Tips & Tricks

As a still learning cook, myself, I find it incredibly helpful when a recipe gives detailed tips on how to execute certain steps. I've been lucky to have female family members (my mother, especially) who are great home cooks with extensive knowledge. No longer living at home, however, has made it more difficult when I'm not sure about a step in a recipe, in which case I rely on internet sources, along with tips/tricks found in a few of my cookbooks. Because I wish for all of my recipes to be a success, I added this section where you can find tips on anything I think a novice cook may not be aware! Each tip is directly related to at least one of my recipes, however, which is why you may not find certain techniques in here; the list will grow with my recipes. The number one tip I can give, though, is to always, always, always read through the recipe before you begin, so you'll be prepared for any surprises.

Also, I'm very detail-oriented, so bear with me on the explanations ;)

Table of Contents

I. Butter
II. Chocolate
III. Egg Whites
IV. Folding (such as egg whites)
V. Frosting: The Sweetness Dilemma
VI. Syrups (simple syrup, thread stage, caramel, etc)

I. Butter

Softened Butter

Most recipes will call for softened butter, especially cakes with a butter, rather than oil, base. If your butter is too cold, it will be difficult to beat, in which case you'll have to wait for it to warm up. There are a lot differing opinions about how warm "softened" butter should be, but from my experience, it should really only be at room temperature. If you press your finger into the stick of butter, you'll leave an indentation, but your finger won't simply plunge right through it. Think of it like testing a peach for ripeness! Butter that's too soft is going to give incredibly easily and it will likely be too liquid for certain recipes, such as buttercream. 

Creaming Butter

To cream butter is to beat it until its light and fluffy, which I find is best achieved with a paddle attachment, rather than a whisk. The butter will literally become lighter and lighter in color as it's beaten; you really can't beat butter too much, either, so if you're unsure, give it 2-3 minutes and you'll definitely see the difference. 

When creaming butter and sugar, stick with the same guidelines. The mixture will increase with volume as it becomes fluffier and the color will greatly whiten; this is essential with butter-based cakes because the creaming process is what makes the cake lighter as opposed to heavy and dense.

II. Chocolate

Melting Chocolate

Melting chocolate is pretty simple, but you have to be careful because it burns easily. The best method is to use a double-boiling technique. If you have a double-boiler, then you can fill the bottom pan with about an inch of water and heat it to a simmer, setting your second pan, filled with chocolate, on top and stirring occasionally until the chocolate is completely melted. If you don't have a double-boiler, you can get the same effect by placing a bowl on top of a pan--just make sure it's large enough so that it sits on top of the pan rather than sinking inside it. Also, never fill the bottom pan with enough water so that it touches the top pan--that could burn the chocolate.

Another method is to melt the chocolate in the microwave. In that case, never let the chocolate heat for more than 30 seconds at a time, it very easily burns from overheating in the microwave. After each 30-second interval, remove the bowl and thoroughly stir up the chocolate. Because the chocolate isn't constantly stirred while in the microwave, some pieces of chocolate will retain their shape when they're actually fully melted; this is why constantly removing it and thoroughly stirring is so important.

Always allow your chocolate to cool before incorporating it into any mixture, as well.

III. Egg Whites

Separating Eggs

First of all, never crack an egg on the edge of a bowl; the eggshell is far more likely to crumble and fall into your bowl. Instead, give it one good crack on the counter; once you get the hang of it, you'll have a perfectly cracked shell every time! 

To separate the yolk and white properly, you'll need three bowls: one for the yolks, one for the whites, and your mixing bowl. The basic process will be to separate one egg into two bowls, pour the separated white from its original bowl to the mixing bowl, and begin again with the next egg. It's essential that the whites not get contaminated, which is why it's highly advised to use this process rather than separating all your whites together into one bowl because, once the whites are contaminated, you need to get rid of them and start all over again. It's also wise to do so because you may end up with a fertilized egg, which will appear red, and have to throw out the entire batch.

For the actual process of separation, crack the egg and then slowly pour the yolk from one half of the shell to the other, allowing the whites to fall into the bowl; be careful not to allow the yolk to break because bits will likely fall into your whites-designated bowl. Then, simply discard the yolk into the other bowl (or your garbage disposal, if you don't need/plan to use the yolks later!). Another method is to hold the egg in your hand, allowing the white to seep through your fingers, but I find this process overly messy (and pretty gross, to be truthful, haha). Also, there are gadgets made specifically for egg separation, so feel free to use one if you have it!

