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Take Your Baking to the Next Level With These Secret Weapons

Marble pastry board
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JEmarble.

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Peak baking season is upon us. In an effort to help you elevate your baking game this holiday season, we asked Slate staff: What’s your baking secret weapon?

There’s a secret to the perfect brownie, and it’s all in the pan. Baking is a delightfully precise activity that requires a measured eye and a level head, but it’s so easy to forget that the pan really matters. I always used a 13-by-9-inch pan that was good enough—but it really was more suited to casseroles than cakes. Once I discovered Fat Daddio’s 13-by-9-inch aluminum pan with removable bottom, I knew I’d found my forever pan. Perfect for any sort of tray bake—brownies, a sheet cake, even a tiramisu—the straight 3-inch sides provide a clean edge that prevent batter overflow, and the removable bottom ensures a beautiful release every time. Pick one up and let everybody wonder where you sourced such professional-looking baked goods. —Daniel Schroeder, producer

It’s time to throw out your grandmother’s thin, patinated cookie sheets in favor of these. These pans are the workhorse of my kitchen, and they’re exactly what you need to level up your baking game. Because they’re thicker than your garden-variety sheet pan, they prevent scorched bottoms on cookies, and they’re conductive enough to brown a galette. Line them with parchment paper for perfect cookies or a silicone baking mat (included with this pan) to prevent a sugar crust from sticking. I recommend buying two of the quarter pans and two of the half pans (the full-size pans are for large commercial ovens). An added bonus? Don’t limit their uses to baking. They’re the key to perfect roasted veggies and can stand in for any oven pan in a pinch—I even managed to poach a salmon in one this summer. —Mark Morgioni, senior director of research and data

Ever since I read that Julia Child’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen had a separate pantry dedicated to pastry work, I’ve eyed my own apartment galley with a twinge of discontent. But while adding space isn’t an option, I’m able to pretend a little with my marble pastry board. This incredibly simple piece of equipment may seem fussy when you already have counter space or a butcher block, but its smooth surface and relative coolness (especially if you chill it ahead) make rolling out doughs much easier, even with the oven preheating inches away. And hey, if dessert’s on the menu, getting a little workout moving the thing around can’t hurt! —J. Bryan Lowder, associate editor

I originally bought my kitchen scale in one of my many futile efforts to change/control my eating habits and lose some goddamn weight. I was going to weigh everything I ate and keep track of it. THIS IS A VERY BAD IDEA (it only made me obsess about food even more). But instead of getting rid of the scale, I used it on a whim one day to measure the ingredients when I was baking an old favorite cake. It came out so much better than it ever had before I was gobsmacked. I’ve weighed ingredients instead of measuring them in cups or spoons—wildly imprecise methods, it turns out—ever since. —Michelle Herman, Care and Feeding columnist

This pandemic year, I finally allowed myself to measure my baking cabinet, write down the specs for each available size of OXO POP container, and make a highly scientific plan to transfer my various flours and sugars from dusty old Mason jars into these beauties. POP containers are pricier than jars, but their lids are airtight in a way jar tops aren’t; I never have to worry about bugs in my flour or ants coming for the sweet stuff. The best size for sugar is the 1.9 quart, which the company describes as “for granola and more.” It’s tall, skinny, but as deep as my cabinets, and holds a surprising amount. I keep a few types of brown, granulated, Demerara, and confectioner’s, and get way too much pleasure out of opening up that cabinet and seeing them in their little row.

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One is always full of this dark muscovado sugar, which I bought once a few years ago for a recipe for muscovado sugar cake that I saw in Kim Boyce’s excellent book about baking with whole-grain flours, Good to the Grain. Now I use delicious muscovado every time dark-brown sugar is called for—and lots of times when it’s not. —Rebecca Onion, staff writer

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Winter in my house means lots of delicious sweet breads coming out of the oven. We gift them and eat them for special breakfasts and with our afternoon coffee. I tend to bake a steady rotation of banana bread, zucchini bread, and pumpkin bread, with the occasional date or cranberry mix thrown in for variety. To enhance these humble loaves, I turn to two secret weapons. First, I add some high-quality vanilla to everything. I don’t care if the recipe calls for it. If it’s sweet, it will benefit from the beautiful flavor of vanilla. I recently switched to Heilala vanilla paste, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the basic brown liquid. Next, I bake all these breads in a Bundt pan, which guarantees an even cook and lovely presentation. Try it, and you’ll never want to use your boring loaf pan again. If you’re baking to impress, there are ornate Bundt pans for every holiday, but I recommend one or two relatively simple nonstick pans—you’ll get so much use out of them. —Faith Smith, executive producer of Slate Live

I made whoopie pies for the first time recently and agonized over whether I should buy a $14.95 whoopie pie pan from Stonewall Kitchen. I thought maybe it was too frivolous a purchase, and I should just leave the shape of my whoopie pies to fate instead of striving for geometric perfection. But frivolity won the day, and thank goodness it did, because the pan resulted in thrillingly round little cakes with almost no effort on my part. I plan to put the pan to good use in the future for other baking pursuits: exquisite circular mini-pizzas, cookies with impeccable edges, muffin tops that would make Euclid weep. (Oh, and the whoopie pie mix was pretty good, too.) —Marissa Martinelli, associate editor

Need to make a quick batch of cookies? Three batches?! Are you considering baking a flourless chocolate torte that calls for six beaten eggs? Hopefully you’ve already added a KitchenAid mixer to your baking arsenal, but if you haven’t yet, I’m here to say it will save you many hours. Its range is awesome: It can effortlessly whip your soft butter and sugar smooth, and has the dexterity to crush cold butter into crumby bits for a perfect pie crust. The hook extension can help create your next sourdough; the whisk is useful for a fluffy quiche. I have it in the classic honeydew, but other colors are beautiful too. —Meryl Devulder, Slate Studios project manager

Like many people, I do most of my baking during the fall and winter, which means I’m often reaching for the so-called warm spices, like cinnamon, ginger, and clove. But in the last year or so, I’ve gradually begun substituting a superior ingredient: Chinese five-spice powder. The blend of star anise, clove, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seed is as toasty and fragrant as your more mundane “pumpkin pie” mix, but with a little more heat from the peppercorn and sophistication from the fennel and anise. Be sure to come by a quality brand, like the one from Spicewalla, and definitely toss it into anything concerning apples. —J. Bryan Lowder, associate editor

Who doesn’t love a scoop of ice cream alongside a holiday dessert? Make it homemade ice cream, and you’ll truly take your pies, cakes, brownies, and bar cookies over the top. When my kids gave me an ice cream maker, I had no choice but to try it out. Hundreds of pints later, I’ve never looked back. If you already enjoy baking, you’ll love making the perfect ice cream to accompany your desserts—caramel ice cream served over pecan pie, fudge ripple for flourless chocolate cake. Trust me when I say it couldn’t be easier to create with this workhorse, which churns out delicious ice cream every time. And ice cream master David Lebovitz has never steered me wrong—his recipes in this cookbook are flawless. —Jill Pellettieri, contributing editor

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