Whether you’ve recently started baking, want to brush up on your skills or are always keen to learn more tips and tricks, this list is for you! Britt Box shares her top 10 baking tips for beginners to help you create showstopping cakes and bakes.
1. Get to know the recipe
My first baking tip is all about the recipe itself. This is going to sound tremendously obvious, but it is something that I need to remind people of regularly. Read, read and then re-read the recipe again. It’s so easy to miss a vital step or crucial ingredient. Having the knowledge of what you’re going to do before you do it can make or break your bake. Once you’ve read and know the method, it’s then time to start your preparations.
Something I always advise budding bakers is to weigh out all of your ingredients and have them ready and in front of you. That way, there’s limited possibility of mistaking the plain for the self-raising, or forgetting to add the flavouring.
By having all of the correct ingredients ready to go, you will be super prepared and ready to take on the cake!
2. Count your eggs before they've hatched
Using the right ingredients. I don’t just mean using sugar instead of salt, by the ‘right’ ingredients I mean using good quality ingredients that will help enhance your bake. Of course, not everyone will have the same budget, but if you can afford to splash out on the higher end, your bakes will thank you for it. I have always found using a mid-range to high-end flour gets me better results than when I use a supermarket-own budget brand. It's the same when it comes to flavouring.
Spending a few more pennies on decent extract will last you much longer (and taste better) than its mostly alcohol essence counterpart. As well as this, I always advocate using free-range eggs. Thanks in advance from the chickens.
3. Investment baking
A story I often tell is how, in my first year of baking, I went through 11 hand mixers. That’s not even an exaggeration. At around £7 a pop I wasted nearly £80 when I could have invested in a pretty decent stand mixer for that. Obviously with this one, it entirely depends on your budget and how much you’ll actually be using it. There isn’t an inherent issue with all hand mixers, I have one now that’s lasted me a really long time and I think they are great, but I was baking a lot. At least 2-3 cakes a week when I started, and my poor hand mixers couldn’t keep up. If you’re baking much more infrequently than that, a hand mixer will do just fine. Anything electric is better than a wooden spoon and a bowl (as much as my Nan would have disagreed with me), but if baking is going to be your thing, I highly recommend checking out stand mixers. On the subject of equipment, I also advise investing in some good quality cake tins. A springform tin is great for a cheesecake and sandwich tins fit the bill for a classic Victoria sponge, but if you want to level up your cake game, I recommend good quality, deep cake tins. When I started out, I bought a 15cm (6in), 18cm (7in) and 20cm (8in) round to cover my bases, then bought other sizes as and when I needed them. They are a game changer.
4. Keep it low and slow
You know your recipe, you’ve got the right ingredients, you’ve even invested in a shiny stand mixer, but you are now onto the important step – the baking of the cake itself. My BIGGEST tip when it comes to baking cakes, is low and slow. I bake all of my sponge cakes at a lower temperature (usually 140°C fan assisted) for a longer amount of time. This ensures an even bake, meaning there are no peaks, burning, crisping, drying out or sinking. One of the most common questions I get about cakes is why did they rise and crack, or sink. The rising and cracking is caused by an oven that is simply too hot. The outside of the cake is cooking quicker than the inside, causing the peak. Turning the oven down and baking for a longer time will ensure this doesn’t happen. Sinking, on the other hand, is caused by raw cake mix in the middle. By taking your bake out of the oven too early with the inside not being cooked all the way through, the cake will collapse and sink in the middle. This can be solved easily by leaving the cake in a little longer. The lower temperature allows for this, without burning the outside of the cake. I would also highly recommend an oven thermometer. They are cheap and readily available online and they can tell you what’s really going on inside. The older ovens are, the more unreliable their temperature becomes.
5. The scoop on cupcakes
Cupcakes really are a baking staple. Small and delicious with endless possibilities. But getting the right amount of mixture in the cases can be troublesome. Not enough and your cases can peel, too much and you’ll get a ‘muffin top’.
The best way I’ve found to distribute the mixture evenly is with a large ice cream scoop. Easily available online, a stainless steel large scoop is the right amount of mix for a large cupcake case. Instead of using two tablespoons and hoping for the best, by using a scoop it makes life much easier.
Cupcake cases can peel for a number of reasons. The most common however is moisture and steam. When you bake a batch of cupcakes and take them out of the oven, they start creating steam due to their heat. If you take them out of the tin straight away, the sudden change in temperature can cause quick condensation, which causes the cases to peel. But, by leaving them in the tin too long, condensation quickly forms and the cases peel then too! The way I do it is to take the tin out of the oven and leave it on the side for about 1 minute. Then I take the cupcakes out and transfer them to a wire rack. I then leave them alone until they have gone completely cool. Messing around too much with the cupcakes can also cause the cases to come away, but this is more down to force.
