Essential tips and tricks for novice bakers

To celebrate the return of the Great British Bake Off to our screens we take a look at how you can avoid potential pitfalls to achieve a perfect bake Mary Berry would be proud of.

09 Sep 2014


Baking 3

How to prevent a soggy bottom

No one likes a 'soggy bottom' - the term given to a pastry base that's still wet after baking. But thankfully there are several things you can do to get a firm crust on your pastry.

• Flans and tarts. The key is to bake the pastry blind, which means partially or completely baking the case before adding the filling. First line the uncooked pastry case with non-stick baking paper, then fill with rice, dried beans, or metal or ceramic baking weights (this prevent the pastry base rising during cooking.) Place on a baking tray and cook in a preheated oven at 210C for 8-10 minutes.

• Double-crust fruit pies. Try pre-cooking the filling and drain off any excess liquid before putting it into the pie, making sure it's cooled down first. You can also cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to get through. Another tip is to brush beaten egg white on the sides and bottom of the pie. This creates a glaze that acts as a barrier between the pie filling and the crust.

Top tips for avoiding burnt caramel

When sugar is heated it turns into a liquid, and as it begins to cook it becomes caramel in colour. Making caramel sounds easy enough, but many a cook has ended up with a burnt black mess in the bottom of a pan.

• It's important to have the right saucepan. Use a pale-coloured stainless steel or enamel one.

• Use white sugar so you can see the change in colour as it melts, and keep watch over the pan at all times.

• The melted sugar should be cooked until it turns a dark amber colour. When it's ready it will start to smoke and foam a little. At this point, remove it from the heat immediately to stop the sugar from burning.

• Add two tablespoons of warm water, and stir well. Take care, as the caramel may splutter. It's now ready to use.

How to avoid a chocolate meltdown

When heating and cooling melted chocolate you are tempering it. Without doing this you won't achieve a smooth, glossy finish. 

Here are our tips for tempering chocolate:

• Chop up your chocolate evenly and put about two-thirds into a heatproof bowl.

• Heat half a pan of water and put the bowl on top of the pan, making sure the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water. Melt the chocolate slowly to a temperature of 58C/136F for dark chocolate and 50C/122F for milk or white chocolate (use a cooking thermometer for this). Remove the bowl from the pan.

• Add the remaining chopped chocolate, and keep stirring until it reaches 32C/90F for dark chocolate, 30C/86F for milk chocolate and 28C/82F for white chocolate. It's then ready to use.

Baking 4

How to avoid your sponge cake being too dry

A sponge cake should be light and springy to the touch, but if yours keeps turning out dry and lifeless there are things you can do to rectify the problem.

• Make sure all of your ingredients are at room temperature before you mix them, and don't add too much baking powder.

• Sponge also dries if it's been in the oven for too long. To test whether it's cooked, insert a cake tester or toothpick into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it's done. You can also test it by pressing the top of the sponge lightly with your finger. It should bounce back without leaving an indentation.

A simple sponge cake recipe

A good sponge is crucial to any baker's repertoire. Here's how you do it:

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Take a mixing bowl and add 225g of caster sugar and 225g of butter. Whisk together with a hand or stand mixer until creamed.
  • Break 4 eggs into the butter and sugar mixture, 1 by 1, and whisk together. Sift 225g of self-raising flour and fold into the egg mixture.
  • Pour your mixture into 2 lined sandwich tins and bake for around 20 minutes. Let them stand for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.

Tips for baking bread at home

As a nation we have gone bonkers for baking bread. But achieving the perfect loaf is harder than it looks on the telly - check out our top tips for baking bread. 

Use the best ingredients. Pay that bit more for organic flour and sea salt - the best bread has the best ingredients. You'll be able to taste the difference.

Keep your dough wet. Your bread dough should be sticky, wet and flexible. Also, consider using water from a purifying filter. If your hands are sticking to the dough too much when kneading then use oil rather than flour on the table. 

How to prove bread.  After kneading, your bread needs time to rest for the dough to rise - this is called proving. Cover your dough with a damp tea towel and put it in an airing cupboard or other warm place until it's doubled in size. This can take anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on the temperature and amount of dough.

A basic bread recipe

Every baker worth his salt needs to be able to throw together a basic white loaf - here's what you need:

  • Mix 500g of strong white flour in a bowl with 2tsp salt and a sachet of yeast (7g). Make a well in the centre and pour in 300ml of water and a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Mix together with your hands then transfer to a board and knead - you'll know it's ready when you can stretch it between your hands to about 20cm.
  • Transfer to a bowl and allow to prove (following above tips). Line a tin loaf with baking parchment, pop the loaf in it and place in a pre-heated oven (220 degrees) for around 25 minutes.  

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