Photography: Ronald Tsang
Over the years, the Test Kitchen has discovered, learned and collected the top baking tips, tricks and secrets. Here, we share them with you to help make your holiday (and any time) baking the best it can be.
1. Buy the best ingredients possible.
The freshest butter, eggs, nuts, spices, yeast, baking powder and baking soda; the plumpest raisins; the finest chocolate; and real vanilla.
2. Invest in good baking equipment.
Start with the basics—a heavy baking sheet if you like making cookies, for example—and add only the highest-quality equipment, one piece at a time, as you go along. Resist the temptation to buy sets, especially if the price is too good to be true. Avoid nonstick, except for fancy Bundt pans.
3. Read first and prep accordingly.
Read the recipes all the way through before you start. This will give you a clear idea of the time, ingredients and equipment you need. Before you begin, get out all the equipment and ingredients called for in the recipe. If you wisely prep and measure the ingredients before you start to mix, you are less likely to forget one. Chill the items that need to be cold and set those that should be at room temperature out on the counter.
Prepare the pans first. Whether you're lining them with parchment paper, greasing the sides or simply setting them out, you'll ensure that they're ready when you are. Set the oven rack to the centre position unless otherwise instructed in the recipe. Preheat the oven for about 15 minutes before baking and keep a pencil and pad handy so you can make notes and clip them to the recipe. The next time you use it, you can build on your observations and experience.
In baking, using the right butter at the right temperature is key. Make sure butter is fresh, since it becomes stale or even rancid if not handled properly. Check the expiration date and keep butter refrigerated in its original wrapping, away from any strongly scented foods, or pop it into an airtight container or bag. It can also be frozen for up to six months. Unless otherwise noted, butter should be at room temperature or softened, meaning pliable but not too soft. Test whether it's at the proper temperature by pressing with your finger and seeing if it holds the imprint while still retaining its shape. If butter is hard and cold, soften it quickly by cutting into small cubes or grating on coarsest holes of a box grater, then spreading out in a mixing bowl and letting stand until softened.
Salted V. unsalted
Salted butter is the most commonly used butter, while unsalted is often preferred for baking. Salted butter has a salt content of about two percent. Unsalted butter, or sweet butter, contains no salt and has a delicately sweet taste and aroma. In our recipes, where butter is called for, it is always salted butter. Unsalted butter doesn't stay fresh as long as salted, so check the expiry date and use soon after purchasing or freeze for up to six months. Cultured butter, popular in Europe, is becoming increasingly common in Canada. Also called old-fashioned or antique, it's made from cream that has had bacterial cultures added, giving it a distinctively delicate yet tangy taste. With few exceptions, it can be used interchangeably with regular butter.
One large egg yields about 2 tbsp egg white and about 1 tbsp yolk.
...so does the temperature
Unless otherwise specified, let eggs come to room temperature. However, cold eggs separate more easily than those at room temperature.
There's a trick to separating eggs.
Use three bowls. Crack each egg over one bowl and pull shell apart, keeping one half upright holding yolk and pouring white in other half into bowl. Pour yolk into other half shell, letting white drip into bowl. Repeat until as much of the white as possible is separated from yolk. Pour yolk into second bowl to hold yolks. Pour white from first bowl into third bowl to hold whites. Continue with remaining eggs, always using the first bowl for the first step just in case any yolk accidentally mixes into whites. This is important if beating the whites (as for meringue), because even the tiniest bit of egg yolk will hinder the whites' increase in volume.
A note about the recipes in our 2018 Holiday Baking book:
All recipes were developed using large eggs.
BAKING SODA & POWDER
Baking soda is often used when a recipe calls for acidic ingredients, such as chocolate. It begins leavening as soon as wet and dry ingredients meet. An open box of baking soda stored in a cool, dark, dry spot can last for up to one year. To test for effectiveness, add 1/4 tsp baking soda to 2 tsp vinegar. If mixture foams on contact, it's active.
