Here is how how you can get better at baking in just ten steps
If we had to give ten things you could do to learn how to get better at baking, they would be as follows.
One of the first things to learn in baking is how to make pastry. Time spent mastering all the different types is time well spent. Have a go at classic shortcrust, pâte sucrée, an enriched shortcrust with extra butter and egg yolk, choux pastry, rough puff, and puff pastry. You’ll notice that all pastries use variations of the same key ingredients: flour, fat, salt, and liquid. By applying different techniques to the ingredients in differing proportions, one can achieve all manner of different results. There’s no shame whatsoever in reaching for a packet of frozen puff pastry, particularly when time is of the essence, but buy a good quality, all-butter one.
If you’re going to try your hand at one type of pastry today, make it shortcrust. This endlessly versatile pastry can be used in pies, tarts, and savouries, and can easily be transformed with the addition of chopped herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage or finely grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or tangy mature Cheddar. Wholemeal flour gives a lovely nutty flavour and coarse texture. Making shortcrust involves rubbing fat into flour (the fat coats the flour grains which arrests the development of gluten). You can do this with a food processor for speed or do it manually. To keep the mixture cool, use two cutlery knives to get the process started, only then switching to clean fingertips to rub in all the fat. Tip: giving the bowl a shake every now and then will lift any hidden clumps of fat to the surface.
Learn how to make choux pastry and your friends will love you for it. Think cheese gougères, chocolate éclairs and mountains of profiteroles filled with whipped cream. Choux pastry is quick to make and quite easy for the novice. When cooked, choux pastry puffs up to three times its original size to create hollow pastry shells – thank the steam created from the water and egg for their role in the recipe. They can then be filled with all manner of flavoured creams and custard. The recipe encourages the cook to think rather than blindly follow the recipe. The raw pastry should have “reluctant dropping consistency”, that is, it falls off the spoon to a slow count of six. The egg needs to be added little by little to achieve this; too little egg results in a poor rise; too much egg and the choux won’t hold its shape.
If you weren’t lucky enough to learn how to roll pastry by your granny’s side, rolling pastry neatly and efficiently may not come naturally. It’s never too late to learn. The method taught by Leiths Online Cookery School has you begin by ‘ridging’ your pastry disc with your rolling pin, rather than rolling it. So, holding the rolling pin loosely in both hands, tap it lightly over the surface of the pastry to flatten it, turning it 90 degrees at regular intervals, until the pastry diameter has doubled in size. Only then should you start to roll, using three short, sharp strokes rather than one long press. Use a light touch and watch that your dominant hand exert greater pressure on one side. Uniform thickness is the goal. A light dusting of flour is enough to prevent the pastry sticking to the work surface. You can flour the rolling pin too, but avoid flouring the pastry itself, as that leaves you with floury patches. Aim to work quickly so, as always, you’re not overworking the pastry.
Scones are one of the easiest teatime treats you can make if you want to learn to bake. You can have a batch ready in little more than 30 minutes if you work fast. They are made with the rubbing-in method. When mixing, the wet ingredients in with the dry ingredients, be careful not to knead or overwork the dough. Tip: dip the pastry cutter in flour first to prevent sticking, and cut firmly, avoiding twisting, to ensure an uneven rise. From one recipe, endless variations open up, both sweet and savoury, including herb, cheese, date, and sultana.
A classic Victoria sandwich, pale golden and airy, is the cake by which your baking prowess will be judged at the village fête. Leiths Online Cookery School’s teachers have years and years of experience baking this beloved teatime favourite, and have tips and tricks to share that will show you how to improve your baking skill. Here are a few. Ensure all the ingredients, especially the eggs, are at room temperature; add cold eggs and you risk curdling the mixture (adding a tablespoon of the flour to reverse it). Work fast: the baking powder in the self-raising flour is activated on contact with the liquid ingredients. When creaming the butter and sugar, the paler the better; this shows more air has been incorporated, producing a lighter, fluffier sponge. To know when the cake is ready, press the top gently with the fingertips; it will feel spongy to the touch, and not leave an indentation. To construct the cake at the end, warm the jam a little to make it more spreadable. If you can make a Victoria sponge, you can also make coffee and walnut cake, chocolate cake, and cherry and almond cake to name but a few.
