Since lockdown began, many of us have spent more time in the kitchen than ever before. If you’ve developed an interest in baking in the past few months, you might have already tried making some of our favourite baking recipes – but what if you want to take your skills to the next level? While it’s a creative process, baking can also be pretty technical, and learning to master a few key skills can soon take you from baking beginner to connoisseur. From learning how to score bread, to making mouthwatering macarons, here are 8 technical baking skills you can learn at home.
1. Learn to make dough
Of all of the baking skills out there, being able to make your own dough from scratch is perhaps the most versatile. Once you’ve mastered the art of dough making, a whole world of baking opens up to you – you can cook homemade pizza, bread, doughnuts, pies, rolls…the list is endless, and delicious. Plus, as an added bonus, kneading dough is a pretty good workout for your arms, wrists and hands!
There are lots of different types of dough, and the technique for making pizza dough can differ from making dough for a loaf of bread – and then, of course, there are more complex doughs, like sourdough bread, which involve a more intricate technique. But once you know how to knock up a simple dough, you’ll soon be able to progress and develop your skills.
All you need to make dough is water, sugar, yeast, flour and salt. The exact measurements vary depending on how much you want to make, but the process remains the same: mix together the warm water, sugar and yeast, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Then add flour and salt to the mix, knead until smooth, and then let the dough raise for 10 minutes. At this stage you can work the dough into the correct shape for the type of bread you’re making (e.g. pizza, a loaf, etc), before letting it sit for another 10 minutes before baking (the temperature and duration of baking will depend on what exactly you’re making).
For more detailed instructions on making dough, have a look at this guide to making quick and easy dough – or if you have a sweet tooth, these glazed doughnuts are simple to make and delicious. YouTube is also chock-full of helpful tutorial videos.
For anyone interested in getting started with a simple pizza dough, you can watch the video below.
Or if you’re looking for more of a challenge then you might want to try your hand at making sourdough bread – this beginner’s guide is a great place to start.
Macarons can look so beautiful that many bakers never attempt them. It’s true that macarons can be tricky to make… that’s why they’re so expensive! But if you’re skilled in the kitchen and fancy a challenge, macarons might be the perfect way to develop your skills. Even if you’re a baking beginner, with a bit of patience and practice, and perhaps a few attempts, you can still master the macaron. And once you bite into these tasty goodies, with their crunchy exterior and soft inside, all your hard work will pay off. The fact that these treats make the perfect present is just an added bonus.
The main ingredients for macarons are almond flour, confectioners’ sugar, and egg whites, and you can fill them with anything you fancy: caramel sauce (see above), chocolate ganache, lemon curd, etc. Because making macarons is a very precise process, we won’t lay it all out here – and this step-by-step guide tells you all you need to know. Just be careful to measure all your ingredients very carefully, as there isn’t much room for error if you want to have picture perfect macarons to show off. To find out more, you can watch this tutorial video below.
3. Learn to caramelise sugar
If you have a sweet tooth, you’re probably well aware of just how delicious caramelised sugar is. Whether you’re biting into a crispy crème brûlée or savouring sweet caramel sauce, caramelised sugar can upgrade a dessert to a new level of lusciousness. Many people are apprehensive about trying to make caramelised sugar, but while the technique might seem daunting, the process itself is actually very simple – and watching snow white sugar transform into a golden brown liquid is pretty magical. Once you master it, you can use it in many different ways and your dessert repertoire will be considerably more alluring. You can practice by making salted caramel sauce, or this beautiful chocolate caramel tart.
To make caramel, just pour golden caster sugar into a solid saucepan. Place the pan on a medium heat, and leave it for around four to six minutes until the sugar starts to melt and liquify around the edges. Don’t be tempted to stir it before this, but once it starts to melt around the sides, give the pan a shake and leave it again until around a quarter of the sugar has melted. Then, use a wooden spoon to stir it gently until the sugar crystals have liquefied and there’s nothing stuck to the back of the spoon.