In Canada, baking powder is continuous acting, meaning it creates bubbles and lightness from the moment it touches liquid and continues with the heat in the oven. If you're a frequent baker, buying a large container of baking powder is a good idea. If not, choose a smaller container. Stored in a cool, dry spot, baking powder will last for two years from the date of manufacture. Once opened, it loses its strength after about six months. To test, stir 1 tsp baking powder into 1 cup hot water. If it bubbles, the baking powder is active.
Not all grains of sugar are the same! Here are the ones we use and when:
- Granulated sugar: With its snowy white granules, this is the best-known sugar. Made from refined beet or cane sugar, it produces crispier cookies than brown sugar.
- Superfine sugar: This has the finest crystal size of granulated sugar. In Canada, it has various names: fruit, berry, caster, instant dissolving and ultrafine. To make your own, whirl granulated sugar in a food processor until granules are smaller, finer and almost powdery. (Let the dust settle before removing the lid.) Icing sugar: This is powdery granulated sugar blended with about three percent cornstarch to keep it from caking. It blends smoothly into icings and glazes.
- Brown sugar: Available in light and dark varieties, brown sugar is made with varying amounts of white granulated sugar and molasses. The darker the sugar, the higher the molasses (and moisture) content and the more pronounced the rich caramel taste. Store it in its original packaging in an airtight container to prevent it from hardening. To soften, pop in a piece of foil topped with a slice of bread or moistened paper towel. Close tightly and let soften for a couple of days. Or for quick results, loosely cover and microwave hard brown sugar on high for a few seconds, then use it right away before it hardens. Due to its molasses content, brown sugar makes chewier, softer cookies than regular granulated sugar.
- Specialty brown sugar: This includes Demerara and turbinado sugar, which have coarse golden brown crystals that add pleasant molasses flavour and crunch to baked goods. A variation is packed soft Demerara sugar, which is finer than regular Demerara and turbinado and can be used like regular brown sugar.
- Glitters and toppers: Look for these finishing touches at grocery, bulk food and specialty stores.
- Sanding sugar has coarser grains than granulated and provides sparkle to baked goods.
- Coarse sugar comes in different colours and has granules that are about four times larger than regular granulated crystals.
- Nonpareils are tiny coloured candy balls that add a fun touch to cookies and other baked goods.
- Dragées are coloured candy balls with metallic or pearl finishes.
- Sprinkles come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
The Test Kitchen tests all recipes using widely available, standard brands of flour to ensure that home bakers get the same results in their kitchens as we do in ours. Here are the most common types you'll need in your kitchen.
- All-purpose flour: A combination of milled hard and soft wheat that is bleached, regular all-purpose flour requires no sifting before measuring. It works in most baking recipes, from biscuits to cookies to cakes to pies. There are two other types of all-purpose flour: an unbleached version, which is cream-coloured and becoming more available and popular, and a whole wheat version. Both can be used cup for cup in place of regular all-purpose flour and require no sifting before measuring.
- Bread flour: For yeast breads and buns, there is hard wheat flour that may contain increased gluten. It comes in versions such as white, multigrain and whole wheat. They require no sifting and can be replaced cup for cup by all-purpose flour.
- Cake-and-pastry flour: Recipes for cakes and pastry often call for cake-and-pastry flour, which is milled from softer wheat. Always sift this type of flour before measuring. If a recipe calls for all-purpose flour, you can substitute 1 cup plus 2 tbsp cake-and-pastry flour for each cup of all-purpose flour. If a recipe calls for cake-and-pastry flour, you can substitute 1 cup minus 2 tbsp regular or unbleached all-purpose flour for each cup of cake-and-pastry flour.
- Rye flour: This whole grain flour comes in two versions—dark and light—which you can use interchangeably, depending on the strength of flavour youʼre looking for. Shelf life: The shelf life for white flour is 12 months from the date of manufacture. Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot. Whole grain and whole wheat flour, and those that contain added bran, have a shelf life of nine months. Store them in the freezer to keep them fresh.
- Gluten-free: For those following a gluten-free diet, there has never been a better time for baking. Gone are the days of sourcing hard to find specialty flour and creating blends of tough to pronounce ingredients. For our gluten-free holiday cookie recipes, we turned to PC Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Blend. It provides just the right balance of texture, flavour and consistency required to mimic regular all-purpose flour for delightful results every time. Certified gluten-free by the Canadian Celiac Association, it's available nationwide online and in Loblaw-affiliated grocery stores.
