Barefoot Contessa made its television debut when I was in high school, and like many of us, host Ina Garten taught me pretty much everything I know about throwing fabulous dinner parties, mixing festive cocktails, and mastering the art of the perfect roast. But where she really stood out was in her baking. To this day she keeps it simple, preferring to serve a perfect pound cake made with good vanilla over any sort of fancy peppered passion fruit mille-feuille or similar concoction that takes more effort to make than it’s worth. Over the years, Garten’s best baking tips have stuck with me. I also follow the “Ask Ina” section of her website, where she answers user-submitted questions and offers up her cooking advice. The next time you start to feel uncertain when whipping up a batch of chocolate chip cookies or a birthday-worthy chocolate cake, just ask yourself “What would Ina do?” — chances are, she has the answer.
1. Always use the “good” vanilla
Garten always stresses the importance of using “good” ingredients, from vanilla to olive oil to cocoa powder. But she also says that “good” doesn’t have to mean prohibitively expensive. “It doesn’t have to be the most expensive bottle on the shelf to be ‘good,’ and you can always ask for recommendations from someone at your local grocery store or specialty food store,” she shared in “Ask Ina.”
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Cake overly browned? Cut off the worst parts and cover it in frosting. Cheesecake cracked? Top it with plenty of berries and no one will know. Garten knows that the essence of baking is sharing something delicious with the people you care about, not concocting a flawless confection that looks like it could be on the cover of a magazine. Don’t let obsessing over the small details get in the way of enjoying your creations with the people you love.
3. Use your oven racks wisely
Does it really matter where you place your oven racks? Yes, it turns out. For the best results when baking, Garten says you should always place your pan in the exact middle of the oven. Using two cookie sheets or sheet pans? Space the oven racks evenly, so that both pans cook at the same rate.
4. Manage your time
One of Garten’s trademarks in the kitchen is that when she has guests over, she’s never stuck by the oven while they enjoy themselves in the dining room (or better yet, garden) sans host. That’s because she meticulously plans her cooking adventures so that almost everything is done before people come over. Work backward from when people will arrive to figure out how long you’ll need to decorate, cool, and bake your treats, so you can have everything ready to go when your guests show up.
5. Freeze baked goods before, not after, baking
One of the best ways to save time in the kitchen is to make double batches of your favorite treats, freezing one of them for another day. But instead of freezing freshly baked goods and thawing later, Garten recommends that you freeze the dough before you bake it. When you’re ready to make some treats, let the dough thaw, then bake it as usual.
6. Salt matters
Different salts have different volumes and tastes, which can affect the flavor of your foods. Garten recommends using Diamond Crystal kosher salt in all of her recipes, and she never uses table salt because it can have a metallic taste.
7. Measure everything
She may be easygoing, but even Garten makes sure to measure everything carefully when baking. Too little or too much of any one ingredient could cause the treats to bake poorly, so make sure you scoop and level everything according to your recipe.
8. Coffee makes chocolate better
How do you make chocolate taste even more chocolatey? Garten has a trick. She usually includes espresso or instant coffee in her chocolate recipes. The robust, roasted flavor of the coffee enhances the same notes in the cocoa, for an extra indulgent dessert.
9. A little lemon never hurts
What to do when your sweets keep turning out a little too sweet? Garten suggests adding lemon. A touch of lemon juice in your glaze, filling, or frosting, or a grating of lemon zest in the batter or dough of your treat can help balance out the sugar.
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