Beating Egg Whites

Eggs should be at room temperature for most recipes, whether whites are beaten separately or not. Is this utterly necessary? No. You'll achieve greater volume with room temperature eggs, though, especially when whipping whites for something like meringue. Remember that raw eggs should not sit out for more than 2 hours. You can allow them to come to room temperature within the shell (separation may be more difficult, however) or after separation, but make sure any separated egg parts are tightly covered.

Make sure that your bowl and attachment are spotlessly clean, as well! To ensure that they're grease-free, combine 1 tbsp vinegar with 1 tsp salt in the bowl and rub it clean with a paper towel, rubbing the beater with the same towel afterward. The vinegar will actually help stabilize the egg whites, so it's not necessary to rinse the bowl.

If using a stand-mixer, make sure to use the whisk attachment rather than the paddle attachment, which won't whip enough air into the whites. Also make sure, especially if using a hand-mixer (or even whisking by hand, which I'd wish you great luck achieving!), that all the egg whites are being incorporated; you don't want to find out later that some were left untouched on the bottom of the bowl. Whenever beating egg whites (or eggs in general), always start slow and gradually increase speed to fast. You have to watch carefully not to overbeat the eggs, though, because they'll eventually destabilize. 

Lastly, if using a hand-mixer, use a stainless-steel bowl (or pot, if you don't happen to have a bowl), unlined copper bowl, or sturdy glass bowl. The sound of the metal attachment smacking a glass bowl makes me nervous, but I promise I've never found someone who's broken one. Most actual mixing bowls you'll buy will be sturdy enough, I'm sure. Also, use of a copper bowl will actually help stabilize the whites (which is what cream of tartar is used for), but don't feel the need to go out and throw your money at one just for this reason. If you happen to have one on hand, though, definitely use it!

Soft Peaks vs Hard Peaks

Soft peaks are formed when the whites are lifted up with the beater and a peak forms that bends over at the tip; hard peaks won't bend as such. When you're first beginning to whip egg whites, don't worry about stopping multiple times to check the peak; that's better than allowing your eggs to overbeat, thus destabilizing and ruining the recipe. One tip I can give for knowing when to check is that the whisk will start to leave lines in the whites; if the lines simply disappear into the whites, they're still too liquid, so there's likely no need to check for peaks yet.

Egg whites beaten to soft peaks.

IV. Folding

Folding is the gentlest method for mixing one ingredient into another. Recipes in which it's usually called for are soufflés, cakes that require eggs beaten separately, and frostings (especially that require whipped cream). The aim is to incorporate one ingredient into the other without deflating the puff of one. Eggs and whipped cream, overbeaten, will deflate; the purpose of beating them separately is to incorporate enough air to hold their light volume in order to create a light, airy cake or voluminous, creamy frosting.

When folding, I always use a silicone spatula because they're thin and the most flexible, making it easier to scrape the sides of a bowl to incorporate the ingredients. I also, almost always, fold the separately beaten ingredient in two parts, to make it easier; the choice is yours. 

To fold, gently scrape your separately beaten ingredient (such as egg whites) on top of your mixture (such as cake batter). Insert your spatula into the center of the mixture, down to the very bottom of the bowl, like a knife (as if you're cutting the batter in half); slide it across the bottom and up the side of the bowl in a rapid scoop, bringing batter from the bottom up over the top. Rotate the bowl slightly and repeat until the ingredients are blended.

The trick is to be rapid, but gentle. It's very daunting at first, but, like most baking methods, much easier after time! If you're finding big clumps of egg white (or whipped cream) that aren't easily incorporating, slice them in half with your spatula, folding one half into the mixture and then the other half. Also, if you fold in two parts, as I do, don't fully incorporate your first half; stop when the ingredients are mostly incorporated, but you can still see the two different mixtures. Then, fully incorporate during your second set of folding. 

V. Frosting: The Sweetness Dilemma

Everybody has their own opinion of frosting. Some people love a super sweet, sugary frosting and couldn't be happier to spoon-feed themselves into a diabetic coma. Others, loathe frosting for being overly sweet and biting; they tend to eat around it, leaving a sad, lonely mound on their dessert plate. I, myself, am a frosting loather because I find that it's simply never made to my liking. Most bakeries, I find, use a version of "buttercream" that is far, far too sweet as the base is made with powdered sugar rather than granulated. My guess is that they simply prefer the easier route! I find it sad, though, because many people, who often don't bake themselves, hate this frosting and don't realize there are better ones out there that they may love. So, this entry is for all the haters who, too often, eat cheap, last-minute grocery store cakes and cans of preservative, chemical-filled store-bought frostings. There is hope!