As Elizabeth David once wrote, “everyone who cooks, however limited a way, should know how to make a loaf of soda bread.” Soda bread, as the estimable David knew, is one of the quickest, easiest breads there is. It needs none of that tiring kneading nor time-consuming proving as it’s leavened with chemical raising agents not yeast. Variations on the theme include adding raisins or sultanas, or fresh garden herbs. Tip: if you can’t track down any buttermilk, you can make an alternative using regular milk and cream of tartar or with regular milk that has been soured with lemon juice for 10-15 minutes.
It’s often said that cooking is an art, baking is a science. This is true – to an extent – but that doesn’t mean you need to resit your chemistry GCSE immediately. It is, however, worth gaining some understanding of gluten, as the presence of that protein will affect your bakes. What you need to know is that wheat flour contains gluten. Gluten starts to develop as soon as flour comes in contact with liquid. The difference between bread and pastry is that when making bread, you actually want to encourage gluten development (by kneading) in order to achieve an elastic texture and good crust.
When making pastry, you need to restrict gluten development in order to achieve short, tender pastry. When it comes to how to improve baking skills, bakers need both theory and practice. An understanding of the science behind each bake, will set you in good stead.
Don’t be slapdash. Weighing and measuring ingredients accurately is integral to your success. Invest in a decent pair of digital weighing scales and make sure you have spare batteries (as they have a habit of dying mid-recipe). If you’re getting really serious about it, you may even want some micro scales that can weigh in increments as small as 0.1g; handy for salt, spices, and dried yeast. When using measuring spoons, be sure to level off any excess for accuracy. “Guesstimations” and improvisations are not how to get better at baking.
In reality, most recipes call for variations on just seven categories of ingredient. What are the seven basic components of baking? The first is flour, which might be plain, self-raising or strong (for breadmaking). The second is a choice of leavening or raising agent, a category that includes fresh and dried yeast as well as baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Sugar is essential, not only for icings, glazes, and sweetening, but it’s often used to kickstart yeast in bread baking. Salt is used to season both sweet and savoury preparations; it also aids gluten development in bread baking. Liquid components in baking include milk and water; be sure they’re at the temperature stated in the recipe (whether hand hot, scalded or ice cold). Fats have the power to transform both flavour and texture; butter, lard, margarine, and vegetable oils are commonly used. Finally, the fun part: flavourings. These include extracts such as almond and vanilla, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and chilli, and those added extras like chocolate chips, fruits, and nuts.
Butter is the perfect fat for pastry, as it provides both flavour and shortness - that lovely rich, crumbliness the best pastry possesses. It also gives the best flavour in cakes. You can use salted butter but many chefs prefer unsalted butter for its fresher, cleaner flavour. Whether you choose salted or unsalted, be sure to adjust the seasoning to take salt content into consideration. Lard or vegetable shortening both provide shortness but are less flavoursome. You can use a combination of lard and butter in shortcrust; at Leiths Online, we use all butter. Margarine is an economical option but it softens quickly making it hard to work with for pastry. When it comes to buying flour, resist buying in bulk unless you get through it quickly. An opened bag of white flour will last three to six months; while whole grain flours have oils that spoil even more quickly than that. Store in a cool dark place in a sealed container. When making cakes, if you don’t have any self-raising flour, simply use plain flour with baking powder (two level teaspoons to 225g plain flour is what we suggest in our baking guide). Always use free-range, organic eggs if budget allows. That packet of dried yeast at the back of your cupboard, any idea how long it’s been there? Yeast quickly loses its superpowers as it ages. If in doubt, check it for liveliness before you commit to a big baking project. Dissolve a little in some warm water and milk and leave in a warm place for 10-15 minutes. If it becomes foamy, it’s passed the test.
Salt is the bread baker’s friend. We recommend a scant two teaspoons for every 500g of flour in your bread recipe. Don’t be tempted to cut it out; salt is needed to improve the flavour and encourage both gluten and crust development. Don’t, however, be tempted to add more; salt inhibits the action of the yeast.
Ensure ingredients are the correct temperature. For example, the butter for shortcrust should be chilled, and eggs should be room temperature. You can quickly bring fridge-cold eggs up to room temperature by putting them in a bowl of hand hot water for 10-15 minutes. To chill pastry before rolling, wrap it in cling film or a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes; chill it in the freezer if you’re short of time.
