Three simple but essential baking tips

The first post on this blog contains lots of pictures of my baking successes, but I’ve also had my fair share of cake disasters. I usually manage to learn something from my mistakes, though, so here are three tips I’ve picked up over the last few years that I hope you find useful.

1. Sifting flour does make a difference

I’ll admit that when I first started baking a lot I was occasionally too lazy or in too much of a rush to sift flour if the recipe called for it. It’s something that a lot of people don’t really see the point of, but (unfortunately for us lazy types) it really does make a difference to the overall quality of the cake.

You don’t need to sift your flour for something where the texture is going to be a little rough anyway (such as cookies), but sponge cakes in particular benefit from the extra fine texture that passing flour through a sieve results in. If you want a super-light sponge that rises magnificently, try sifting the flour more than once.

Just remember to do it from fairly high up and a little at a time; overload your sieve and you will end up with more flour outside the bowl than in – another tip that lazy bakers will just have to learn to get on with!

2. Always use vanilla extract instead of vanilla essence

A lot of recipes call for vanilla essence as a flavouring, but the truth is vanilla extract is just so much nicer.

Vanilla essence is pretty much all artificial, whereas the extract version is actually produced using vanilla pods. Essence, to me, just tastes too sweet and a little weird, while extract is much more vanilla-y and tasty.

If you usually use vanilla essence, give extract a go next time you bake. You really will notice the difference.

3. Only make your own self-raising flour if you know what you’re doing

A few months ago I came up with what I thought was a cunning plan to save money and cupboard space – make my own self-raising flour with plain flour and baking powder instead of buying separate bags of each kind of flour.

A Google search revealed lots of different thoughts on the right balance between plain flour and baking powder to create the perfect self-raising flour. Unfortunately, none of these seemed to actually work for me.

I made maybe five or six cakes, changing the combination every couple of times, with varying degrees of success. I ended up with a sinking or flat cake in most cases. I went back to buying self-raising flour fairly recently, and haven’t had a sinking cake since!

I would love to know if there really is a definitive way to make your own, though, as I only have two-thirds of a cupboard for all my ingredients. And it’s possible the sinking cakes weren’t entirely the self-made self-raising flour’s fault (does that render this tip null and void?!)!

Upcoming posts: spicy pepper biscuits and (hopefully) a yet-to-be-decided brownie-based dessert.

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5 thoughts on “Three simple but essential baking tips

  1. With you on #1. Makes a huge difference. Unless a recipe specifically says you don’t need to, always sift!

    Agree on #2 as well, essence is nasty stuff. If you don’t have extract – or real vanilla – might as well make something else instead.

  2. Oh god, yes – sifting flour is an absolute. More than once if you can bear to spend the time on it.

    Interesting about the homemade self raising flour experiments. When I made that hazlenut and lemon curd cake, the recipe stated plain flour and baking powder, which I used in the suggested quantitiies. The cake ended up flat and dense. Maybe I’ll try ignoring the recipe and make it with SR flour, see how that goes.

    Vanilla essence always tastes burnt to me.

  3. Hmm, it’s weird that your cake went flat after you followed the recipe. Where I went wrong was ignoring the self-raising flour required by the recipes and replacing it with plain flour and baking powder. But where a recipe calls for the latter I stick to that and it’s usually fine!

    Vanilla essence is pointless, and should be banned.

  4. It was supposed to be a firm sponge, because it was a variation on the Genoese sponge (where you beat the eggs and sugar in a bowl over a pan of simmering water), but it ended up more like a biscuit. I’ve never been that good at sponges which rely on how much air you get into the batter to rise properly, and it was the first time I’d done the Genoese method, which definitely didn’t help my beating technique (RSI in my right wrist makes it hard enough – trying to beat eggs and sugar while keeping a bowl balanced over a pan was murder). Since I didn’t get enough air in during the beating and the baking powder didn’t compensate enough, I thought a bit of SR flour might do the trick.

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