Different types of chocolate are defined by the proportions of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and other ingredients, such as sugar. Here are the varieties you'll use frequently for baking.
- Unsweetened chocolate: This is pure, unsweetened chocolate liquor cooled and moulded into blocks. It is bitter and cannot be used interchangeably with other types of chocolate.
- Bittersweet and semisweet: These chocolates contain pure chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla and lecithin. In baking, these types are interchangeable, although bittersweet has a more pronounced flavour.
- Milk chocolate: This chocolate has dry or concentrated milk added to the same base as semisweet and bittersweet chocolate.
- White chocolate: This type does not actually contain any chocolate liquor, just cocoa butter. Good-quality white chocolate is ivory- or cream-coloured, unlike white confectionary coating, which contains vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter and is starker white.
- Cocoa powder: Made of ground, partially defatted cocoa solids, cocoa powder (labelled unsweetened or Dutch process) should not be replaced with sweetened or hot chocolate powders.
Store your chocolate right
Wrap chocolate and store in a cool, dry place, making sure to use it within two years. When storage temperatures are too warm, the cocoa butter in chocolate separates from the solids, leaving a harmless white discoloration, called bloom, on the surface.
Most of our recipes use pure vanilla extract. Itʼs readily available and made by percolating vanilla beans with ethyl alcohol and water. While imitation or artificial vanilla extract is usually scorned in the press, and is not a first choice for custards, it can take the heat and is often preferable in baked goods such as pound cake.
Slit the bean in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seedy pulp and use in cake batters and custards. One whole bean yields the equivalent of 2 to 3 tsp vanilla extract. The pod can be added to custards as well, but remove it before serving. You can also recycle the pod by adding it to a canister of granulated sugar or to a fruit compote.
Rolled oats are whole grains made from hulled oat kernels that have been steamed, then flattened. When a baking recipe calls for rolled oats, choose either large-flake (often referred to as old-fashioned) or quick-cooking oats. They are interchangeable in baking. However, large-flake oats are recommended for their chewy texture and attractive ragged look for cookies and squares. In baking, avoid both instant oats and coarse-textured steel-cut Irish or Scottish oats. These are suitable for porridge but not for baking.
Ground spices lose their flavour after about six months. To prolong their oomph, store in airtight containers in a cool, dark spot (make sure you date the containers). Dedicating a drawer away from heat to spices and herbs is a good idea. If you have a spice grinder, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, buy whole spices to grind to order. Clean the grinder between uses to prevent spice flavours from mingling. For nutmeg, buy it whole and use a small hand grater or the fine side of a box grater.
Whenever possible, buy whole or halved nuts rather than chopped, which tend to become rancid (especially walnuts). The one exception is almonds; slivered and sliced varieties are reliably fresh and a real time-saver. Store nuts in the freezer for up to one year. At room temperature, their high fat content can cause them to go rancid. Here's how to toast nuts, seeds and coconut. Small amounts: In dry skillet, toast over medium heat, swirling pan often, until golden and fragrant, 3 to 8 minutes. Large amounts: Spread out on rimmed baking sheet. Bake in 350°F oven, stirring occasionally, until golden and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes for seeds, 6 to 8 minutes for chopped nuts and 10 minutes for large whole or halved nuts. Spread out on separate baking sheet to cool and stop browning.
BAKER'S BASIC EQUIPMENT
Every good baker should have these tools in their arsenal:
- Stainless-steel bowls in various sizes
- Measuring cups (dry and liquid)
- Measuring spoons
- Knives (chef's, paring and serrated)
- Metal cooling racks (2)
- Wooden spoons
- Rubber spatula
- Parchment paper, waxed paper, heavy-duty foil and plastic wrap
- Pastry brushes (with natural bristles)
- Flexible lifter or wide spatula
- Piping bag with selection of tips, including plain fine tip for outlining
- Oven mitts
- Electric hand mixer