will be prevented by sifting. Because baking is partly a science, you must always try to be precise in your measurements. When a recipe calls for "# cups of flour, sifted", you should always sift before you measure! Since the density changes, the measurement will be more accurate when sifted first.
Creaming butter also makes for a smoother batter
Much like sifting flour, creaming butter allows for a better distribution of ingredients. This is a common tactic used when making cookies and cakes. To cream butter, either by itself or with other ingredients such as various sugars, use an electric mixer to work it in to a light, fluffy texture and smooth consistency. If creaming butter by itself, look for it to turn white in color. This might take a few minutes to achieve, so patience is key.
Always work with room temperature butter that is soft. If you store butter in the refrigerator, remember to set it out the night before you bake. Or, you may soften it in the microwave using the "defrost" setting, but make sure you do not melt it too much. Melted butter and softened butter will yield different results in a recipe.
What's the secret to soft and chewy cookies?
Under-baking. By taking cookies out of the oven just before they're done allows them to bake slowly the rest of the way on the hot cookie sheet. Check cookies a couple minutes before a recipe instructs and look for a faint golden brown color on the bottom. That is the perfect time to remove them from the oven and let them set. Transfer the cookies to a plate, not a wire rack, for further cooling. By placing them on a plate, the condensation stays inside the cookie, rather than drying out on a wire rack where air can get at them in all directions.
With these small tweaks to your baking style, you should be able to produce the perfect, melt-in-your-mouth cookies. Store leftovers (if there are any!) in an airtight container to preserve softness.
Always prepare your baking dishes and surfaces
You spend a good amount of time mixing up the ingredients, dispersing it into all the correct forms, and waiting for your sweet creations to bake. Other than burning the goodies, it would also be a tragedy if whatever it is you're making stuck to the baking dish! You must grease any pie plate, cake pan, or muffin tin you use. Sometimes, dusting a little bit of flour on top of the greased surface is extremely helpful too, especially when working with sticky dough (like bread) and batters.
My mother taught me to use Crisco all-vegetable shortening. You swipe a little bit on a paper towel and coat your baking dish on the bottom and all edges. By taking the time to neatly prepare your bakeware, you will be so thankful. When rolling out dough for various types of breads and some cookies, flour is your best friend and should be used liberally. Dust it all over your counter top, and don't forget to dust your rolling pin. Keep re-dusting these surfaces as need, because some extra flour on the outside of your dough won't hurt it.
These are just some of the tips and tricks I have learned over my years of baking - some from my mother and some by my own research. But this isn't just the only advice, as there are so many different ways of creating in the kitchen, and I also encourage you to find your own spin on things! I hope this list can help get you started if you are a beginner.