I didn’t set out to enjoy baking, but somewhere between the sifting and the parchment paper I found a new way to show love. I decided to bake cookies from scratch for the very first time when I was trying to find my groove after a major life change. It was a daunting task — all that flour, unsalted butter, mixing, and rolling — but the end result was magical. When I slapped some icing on the top of my sugar cookies, my family thought I had really arrived.
It was a simple and imperfect start, but I quickly learned the act of baking is one that delivers joy in its most basic form. From that day on, sugar cookies became my thing, and each batch I made got better and better — I reached pro level when I began switching out vanilla extract for almond and even using parchment paper to help those cookies keep their shape.
So whether you’re a beginner baker or you’ve just had some bad luck when it comes to getting muffins to rise (I see you, blueberry!), we’ll explore some of the best tips and tricks to know before you start baking.
Prep is key
The real means to success when it comes to baking is preparation. And purchasing some basic tools and ingredients simply makes the whole process easier. Aluminum pans for cookies, tins for muffins and cupcakes, cake molds and the appropriate measuring utensils will help prepare you for whatever you choose to make.
Do you need the Kitchen Aid mixer? Yes and no. It works wonders on a batch of cookies, especially when you don’t have to do all that mixing by hand. A handheld mixer is much cheaper, though, and can mix quickly and efficiently, too. Invest in quality when it comes to pieces that you know you will use, like a good spatula, mixing bowls, or even a weighted rolling pin — those are items you’ll use every time you bake.
Follow the recipe
If cooking were a music genre, it would definitely be jazz, while baking would be more classical.
When cooking, there is a lot of a “pinch-here, pinch-there” talk, meaning that there is more room to add a spice or change a recipe depending on personal preferences. In baking, however, exactness and order matter, because those precise measurements allow the cookies to rise or the cake to bake — even the use of additional flour or sugar can change the consistency of your treats.
Feeling pressure? Don’t worry — with the right tools and a careful eye, you can create with very little error.
That being said, a good rule of thumb for those beginning to bake is to follow the recipe exactly. Read through the steps a few times before you start to get a handle on the preparations and then execute. Sometimes, it seems pointless to mix the wet ingredients separate from the dry ingredients before combining, but that step is important in making sure the dry ingredients are sifted properly. Following directions can make the difference between a good product and a great product.
Patience and chill
Baking is all about being patient, too. It’s the waiting game, and you have to basically play to win. Don’t cut corners if the recipe calls for the unsalted butter to be at room temperature. And when the recipe calls for the dough to be chilled, don’t skip that step — it makes a huge difference in the quality of your finished product. (Pro-tip: cutout cookies keep their shape better if they are refrigerated before being baked.)
The most important factor is time: it’s important to make time to bake. Unlike cooking, where you can leave sauce to simmer or spices to seep into a soup, baking is more time-sensitive, especially when it’s time to get that cake out of the oven! Clear a morning or afternoon, and practice a recipe that you’d like to try. Patience is the real ingredient to achieving better results.
Mistakes are the best part of the baking process, because it’s here that we discover what works best. Try baking the chocolate chip cookies with more butter or less and see what happens. Or take the flour out of the chocolate cake and find the substitutes to make it gluten-free. Once you’ve mastered the original recipe, you can easily make it your own by adding or subtracting ingredients.
I like to call most of my baking episodes happy accidents, because it’s usually in my mistakes that I find a baking win. I hope you can also have some happy accidents, too.
Baking should be something that brings joy to you and those around you — especially if you are the only resident taste-tester in your home. Here are some further tips and tricks to cultivate in your baking endeavors:
- Parchment paper or silicone baking mats help cookies to keep their shape.
- Use powdered sugar to roll out cookie dough instead of flour.
- Baking powder and baking soda change the consistency of a cookie. More baking powder makes cake-like cookies, and more baking soda makes denser cookies.
- Melted butter also makes cookies denser, while creamed butter makes cookies more cake-like.
- Light brown sugar and dark brown sugar have different flavors — dark brown tastes more like molasses.
- Don’t want to make a whole batch of cookies? Freeze extra dough and make only a dozen at a time. That way you always have the option to easily prepare warm, fresh cookies for dessert or visiting guests.
From one amateur baker to another, good luck!
Rolled Sugar Cookie Recipe
This is the first cookie recipe I ever made. Not only are these cookies quick and simple to whip up, they are fluffy and delicious with or without icing — they’re basically fail-proof. They are my go-to party dessert and make an impressive showing, despite being easy to bake!
1 cup of unsalted butter
3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 cup of granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (though I prefer almond extract)
Using a Kitchen Aid mixer with a paddle attachment or a handheld mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Then add the sugar and beat the butter and sugar together until combined.
Next add in the egg and the vanilla (or almond) extract and beat again until everything is combined.
Add the flour and baking powder to the mix. I like to pulse the mixer when the flour is added so that the flour doesn’t fly everywhere. By doing this, you can mix in a full cup of flour at a time.
Once the dough forms, collect it into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap, then chill in the fridge for 15 to 30 minutes.
When you pull out the dough from the refrigerator, preheat your oven to 375°F.
Next, roll the dough on a flour surface or on parchment paper. I prefer to keep this dough on the thicker side (one-half-inch) for my cutouts, so I don’t roll the dough super-thin (quarter-inch).
Lay the cutouts evenly on a cookie tray lined with parchment paper.
Bake at 375°F for 6 to 9 minutes. If your cookies are thicker, like mine, they tend to require more time to bake — around 9–10 minutes.
Once cooked and cooled, you can ice your cookies with frosting. Full disclosure: I use store-bought icing. The Wilton’s brand is great, because it’s easily applicable and it dries quickly, too.
Lastly, be prepared to make more batches of these cookies, because family and friends will certainly request them for your next event!