Years ago, I asked the question “When did you learn to cook?” Over 100 of you chimed in and it was truly inspiring to hear all the stories. My first pivotal baking memory was the summer of my 8th grade year when my mom put me in charge of baking Zucchini Bread (all summer long.)
I learned so much about baking that summer. I realized that baking is essentially a chemistry experiment. And while I am horrible at science, I can mix with the best of them. I understand that mixing together ingredients in a specific order will cause reactions that produce specific effects.
In our home, I hope those reactions are amazing because after all that work, I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. After years of baking, there are still many things to learn and picking the brain of some of the top chefs was fascinating. Believe it or not, some of the simplest tips are the most critical when it comes to getting Southern Living quality results (more of that in a second.)
My blog has introduced me to so many neat experiences and visiting the Southern Living Headquarters as a special correspondent for Delta Faucet has been a highlight. Their campus is nestled amidst the woods and streams of Birmingham and it’s a breathtaking facility.
Having lived in the South for nearly 20 years, I truly appreciate the history of how Southern Living Magazine has helped shape the culture for the last 50 years. I was most excited to take a sneak peak behind the scenes of how their Test Kitchen works, as well as enjoy their food photography set up.
Let’s just take a quick spin behind one of the country’s most loved magazines before I share my baking tips.
Understanding a bit of what goes into food photography, I always assume that the best photo shoots include elaborate studios and set ups. Not so for the majority of Southern Living’s Cover Shots which include food.
While their teams goes on location often, I just loved seeing this corner of their building.
One of the most important aspects of great photography is the natural light.
You can’t duplicate that, so when they realized that this unplanned corner of their office was a dream shooting spot, they brought the equipment and props to the corner.
Is it is weird to share that I would have been perfectly ok to bring a cot into their prop room and call it my new home?
Seriously, my narrow lens camera couldn’t capture the rows and rows of every possible color, texture, cups, plates, cake stands, napkins, tablecloths, aprons.. and what not that nestled in this little piece of heaven. There was even a corner with all chippy wood tables, perfect for backgrounds.
(Sigh) It was a food blogger’s dream.
We then spent some time in the Southern Living Test Kitchen for lunch. We sampled upcoming recipes, gathered around their large table and participated in one of their brainstorming sessions. It’s right here that every single recipe in their magazine is developed and tested.
There’s a reason that recipes found in their magazine turn out well. They’ve been baked, cooked and tested 4-5 times with multiple testers following the same directions. We tried a cake that will be featured in an upcoming issue and honestly, when I took a bite, it was good, but not great. Dare I give that feedback when they asked? Because they did ask. They wanted to know. I was thrilled when a few of the other full time pastry chefs chimed in that it was missing something. YES! My palette was on track. 🙂
The chefs go back and forth making changes and adjustments before it’s retested. So when you have the inclination to make changes to any recipe, please don’t ask afterwards why it didn’t turn out. You are the one that made changes and I guarantee, that their recipe works.
All their videos are shot right here. I love seeing behind the scenes.
The girls in the above picture are trying out the amazing Delta Touch2O Faucets. Delta is the innovator in this entire line of touch sensory products and they are by far, the best faucets out there. I had the privilege of visiting their headquarters last year and their emphasis on family, community building, and an all around passion for making Delta one of the best places to work was truly inspiring. So many of their employees have been there 15, 20, 25 years. That makes for quite a legacy.
Since so many readers have asked for me to do more videos, I’m thinking a big kitchen studio like this would work quite nicely. 😉
Without further ado, here are some of the most important Baking Tips to ensure that those cakes, breads and cookies will turn out Southern Living worthy every time. Many things can go wrong when you bake from scratch but if you follow these simple tips, you’ll never make the same mistakes again.
8 Important Tips for Baking Success
Spoon, don’t scoop, your Flour.
Robby Melvin, the director of the kitchen, mentioned that this was something he only learned once he left his job as a top chef. Like myself, he had always been a scooper. Yes, I always scoop the measuring cup into the flour, but this can lead to inaccurate measuring.
