Baking up flaky pastries, featherlight biscuits and ribbon-worthy cakes is easy with a good recipe and the right kitchen tools. If you browse in a kitchenwares shop, you might imagine that you need specialized gadgets with impressive bells and whistles-nothing could be farther from the truth! You’ll be surprised how few pieces of equipment you really need to bake, and how simple many of them are! (Simple can be best: I’m still using my grandmother’s wooden spoon.)
I polled the expert chefs in the Taste of Home Test Kitchen to share their essential tools for baking:
Baking is all about precision. These tools ensure that you’re making a recipe correctly, yielding successful bakes. (Don’t think you can bake? These easy bread recipes will prove you wrong.)
While you may get away with eyeballing amounts in everyday cooking, baking is more precise: Too much salt or baking soda can significantly change the texture, flavor or rise of your final product.
Measuring spoons come in graduated sets, usually 1/4, 1/2 and 1 teaspoon, and 1/2 and 1 tablespoon increments. They’re crucial for measuring small amounts of dry or liquid ingredients. I have both metal and plastic sets. I took the plastic set apart so I don’t have to wash the entire set if I only need 1/2 teaspoon of something for a recipe. Look for narrow measuring spoons that can fit into spice jars.
Taste of Home Deputy Editor James Schend says, “I always weigh my dry goods (flour, sugar, cornmeal, etc.). I never use cup measures.” Measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume will give you the most consistent results. Digital scales are the easiest to use. Just put a bowl or dish on the scale to set the weight, zero it out, then add your ingredients.
Pyrex Measuring Cups
James depends on Pyrex measuring cups in 1-, 2-, 4- and 8-cup sizes for liquid measuring. They can double as mixing bowls in a pinch. (Did you know you should measure dry and liquid ingredients differently? Here’s the scoop.)
Non-Essential but Darn Handy: Plunger-Style Measuring Cup
Need to measure sticky or gooey ingredients like peanut butter, honey, mayo or sour cream? Taste of Home Lead Test Cook Nick Iverson swears by a plunger-style measuring cup. Rather than measuring from the bottom up like in a regular cup, you’ll find the numbers marked in ascending order from the top down. Simply pull the interior plunger down to the desired measurement, add your ingredient (because the container is clear you can see and fill in air pockets), level it off, and push the plunger up to squeeze it out. No more trying to scoop those traces of peanut butter from the bottom edges of a cup!
Many recipes call for dry and wet ingredients to be mixed separately and then combined, so you’ll need more than one bowl for baking. A three-bowl set in 1-1/2 quart, 2-1/2 quart and 4–5 quart sizes should handle most kitchen tasks. Err on the side of larger bowls, as you want room to mix without worrying that ingredients will splash out. Look for deep bowls that can accommodate a hand mixer and have a flat base for stability. A pour spout is handy, but not essential.
A spatula is great for folding in egg whites, mixing ingredients, and scraping down the sides of your mixing bowl to get every last drop of delicious batter. Go for silicone, which is more heat-resistant than rubber and won’t mar your non-stick pots and pans. Silicone is also non-porous, so it won’t retain odors or colors. Check to make sure it’s dishwasher safe for easy cleanup.
Stand mixers are great, but you can get by without one if you have a high-quality hand mixer. “While I love my stand mixer,” James says, “more often than not I’m reaching for my hand mixer because it’s easier and I don’t want to haul out the stand mixer.“ If your kitchen space or budget is limited, know that you can easily survive with a good hand-held model. These will cream butter and sugar together or beat egg whites to a froth in no time.
Taste of Home Test Cook Matthew Haas always reaches for his French-style rolling pin-it has tapered ends and no handles-instead of a standard rolling pin for several reasons. “You’ll have greater control when rolling out dough because your hands are touching the pin-you can feel more keenly what’s happening. The point is to roll, not squish, the dough out from the center, and the tapered ends prevent the dough’s edges from becoming too thin and tearing.” (If you don’t make pies, you probably don’t need a rolling pin. But then again, why don’t you make pies?)
No, this isn’t a wood-working device. This multi-purpose tool is one of Matthew’s favorites. He uses it for cutting dough (and baked brownies!) into portions, transferring delicate cutout cookie dough from the counter to a baking sheet, transferring chopped ingredients into a bowl, scraping the counter to clean off flour, leveling ingredients, and even smoothing out frosting on the side of a cake. It has a wide, flat blade with a handle across the top, and functions like an extension of your hand.
Non-Essential but Darn Handy: Balloon Whisk
One of the many reasons we love her, Julia Child is credited with introducing whisks to North American cooks, and while there are several different types, Nick and Matthew recommend a sturdy balloon whisk. Imagine a hot air balloon made of crossing wires attached together at the base, then attached to a long handle, and you get the idea. Use a balloon whisk to blend dry ingredients together and, with a little elbow grease, whip air into egg whites and whipping cream to create frothy peaks.
Don’t spend all afternoon whipping up a beautiful pie only to have it burn to a crisp in the oven because the temperature was off. Not all ovens are perfectly calibrated, especially if they’re older-mine tends to run 5–10 degrees hotter than the setting. An oven thermometer tells you the actual temperature inside so you can adjust your bake time or heat setting accordingly.
Baking chocolate chip cookies is a staple of any home cook, so you’ll need a baking sheet. (Tip: Buy two so you can swap out batches of cookies, letting one cool as the other bakes.) They’re also a great surface for spreading out brittle and bark candies to cool. Save on messy oven cleanup by placing a baking sheet on the rack below a pie plate or under a springform pan to catch any spillover. To invert the contents of a pan (angel food cake or upside down cake, for example), place a baking sheet on top of the pan and flip over.
To wow your guests with a beautiful tiered chocolate cake, you’ll need two or three 8- or 9-inch cake pans (and grease them correctly for good results). Warm loaves of homemade bread call for one or two 9×5 loaf pans. You’ll also find an 8- or 9-inch square, a 9×13 rectangle, and a rimmed 15x10x1 baking pan handy. Non-stick metal pans make life easier. (Note that the darker the non-stick surface, the faster things cook, so watch closely.) And you can’t make a classic apple pie without a 9-inch pie plate.
Placing baked goods on a cooling rack allows air to circulate more evenly and therefore cool more evenly. Nick and Matthew find that the grid style works better than the bar style because it supports the food better and small cookies won’t fall through. If you only purchase one size, Nick likes the type that fits into a 15x10x1-rimmed baking pan because it’s handy for cooking as well as baking. (For a neat trick, peel, halve and pit an avocado and lay it face down on the counter. Press the gridded cooling rack down through the flesh for instant cubed avocado.)
Nick and Matthew agree that to get smooth, professional-looking frosting you need a small offset spatula. This long, narrow tool has a flat, thin, blunt blade on one end that’s offset below the handle, has a large surface area perfect for spreading, and is flexible enough for detail work. (It also helps keep your sleeves out of the frosting!) Its thin, flat blade is useful for running around the edge of a pan to loosen a cake, cupcakes or muffins.
Non-Essential but Darn Handy: Pie Crust Shield
To bake perfect pies, Nick finds his aluminum pie crust shield indispensable. If crusts are browning too quickly,and the middle of the pie still needs to set, place one of these over the edges of the crust to save the day. Most fit on an 8- or 9-inch pie pan, and there are adjustable versions for even greater flexibility. The shield also comes in handy when blind-baking pie crusts.
If you have a wedding in the near future, add these essential baking tools to your registry. And don’t let baking intimidate you! Just a few good tools will set you on the path to pastry perfection.
To cook delicious everyday meals, check out this list of essential cooking tools.