First, I'll start with the thick, dense, sugary-sweet frosting as found in grocery stores and far too many bakeries. This frosting has a powdered sugar base, which is where it gets the intense sweetness. From the recipes I've seen (and made), it appears the powdered sugar is not only used as a sweetener, but as a thickening agent, since the hot sugar syrup paired with beaten eggs (of the classic buttercream) is not used. In general, you would cream butter with a little bit of milk and a whole lotta powdered sugar. Butter, on its own, becomes more and more liquid as it gets warmer; therefore, without enough powdered sugar, the frosting is very "melty" and doesn't hold to the cake well. Because of this, a massive amount of powdered sugar must be used and, obviously, the more powdered sugar, the sweeter the frosting. Anybody who has eaten both plain powdered sugar and plain granulated sugar knows that powdered sugar is simply much sweeter, which is why it's generally only used to dust the tops of baked goods for a little hint of sweetness!

Frostings that utilize granulated sugar, however, are much lighter, creamier, and buttery. Of course, the range of these are great. Some buttercreams call for whole eggs, some for only egg whites (which creates a meringue), some only egg yolks, and others no eggs at all! Some even use flour as a thickening agent, which doesn't sound appetizing, but is actually very delicious; one of my favorites is Magnolia Bakery's flour-based vanilla frosting that they top their red velvet cupcakes with; you'd never know flour was used! But back to the granulated sugar base...To frost a 9-inch cake, as little as 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar may be used...In quite the contrast, to frost the same cake with a powdered sugar base, as much as 8 cups of powdered sugar may be used! That's at least five times the amount of sugar, with something that's already sweeter!

My point, here, is that you don't have to resign yourself to a sickeningly sweet frosting simply because you haven't had the opportunity to taste the full range of what's out there. All you need to do is experiment.

*Note: For all you fellow Michiganders out there, especially in the Metro-Detroit area, the bakery that (in my opinion) comes closest to the perfect buttercream frosting is Christine's in Shelby Township. It's incredibly small, but I've never found a single bakery (nor, especially, grocery store) that had such delicious frosting. My favorite is like a cupcake version of Sander's Bumpy Cake (without the bump because it's just totally frosted on top and covered in chocolate) or the gourmet version of a Hostess CupCake, but ten times better than both! If you're a cupcake lover, I urge you, buy one...or ten. Whichever.

VI. Syrups

In general, your proportions will be 1/3 cup water for every 1 cup of sugar, though, recipes may vary and you can stick to whatever your recipe states.

Simple Syrup

Simple syrup can be used to sweeten drinks such as lemonade and iced tea, poach fruits, imbibe cake layers, etc. All that's necessary is to combine the sugar and water in a pan and heat it, while stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Variations include adding liquors or fruits for flavor; if using fruit, remember to strain the fruit pieces out of your syrup, so that all you're left with is liquid. I like to poach a fruit in simple syrup to serve for dessert and then use that fruity syrup to sweeten/flavor drinks!

The Thread Stage

You'll most often heat sugar to the thread stage for meringues and buttercreams; it's actually the most delicious way to sweeten a buttercream, in my opinion, though requires more work and skill. It's quite easy once you've figured it out, though, as I only screwed it up my first two times! And I tend to screw up a lot of things before I've been able to practice multiple times :)

Once the sugar has completely dissolved in the water, allow the syrup to boil over high heat, never stirring, until a candy thermometer reads 230 - 235 F; make sure your thermometer is not touching the bottom of the pan, though, or it will read hotter than it actually is. 

Once the thermometer appears to be quite close to 230 degrees, take a little syrup up into a spoon and drop it into a glass of cold water; the last drops will form threads. If they don't form, continue heating, but constantly check for threads, as the temperature will rise quickly. If a ball forms, your temperature has, unfortunately, gotten too high. 

Once you've achieved threads, though, you'll want to immediately remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour it into the corresponding mixture from your recipe. This syrup is very hot, so you don't want to burn yourself. If you have a pan with a pouring spout, that's the absolute most reliable thing you can use. If not, don't worry, you'll get the hang of the pour; just go slowly and never take your eyes off the syrup until it's all out. Also, be wary of the fact that your beater will whip the syrup against the sides of the bowl, rather than incorporating it into your mixture, if you pour too far into the middle of the bowl, so keep closer to the side!

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