Growing up, my family didn’t do much “real” cooking. Most of our meals originated from boxes or take-out bags, as did our birthday cakes, brownies, and cookies. But during the holidays, suddenly the grocery cart was filled with flour and sugar, the good cookware was brought out from its year-long dormancy, and the house was steeped in the smell of home-baked delicacies. It was the only time of year I’d ever see real garlic, boiling potatoes, or our ancient can of baking powder. I think that our house was probably not so different from many others; my parents were usually too busy to cook from scratch, but during the holidays, they made time to make sure that we ate the real thing.
For many people, boxed brownies might suffice in May, but for the holidays, only the best will do—hand-rolled pie crusts, cookie cutters put to their intended use, and real, honest-to-goodness gravy. But when you only really cook once or twice a year, it’s easy for seasonal chefs to feel like they’re fumbling and stumbling in the kitchen. Ariel Jutkowitz, a pastry chef in San Francisco, has some tips to help any home baker or cook feel like a pro.
- When baking, the temperature of the ingredients is just as important as the temperature of the oven. Jutkowitz recommends that for breads and cakes, all ingredients should be at room temperature, especially eggs, since cold eggs won’t achieve the correct loft and volume when whisked, and might even prevent the finished product from rising properly. To warm up a cold egg, place it in warm water for ten to fifteen minutes, or leave it on the counter for up to an hour. “For pie dough, however, it’s important to have cold ingredients,” she says. “Cold butter will help create those flaky layers.”
- Sift together dry ingredients to make sure that everything is well blended. “This will ensure that there will be no lumps of baking powder or baking soda,” says Jutkowitz. She also recommends measuring out and preparing each ingredient before you start baking, so you’re not scrambling for something with one hand while stirring with the other. “Make sure you read the recipe all the way through before you start, so you can be sure you understand what to do and have all the necessary tools and equipment ready,” she says.
- Once you add flour to a recipe, don’t overmix. Even though an electric mixer might be easier and faster, gently blending the dough or batter by hand will yield a better result. When flour is mixed, the protein it contains develops into gluten, and too much gluten can make baked goods taste heavy and dense. For cakes, pies, and bars that are light and fluffy, mix the flour only until it’s just blended.
- “Try not to open the oven every five minutes,” says Jutkowitz. If you must peek, use the oven light to check progress, because the constant opening and closing of the oven door can wreak havoc on what’s inside. “Every time you open the oven you lose about twenty-five degrees,” she says. “This can cause cakes to fall, and will only cause the product to take longer to bake.”
- Although the holidays are a time when it’s tempting to try to impress friends and relatives with gourmet meals, don’t bite off more than you can chew. For holiday meals, don’t make your first attempt at cooking sous vide, use expensive and unfamiliar ingredients, or try any techniques you don’t fully understand. Try to improve on what you already know, and practice your advanced preparations for next year’s holiday dinner.
- “Clean up as you’re working,” recommends Jutkowitz. “Once you’re done with an ingredient, put it away. It’s easier and less stressful to work in a clean environment, and if your work area is cluttered, your mind will be too.” When the countertop is full of boxes, bags, and bowls, it’s more likely that you’ll grab the wrong thing or the wrong amount.
- Remember to taste as you go. It’s easy to add seasonings when a dish is still in process, but much less so once it’s done. Keep a tasting spoon handy to check on progress. Also, many home chefs make the mistake of underseasoning their food. Part of what makes restaurant fare so tasty is the liberal use of salt, pepper, and other herbs, and seasoning food as it’s cooking makes it more flavorful than letting people add their own spices later.
- Using fresh herbs is a great way to add homemade flavor to cooking, but be careful when chopping them. If you’re too vigorous, the flavor of the herbs will disappear as their oils seep into the cutting board. Minimize the herbs’ contact with the knife by only chopping enough to get them to the correct size.
- The ultimate kitchen gadget is a sharp knife, because it makes chopping and prepping infinitely easier. Many kitchen supply stores offer knife-sharpening surfaces, or you can invest in a handheld sharpener. When knives are honed, it doesn’t require as much effort to chop tomatoes or onions, or to butcher a chicken or turkey. Also, sharp knives won’t crush or gnarl your ingredients, and because they’re easier to control, they’re safer, too.
- Don’t stress out about lumps in the gravy. Instead of laboring over the stove trying to break them up, pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer just before serving. Any clumps of fat or flour will be left behind, and guests won’t know the difference.
Cooking is much more fun when you feel like you know what you’re doing, and with just a few tweaks, your once-a-year kitchen routine can feel more comfortable, natural, and productive. Even if you only pull out the springform pan during the month of December, you can feel like a pro if you follow these tips. Just remember—baking soda and baking powder are NOT the same thing.Updated December 17, 2010