Only a lucky few of us grew up baking alongside our mothers, aunties and grandmothers, inheriting a treasure trove of reliable family recipes and techniques. But where do the rest of us turn when the baking bug bites?
There are hundreds of baking books to turn to, and the internet is awash with recipes, some good, some bad. You could clear your weekends and bake your way through them until you find the ones you like, but the investment of time, money and heart that baking requires is not for the easily discouraged. So, how do you tell by looking at it if a recipe is any good? If a recipe doesn’t work out, is it you or is it the recipe? Or suppose you want to modify a recipe to have less sugar or more whole grains, how do you do that? And how many times will you have to test it before Thanksgiving?
As you get ready for holiday baking, here are some pointers to help you narrow the field:
Will this one work?
Learn basic baking ratios. In his Book “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking,” Michael Ruhlman explains the relationships between ingredients and standard proportions used in recipes. Knowing a pie crust recipe is a 3:2:1 ratio of flour to fat to liquid offers a reference point for evaluating recipes and guessing at the likely outcome. If that “perfect pie crust” recipe you’re looking at has equal amounts of flour and butter, keep looking!
It looks good, but how do I make it … ?
Learn the basic functions of ingredients. Sugar, for example, affects moisture, texture and sweetness. Reducing the amount of sugar or substituting one kind of sugar with another can change the end result. A cake without enough sugar, for example, will be pale and crumbly. But reducing the sugar and adding a little applesauce or pear puree could work!
But it’s from The New York Times! Do I have to test it?
Yes! In baking especially, testing a recipe at least once gives you valuable information about how to make it, including the time and equipment you need. And even the Grey Lady can mistakenly leave out a step or have a typo. It’s also the only way to know if those pumpkin muffins could use a little more spice. When you are trying a recipe for the first time, try to stick to the recipe as written. Troubleshoot any problems (not managing temperature, using incorrect amounts and over/under mixing are common issues) and then adjust the recipe to your taste.