Continue to stir now and then until the melted sugar turns the colour of dark honey – this should take around 10-15 minutes. Then, remove the pan from the heat and add two tablespoons of water (it might splutter a bit here, so be very careful!). Finally, put the pan back on a gentle heat and stir to remove any lumps that form. And that’s it – a perfect caramel sauce! You can find out more about the science behind caramelising sugar, the exact measurements, and different ways you can use it, here – or alternatively, watch the video below.
4. Learn to make pastry
Pastry and dough might seem similar, but they’re not the same. It might be helpful to see pastry as the finished product, whereas dough is a work in progress that goes into the oven as dough, and comes out as bread. Dough is also very malleable, which means it’s worked in a totally different way – plus it usually contains a raising agent like yeast, whereas pastry doesn’t. But just as being able to make your own dough opens up a new world of baking possibilities, so does being able to make your own pastry.
Tarts, pies, puddings or quiches…there’s a pastry recipe to suit every palate. There are also plenty of different types of pastry: puff, shortcrust, filo, choux and flaky. If you’re a beginner, it might be best to learn to master shortcrust pastry first. This is the simplest form of pastry, but according to Delia Smith, it’s one of the best pastries of all. Because it has a light, crisp crust, it’s perfect for pies and quiches, and has a lovely melt-in-the-mouth flavour. If you want some inspiration for how to use shortcrust pastry, have a look at these tasty recipe ideas.
Shortcrust pastry is made from flour (1 cup approx), butter or margarine (½ cup approx), and water (a tbsp) – that’s it. All you need to do is sift the flour into a bowl, add the butter or margarine, and rub it in until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Then, add the water, a little at a time, and shape with your hands until it all comes together. Wrap the dough in cling-film and chill for about 15 minutes before using, then roll out with a rolling pin and follow your chosen recipe.
Have a look at this shortcrust pastry recipe if you want more guidance or watch the video below.
If you’re already pretty confident with making pastry, then you can test out your skills by having a go at making light, fluffy choux pastry – perfect for dainty treats like eclairs, profiteroles.
Alternatively, you might want to try this recipe for making filo pastry.
5. Learn to score bread
If you’re serious about learning to bake bread, making the perfect dough is just the first step. After you’ve shaped the bread, you then need to score it. Not all breads are scored – loaves baked in pans often aren’t – but if you’re baking free-form, scoring is important. Scoring simply means cutting into a loaf of bread before it’s baked. It helps prevent the bread from splitting, and controls the direction the bread will expand in as it bakes. Plus, it makes your homemade bread look even more beautiful.
Like many technical baking skills, there’s an art to scoring. The pattern of the cuts, the angles at which they’re scored, and their depth all affects how the bread expands, and how the “ear” forms – the raised edge of crust beside a cut. There are lots of traditional ways to score bread, but scoring can be very creative – some bakers compare looking at their unscored bread to an artist looking at a blank canvas. You can score stars, leaves, flowers geometric shapes… if you want inspiration, check out the tutorial video below on how to score different patterns on bread.
If you’re just starting out, it might be best to begin with more simple designs, but whatever you score, it’s important to use the correct knife. Blades for scoring should be very sharp and thin, and you should let the knife do the work. Try to make quick, confident cuts that are still gentle – and try not to press on the dough. It’s helpful to dip the blade in water in between cuts, particularly if you’re working with sticky dough. On your first attempt, your loaf might not come out of the oven looking quite as elaborate as you’d hoped, but do remember, it’s all about practice.
To find out more, have a read of this helpful guide on scoring techniques, or watch this detailed video below.
6. Learn to make fondant
Many bakers begin their baking journey with cakes. Almost anyone can tackle a simple sponge cake, but decorating the cake can be much more complicated. If you’re dreaming of making cakes that are as beautiful as they are tasty, you might want to consider learning how to make fondant. Fondant is made using icing sugar, but unlike traditional icing, which is in a liquid form, fondant is workable and can be rolled into pretty shapes and figures. You can also roll it out to use it as a thick layer of icing to cover an entire cake – it looks far more professional than just using icing sugar and water.