Don’t store your cupcakes in an airtight plastic container – you are better off storing them in a cardboard cake box in a cool, dry place. Bad quality, non-greaseproof cases will also have an effect on the peeling.
6. A decorators toolkit
Decorating cakes is an art that takes time and practice to get right. I’m nearly a decade into my cake journey and I’m still learning new tips and techniques all the time. As I mentioned earlier about having the right equipment for baking, the exact same can be said for the right tools for decorating. Sure, you can roll out icing with a wine bottle, but it’s not going to give you the best results. Here is a little list of my top five pieces of equipment for cake decorating;
- Large non-stick rolling pin – I like the white polyethylene ones.
- Set of spacers – square plastic rods to have by your rolling pin to make sure you are rolling at a good thickness.
- Smoothers – I really like the plastic ones to start smoothing, then the thin acetate ones to achieve a great finish.
- Cake leveller. Gone are my days of cutting a cake unevenly with a big knife!
- Cranked palette knife – great for smoothing on buttercream, crumb coating, marking sugarpaste and much more.
By having these tools at your disposal, your cakes are sure to be showstoppers!
7. Sugar, sugar, sugar
Sugarpaste, fondant, icing, flower paste, modelling paste. In the cake world, sugar is known by many names, but they all have an individual role to play. For example, sugarpaste/roll out icing, (aka fondant if you’re American) is what we traditionally use to roll out and cover a cake. But not all icings are created equal. Supermarket icing is great for covering boards or using on cupcakes and cookies, but I’ve never had great results when covering cakes. I get so many people saying to me they ‘can’t ice cakes well’, but in actual fact it’s the icing they are using that’s letting them down. There are so many brands out there now, so I would advise trying a few and finding what works for you. As well as this, when it comes to making figures or flowers for your cakes, these too require a different sugar. Sugarpaste is very soft and isn’t very good for making decorations. For this, I would recommend either modelling paste or, if you need something stronger that you can roll thinly, flower paste. Both can be found in your local cake shop.
Remember, before you write yourself off as someone who ‘can’t’ decorate, first make sure you are giving yourself the best chance for success by using the right stuff.
8. Taking it to new heights
I’m a self-taught baker. When I started out I made a lot of mistakes, but I learnt from them. One mistake I made very early on was not understanding the importance of cake boards and dowels. I thought that to make a tiered cake, one simply bakes multiple cakes and sticks them on top of each other. This was all well and good for about 15 minutes, before it collapsed. If you are making a tiered cake of any kind, you need to have thin cards the same size as the tiers secured underneath the cakes (stuck down with a little buttercream or royal icing), and you must dowel the supporting cakes. Dowels come in all shapes and sizes, you can get bamboo and plastic rods, as well as thick, hollow straws. Just make sure any cake that will be underneath another cake has enough support. Secure the cakes to each other again with either buttercream or royal icing. I also like to leave my tiered cakes overnight to ‘settle’ before moving them, just to make sure they aren’t going anywhere!
9. Slow down
In the words of Paolo Nutini, slow down. It can be very tempting to try and bake a cake, decorate it and finish it all within a day to make sure it stays ‘fresh’. But I’ll let you in on a secret – cakes last way longer than people give them credit for. Not all, of course. If you’re making something soft like a Victoria sponge or a lemon drizzle, it is best on the day, or day after it was made. But for celebration cakes, I tend to use a Madeira cake, which is just as tasty but a lot more convenient. Once baked, the sponge itself lasts two weeks, giving you plenty of time for decorating. I tend to bake on a Monday (then wrap well in clingfilm), split, fill and ice on a Tuesday, make my decorations on a Wednesday, decorate on a Thursday and finish on a Friday for a weekend celebration. By doing it this way, I have plenty of time in case anything goes wrong and, by spending a little bit of time each day on the cake, it doesn’t overwhelm me or take over my life. Making it altogether a much more pleasurable experience. And yes, the cake still tastes delicious and fresh at the end of the week!
10. Never give up
My last baking tip for beginners is the most important. Baking and cake decorating takes lots of time and practice to get right. Bakes will go wrong. Cakes will sink, icing will crack, biscuits will spread and buttercream will melt. It happens to the best of us. But it isn’t about the mistakes or the cakes that go wrong, it’s what you learn from them and how you bounce back that’s important. I started baking ten years ago and I can assure you I have had hundreds of baking fails. I’ve cried in my kitchen, I’ve thrown out half cooked cakes, I’ve shouted that I would never bake again (I’m quite dramatic about it all), but I have always tried again.
And if there was one message I would like to leave you with, it’s that. Always try again.
I hope you found these baking tips for beginners helpful! Happy baking! Britt xxx
As featured in September 2020 issue of Baking Heaven Magazine