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Shuttered restaurants and shelter-in-place orders have compelled many of us to cook at home more—after all, we have to feed ourselves. But there’s also been a surge in baking, and while most of us require a midday meal, the same can’t be said of a midday slice of cake or from-scratch sourdough that takes days to incubate. But that’s probably the point: Without the pressure of producing something edible by a particular time, baking feels more like play than work, with room to experiment. Whatever the reason for the baking boom, there’s a world of advice and apparatus to help your experiments succeed. We talked to bakers, food writers, and other experts about some of their favorite tools for elevating their baked goods.
If there’s one baking tool to add to your arsenal, make it a kitchen scale. Nik Sharma of award-winning blog A Brown Table, the New York Times’ Melissa Clark, and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan all sing its praises. “I’d never want to live without one,” says Greenspan. Scales are important because measuring by volume often yields very different quantities, depending on how you scoop out the ingredient or how fine or coarse an ingredient’s granules are. These seemingly small quantitative differences can, in turn, have a big effect on your final baked product. Even a cheap kitchen scale is better than no scale, says Clark: “It’s not only more accurate, it’s more efficient because you dirty fewer measuring cups and spoons. You can get one for under $30 and it’s worth every penny.”
You’ve probably never considered bringing beakers into your kitchen, unless you’re a chemist. But you should! Measuring beakers allow you to be precise with liquids (not to mention you’ll look cool, like you’re conducting a science experiment). According to Sharma, who uses his beakers “all the time,” “liquid should be measured in a cup and not a teaspoon. Liquids are better measured in something that can hold the volume.” Sharma uses beakers to measure fats, like butter, that must be poured and melted, or for extracts, where even a minute difference can make a “huge difference in the final texture.”
Award-winning cookbook author and Serious Eats columnist Stella Parks writes often on her own site about her favorite baking tools. But she has some gadget advice for all the new bread bakers out there: invest in a digital thermometer. Parks says it’s a “game-changer” for bakers who struggle with bake time for their loaves, noting, “Newbies can have a tough time judging whether or not a loaf has fully cooked, as most physical cues are a little subjective, like listening for a hollow thump. But with a digital thermometer, you can easily test the heart of the loaf to be sure it’s fully cooked (most breads will be done once they’ve hit an internal temp around 205 F). Those who struggle with loaves that always turn out dense and damp in the middle can eliminate that problem once and for all.” For those studiously avoiding bread baking, this “super reliable” trick works with thick pound or loaf cakes (like banana bread) too, although it’s trickier with thinner goods like layer cakes and brownies.
Thermometers are useful for ensuring that your breads have the right internal temperature, but to get your breads to that temperature in the first place, you need a proper baking surface—one that gets sufficiently hot and heats evenly. For Edan Leshnick, pastry and viennoiserie manager at New York City–based Breads Bakery (known for a babka that’s frequently described as one of the city’s best), that surface is a baking stone. Using one will help you to “get a really nice crust and oven spring.”
Not all pans are created equal. “I prefer light-colored pans because dark pans— especially nonstick ones with the black coating on them—absorb more heat, and faster … so the cakes tend to brown quicker and the cake burns easily,” says Sharma, whose blog features many cake ideas, from a ghee and cardamom scented upside-down banana cake to an upside-down fig cake. Sharma likes the Oxo and Williams Sonoma lines of gold baking pans, as well as Nordic Ware’s aluminum cake pans.
“When times are difficult, I make ‘World Peace Cookies,’ ” says self-described baking evangelist Greenspan, who features the recipe in her 2016 cookie bible Dorie’s Cookies. “That’s my recipe for a chocolate cookie that’s kind of a cross between a shortbread and what we know as chocolate chip cookies.” To ensure proper baking, Greenspan says nothing is better than parchment paper, which she uses to line pans and to roll cookie dough into logs before slicing, baking, or refrigerating.
“I have a little wardrobe of scoops,” says Greenspan, who describes her set as “mama bear, papa bear and baby bear cookie scoops.” She appreciates them for both practical and aesthetic reasons: Her cookies look prettier and rounder, and they bake more evenly because they’re the same size. Cookie scoops can also be used for ice cream, melons, and ground beef.
Maybe you’re craving cake but you don’t want to preheat the oven or you don’t have an oven. Mikiko Yui of San Francisco–based Stonemill Matcha uses her donabe (Japanese for “clay pot”) steamer to produce a delectable steamed matcha cake on the stovetop. “I use a regular commercial (industrial) steamer at work to keep up with production, so when I ‘bake’ at home using donabe, I appreciate the details of those beautiful donabe that are truly one-of-a-kind works of art,” says Yui, who uses this model from Toiro Kitchen. Quality donabe may not be cheap, but they can also be used for general cooking purposes, to make vegetables, rice, and more.
In keeping with the baking-outside-the-oven theme, Christina Tosi of Milk Bar suggests a microwave mug cake as a way to scratch the baking itch when you don’t need enough to feed a crowd—as is unfortunately the case for some of us in quarantine. Tosi similarly recommends that you freeze “your doughs and batters, and bake them off when the snacking crave hits. Your future self will thank you.”
The unassuming cheesecloth has many uses, but one is in butter-making, according to Tosi, who is full of inventive ways to get around empty grocery shelves or missing ingredients. “Make your own butter by whipping heavy cream in a mixer on high for 7 minutes, and strain any remaining liquid out with a sheet of cheesecloth. Bonus points: You can add in your fave spices, seasonings, syrups, fruits, veggies, etc., for a flavored compound butter.” Tosi also encourages more general creative experimentation. With the aforementioned homemade butter, for example, you could graduate to an easy pie crust. “Have a pantry full of store-bought cookies or crackers? Crush them up and combine with butter, and you’ve got a killer pie crust,” she says.
Greenspan has two general tips for novice bakers, and both have to do with prep. First, read a recipe all the way through—twice—so you’re not taken by surprise by things you should have done in advance, like getting eggs or butter to room temperature. The other? Ready your items—in cooking it’s called mise en place—as if you were “on a cooking competition show.” It’s a small thing, but it’s crucial for ensuring that the baking goes smoothly and enjoyably. As an added benefit, Greenspan says, “I think the ingredients themselves look so beautiful. It’s kind of a pleasure to see them on your counter ready to go.” For this reason, one of Greenspan’s favorite kitchen tools is a set of small bowls.
Baking often necessitates frostings, caramels, and creams, which can be finicky if they’re not kept at a steady temperature. A frosting might not whip properly, for example, if ingredients are too warm. For this reason, Sharma says, if you ever want to venture into crème caramel, buttercream frosting, meringues, or flans, “metal bowls are really, really helpful. … Metal is a better conductor of heat than glass. They absorb heat much better” and more evenly.
You’re probably familiar with immersion blenders for their ability to puree soups and sauces directly on the stove. But Leshnick regularly turns to his for baking, noting that it can “bind ingredients that normally tend not to bind well. The fine blade of the immersion blender and its speed help break down and bind in a way that can get us great emulsions such as smooth ganache or a very shiny glaze.”
“The sugar duster is a little extra,” admits Greenspan. For years she used a strainer, which worked perfectly fine, but her sugar duster makes her feel “like Tinkerbell … and it really does work well.” What baked goods can benefit from this little bit of magic? “I love loaf cakes,” she says. “I have a yogurt cake that I’ve made for years.”