Fondant is traditionally made by boiling sugar, water and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) until the syrup reaches the ‘soft-ball stage’. This is the point where you can begin kneading it into a dough, and adding colours and flavourings, before shaping it into your desired figures or shapes. However, recently many bakers have been swapping more traditional fondant recipes for a recipe with a more modern twist: marshmallow fondant. Marshmallow fondant is easier to make and shape, and according to most bakers, it’s much tastier too. If you need any further inspiration, have a look at some of the beautiful creations you can make with marshmallow fondant.
All you need to make marshmallow fondant is icing sugar, shop-bought mini marshmallows and water – food colourings and flavourings are all optional. Simply microwave the marshmallows until they’re puffy (usually for a minute), then stir until they melt (it’s best to use a rubber spatula for this so it doesn’t stick to your spoon). If you’re adding colours or flavours to your fondant, now’s the time to add them – and then add the sugar until the mixture is thick and impossible to stir any more. Then, empty out the mix and knead it like dough until it’s smooth and non-sticky. It’s then ready to shape. You can find out more about marshmallow fondant, as well as exact measurements, here.
7. Learn to temper chocolate
If you’re a chocoholic – or want to treat someone who is – then perhaps the most valuable baking skill you can learn is how to temper chocolate. Tempering chocolate is the process of heating and then cooling chocolate to enhance its texture, taste, and shine. If you like chocolate, you’ll love tempered chocolate. It has a lovely glossy appearance, feels firm, and breaks with a satisfying snap. Plus it melts smoothly in your mouth. If you want to make a chocolate cake, truffles or ganache, or surprise a loved one with chocolate-dipped strawberries, learning to temper chocolate will be a very valuable skill.
The tempering process is quite simple – you just melt the chocolate, allow it to cool until crystals of cocoa butter form, then warm it back up to a temperature you can work with. However, you do need to be precise to get it right. If the chocolate isn’t tempered correctly, the crystallisation process of the cocoa butter will be uneven, and you might be left with tacky, chewy chocolate with pale streaks running through it. To learn from the experts, have a read of this excellent chocolate tempering guide, complete with a tutorial video, here.
If you want to know why tempering chocolate offers more possibilities than simply melting chocolate, have a watch of this interesting video – and if you’re interested in the science behind the tempering process, you might find this Guardian article interesting.
8. Learn to bake vegan treats
The rise of veganism is impossible to ignore, and whether you’re interested in plant-based eating for health, environmental or ethical reasons – or you simply want to bake for a vegan friend – there’s never been a better time to learn. Because eggs, milk and butter are such an integral part of ‘normal’ baking, it’s easy to think that it’s impossible to make moist cakes, or creamy pies without using any ingredients derived from animals. But thankfully, this isn’t the case.
Often all you need to make a vegan version of a recipe is to simply use plant milk instead of cow’s milk, or to use margarine instead of butter (interestingly, most ready-made pastries, like the JusRoll brand, are vegan). Replacing eggs isn’t always quite as simple, but you’ll be amazed at the plant-based alternatives – from making an ‘egg’ out of flaxseed or chia seeds, to using aquafaba (the liquid in a can of chickpeas). Getting to grips with vegan baking will open your eyes to a whole new world of baking.
Have a read of this in-depth beginner’s guide to vegan baking, or get inspired with some delicious vegan cake recipes here. If you want to learn more, you can enrol for this free vegan baking course which teaches you vegan baking skills for beginners. You’ll learn about food science (why our food looks, tastes, and smells the way it does) and see how to knock up plenty of tasty plant-based treats, from cakes to cookies and icing. Take a look at this video if you want to see how easy and appetising plant-based baking can be.
Baking is a skill that you can constantly learn and develop. As soon as you’ve mastered the perfect sponge cake, you can start to think about how you can decorate it to make it even more special. Then, when you’ve nailed the art of flaky shortcrust pastry, you might want to challenge yourself to try the notoriously tricky choux pastry. This is the beauty of baking. It’s an adventure and learning journey you can explore for the rest of your life.
Like any skill, you need to put in patience and practice, but the benefits of baking are enormously satisfying. Making delicious baked goods from scratch is rewarding and meditative, and surprising loved ones with homemade treats is a wonderfully personal gift. And of course, sampling the fruits of your labours along the way is just an added, but very welcome, perk!