It might be safe to say that itâ€™s impossible to run out of things to bake! With SO many recipes on the Internet, so many food blogs, so many cookbooks (and E-cookbooks) , your next favorite dessert is often just one click away. And thatâ€™s a good thing, because:
- Desserts are freaking amazing.
- Baking is a super rewarding hobby.
But, if youâ€™re JUST starting to bake from scratch, youâ€™ve probably gotten stumped once or twice by the way recipe authors describe things. Like, when they tell you to use softened butter or to beat your egg whites to stiff peaks. Well, we’re not just saying that to sound fancy. If a recipe calls for softened butter, then softened butter WILL yield the best (and intended) result.The majority of the time, if you follow a well-reviewed or popular recipe to a T, you will be satisfied with what you’ve made.
So, I’m breaking down some important and commonly used baking vocabulary, by ingredient, so that you never screw up a cheesecake by using too-cold cream cheese, or ruin a brownie by incorrectly measuring the flour. I plan to continuously update this list, but feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments section.
Let’s get learnin’!
Flour, Baking Soda, Baking Powder
Sift – When a recipe calls for sifting, here’s what you’ll do. Pour the ingredient (usually it will be flour) into a fine mesh strainer (AKA “a sieve”) over a bowl, and gently pat or shake the sieve until the sieve is empty. Flour is often sifted because doing so makes it easier to mix with other ingredients.
Scoop & level – This is a method of measuring flour (or baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder, cornstarch, you get the gist). I HIGHLY recommend buying a digital scale and using it to measure, because it is THE most accurate method. But if you don’t have a scale, the scoop and level approach is the second best option. Simply, use a spoon to fill your measuring cup with flour, all the way to the top, to the point where it’s a little overfilled. Then, use a knife, spatula, or the flat side of the spoon to scrape off the excess flour to “level” the amount. Do not ever, ever, EVER dip your cup directly in the flour to measure it. This yields too much flour, which will ruin your baked good.
Butter & Shortening
Room temperature/softened – You will see this a LOT when working with recipes that use butter. Do not ignore this term. Properly softened butter incorporates easier with other ingredients and traps air which, when baked, will result in light, fluffy cakes and amazing cookies. But how do you know when your butter (or cream cheese, if you’re making cheesecake) is the right temperature and texture? Let the writers at BonAppetit explain: “When it comes to butter, ‘room temperature’ refers to the semi-solid stage where butter is extremely spreadable but still holds its shape. It should be soft enough that your finger will make an imprint with zero resistance, but not so warm that the butter looks shiny or greasy” (from https://www.bonappetit.com/story/room-temperature-butter-baking). To get your butter to the correct temperature, take it out of the fridge and let it rest on the counter for about an hour (maybe half an hour if you’re baking in Georgia in the middle of July). Or use this popular method: https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/soften-butter-quickly-trick/.
Cut – I first saw this term when following a buttermilk biscuit recipe. It will come up in a lot of pastry recipes. The best way to do this is to use a pastry cutter (which is also a GREAT tool for mashing bananas for banana bread). When you cut butter or shortening into flour, it should be COLD. “To use the pastry blender, hold the handle and press the blades into the shortening while rotating your wrist from side to side” (from https://www.thespruceeats.com/definition-of-cut-in-3896640). You’ll know you’re finished cutting when the mixture looks like coarse meal or small crumbly peas.
Cream – This is a way of simply combining softened butter and sugar until the mixture is soft, smooth, and fluffy. It usually takes about 2-3 minutes using a handheld mixer or stand mixer on medium-high speed.
Melt – I probably don’t need to go toooo into depth with this. We all know what melted butter looks like, and it’s pretty simple to make. I’m including this because I want you to avoid the huge mistake of combining piping hot butter with eggs when making a baked good. It will scramble your eggs, so make sure that your melted (or browned) butter is cool, unless otherwise specified.
Browned – Brown butter is basically butter that is cooked on a medium heat until melted, golden brown, and incredibly aromatic. It has a fantastic flavor and I use it in a lot of baked goods, like these Chocolate Chip, Coconut Blondies. Here’s an easy guide on how to brown butter: https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/how-to-brown-butter/.
Room temperature – Most recipes call for room temperature eggs. Like butter, do not ignore this. Take your eggs out of the fridge and let them rest on the counter for about 30 minutes to an hour.
Peaks – This will come up when a recipe calls for whipping egg whites. There are several types of peaks: soft, medium, and stiff. Here is a great article, with pictures, explaining the difference between each peak: https://www.finecooking.com/article/whipping-to-soft-medium-and-firm-peaks#:~:text=Soft%20peaks%20barely%20hold%20their,when%20the%20beaters%20are%20lifted.
Pack – Recipes that call for brown sugar usually say to pack the sugar. Why? Because it removes the air pockets from the sticky sugar lumps and makes for the most accurate measurement. How do you pack brown sugar? Easy. Use a spoon to pour brown sugar into a measuring cup, then press down firmly with the back of the spoon, and repeat, until the cup is full to the top. Flip the cup upside down, and the sugar should release itself in a solid shape (it will be in the shape of the measuring cup, which I think looks super cool).
Knead – Listen, I’m no bread-making expert, I’m still learning myself, but I’ve read enough recipes and watched enough videos to know that kneading is a pretty important step. I’ll try to describe the act of kneading as clearly as possible. You’ll take the dough and push it downwards and outwards with the heels of your hands. Fold the dough, then push downwards and outwards again. Your bread recipe will usually specify how long you should knead for.
I hope this little guide clears up some mystery for all you beginner bakers! Thank you so much for reading, and know that I am wishing you the SOFTEST cookies, FLUFFIEST cupcakes, and CRUMBLIEST buttermilk biscuits.
Notes & Resources
- All linked articles come from outside sources and are NOT my original work. Please go to these blogs and websites for awesome recipes and more helpful baking tips.