It’s important to be precise with measurements. Measure any dry ingredient by spooning it lightly into a dry measuring cup, letting it mound slightly. Then level it with a spatula or knife. Depending on how tightly flour is packed into a measuring cup, you can end up with double the amount intended. Now top pastry chefs would say that weight is the only accurate way to measure flour, but I sold my scale at a yard sale. I admit, I’m a bit too lazy to weigh my flour.
Do Not Overmix the Batter.
The harder you mix, the more chance you have of your baked goods turning tough. Mix ingredients just until flour is no longer visible or just until eggs are blended. This goes for muffins, cakes, quick breads etc. A light hand makes for light baked goods.
Use Name-Brand Ingredients.
This frugal girl had to settle down and think through this tip for a few minutes. I am the queen of store/off brands, unless name brands are on sale, yet they couldn’t stress the importance of quality butter, flour and sugar in the baking process. I’ve come to a happy medium. Right now, my fridge has Land O Lakes butter for baking, but off brand butter butter for cooking. I’ll stock up on the brand names over the next few weeks when they go on sale.
I wondered about sugar, but with research, I found that store brands of sugar are often more finely ground than name brands, yielding more sugar per cup, which can cause the cake to fall. Store brands of butter may contain more liquid fat or flours more hard wheat, making the cake heavy.
Choose the Right Flour
Believe it or not, I often grind my own grain (one of my first posts). I know visions of Little House on the Prairie dance in your head, but I’ve learned the huge variations in flour. Different flours contain varying percentages of protein—the more protein, the more gluten. Cake flour has the least protein and yields extra-light baked goods, like angel food cake. Bread flour has the most and is used for denser items; all-purpose is in the middle and produces tender cakes.”
Know Your Oven
Pay attention to your oven and how it cooks. Yes, shouldn’t they all cook the same? But they don’t. In fact, I have an oven only four years old and it’s SO OFF!! I really need a new one, but the budget isn’t quite there yet. Some ovens cook hotter, some cook cooler and this will affect the cook times of a baking recipe. To prevent an under- or overdone cake, get an oven thermometer—it’s the best way to be sure your oven is calibrated correctly. Make sure you are gentle when you open and close the oven door—a hard slam can release air bubbles trapped in the batter.
Have Ingredients at Room Temperature.
Recipes often call for eggs, butter and milk to be at room temperature, but we skip this step. Just say no to skipping this step. It seems like a minor thing, but it will have a huge impact on your final product. Cold ingredients don’t incorporate evenly to bond, nor do batters come together smoothly. It makes for dense, hard baked goodies. A side by side comparisons of two batters will encourage you that this step is worth it.
Follow the Recipe!
Follow the directions EXACTLY. Can I shout this from the rooftop? One of the things food bloggers chuckle at the most are the very long comments we receive about why our recipes do not work, followed by the long list of changes that were attempted. I loved hearing that Southern Living has the same problem. They actually have a hot line just to field calls about why recipes don’t work and 99% were because the readers made substitutions. Margarine for butter. Skim milk for cream etc etc. Southern Living tests recipes 4-5 times. I don’t, but I do retest. There’s a chance that something could be off with a recipe of mine, but never with SL. 😉
With everything from beating ingredients to cooking the final product, patience is a virtue. Even s step like beating softened butter (or cream cheese or vegetable shortening) can take from anywhere from 1 to 7 minutes, depending on the power of your mixer. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until light and fluffy. These steps are so important because they whip air into the cake batter so it will rise during baking. I hurry through these things often and I have to realize that taking a few extra minutes of my time makes the final product that much better.
Thanks for joining me on my behind the scene tour of the Southern Living Test Kitchen
I hope you enjoyed a few of the baking tips I’ve learned over the years, as well as some great reminders from the Southern Living masters.
I’d love to hear some of your favorite baking tips!
Many thanks to the amazing Delta Faucet company for this amazing experience. While I was not compensated for my time or post, they hosted the trip and will also be giving away an amazing Touch2O Faucet on my blog so stayed tuned. You will LOVE it!