So you’re good, but how to get better at baking? By purchasing a high quality kit. The expensive cake tins are expensive for a reason; they transfer heat evenly and won’t buckle. Silicone utensils are more hygienic than wooden; and non-stick silicone baking mats are indispensable for biscuits and cookies. Electric stand mixers are expensive but an essential shortcut to acquiring professional baking skills at home.
Use all your senses to build up a memory bank of tastes, textures and aromas that will help you spot when something doesn’t feel quite right so you can make the necessary adjustments. The temperature of the room for example will affect proving times. You are learning all the time. The secret to how to get good at baking is practice, practice, practice.
Baking is great fun but it also opens up all sorts of serious career opportunities. Bakers are in demand everywhere from small retail outlets to vast commercial bakeries, from local cafés and coffee shops to Michelin star restaurants. You could even travel the world with your skills. You might be surprised by the opportunities open to talented bakers; dream jobs such as food-styling, food-writing, buying, and product development and tasting. What skills and competencies are required in baking? Creativity, organisation, time management, precision, dedication, perseverance…
If you have an entrepreneurial streak, you could go into business alone or with a friend, and even work from home. Lockdown revealed real resourcefulness on the part of the nation’s home bakers. Some launched sourdough delivery businesses to get freshly baked loaves to their neighbours; others made post-box brownies, bagels, crumpets, and cinnamon buns. And of course, there’s always a demand for celebration cakes. By recognising what you love to bake and by understating what others want you to bake, that’s how to get better at baking.
How to become a baker? There’s no better way to learn baking skills than under the expert tutelage of experienced professionals. With so many schools to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. First, consider what you want to get out of it. Do you want to learn some simple home baking skills so you can bake bread for the family, or do you want a course that will give you advanced techniques, professional baking skills and even accreditation? A good school whether online or IRL will offer courses tailored to all levels, from absolute beginners to advanced professional skills. Think also about how much time you can commit. Does the school offer you flexibility? Does it allow you to press pause when life gets in the way of your learning? Who will be teaching you? Are they experienced in teaching as well as in baking? What will they be teaching you? Just recipes, or the skills and techniques that will make you a better baker in the long run? A good course will help you understand why things work (or don’t work). It will teach you skills and techniques that you can transfer to new dishes of your own. It will empower you to be creative.
Not all online baking courses are created equal. Leiths Online Cookery School combines the best of in-person teaching with all the advantages of online learning. Wherever they are in the world, online students have access to a community of classmates; they also have a learning mentor, there to give valuable input, tailored feedback, and support. Add high quality step-by-step video tutorials and recipes, and you’ll find an education beyond what books can provide. What are the skills needed for baking? A good bread making course, for example, will take you from a basic white loaf or speedy soda bread to more challenging bakes such as sourdough and croissants. It should cover shaping so by the end you can roll perfect flatbread circles, form chewy New York style bagels, and twist notoriously tricky babka. There’s no limit to what you can learn. The best baking courses will teach a well-rounded repertoire of recipes both classical and contemporary; they might include humble British home baking traditions, artisan skills, or highly technical French patisserie. You could also experiment with wild yeast starters, chocolate, and elaborate decorations, as you gain confidence.
Leiths Online Cookery School runs three dedicated baking classes to suit all levels. For novice bakers, there’s Basics to Baker, a ten-week course, which, as the name suggests, teaches beginners everything they need to know about baking. It all starts with a pristine loaf of simple white bread, a great home bake; by the end, students will be shaping croissants and christening their sourdough starter. Beginners with a sweet tooth might want to try Introduction to Patisserie, a 12-week course that covers such show-stopping specialities as meringues, meringues, and petit fours. Finally for chefs, food professionals, and advanced home cooks; there’s the intensive 24-week Essential Bread and Patisserie Online Course which gets students stuck into notoriously tricky baking and pastry arts such as chocolate work, using gelatine, and sourdough baking. When you can look into your glossy mirror glaze and see a confident baker looking back at you, you know you’ve done it.
Discover how easy it is to learn with Leiths Online Cookery School by trying this FREE taster session from the Basics to Baker course.
In this 'Wholemeal Rolls' session, Leiths' Chef, Hannah, will guide you through precise techniques for making, kneading, shaping and proving your dough.