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Boston Pastry Chefs' Top Tips for Home Bakers

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For Eater Boston’s first-ever Sweets Week, professional pastry chefs from Boston-area restaurants have weighed in on several survey questions; we’ll be sharing their answers throughout the week. Today’s question: What’s your top tip for home bakers trying to up their game?

Read on for the chefs’ tips, which span multiple aspects of baking at home — from the all-important measuring of ingredients to putting the finishing touches on your baked goods, from choosing helpful reading materials to buying useful equipment (and ignoring useless equipment), from knowing your oven to not being afraid of experimentation.

You do have a proper kitchen scale, don’t you? Now, get ready to get in the kitchen and bake the best cookies of your life.

(Are you a pastry chef at a Boston-area restaurant with some advice to share on this topic? Send us an email; this guide will be updated periodically to include more tips.)

Adam Ross, pastry chef at Deadhorse Hill

"It's always a good idea to start simple, especially if you're just starting out or trying something new for the first time. That being said, don't limit yourself or think there's a recipe or technique you cannot accomplish at home! Regardless of the technical difficulty of the recipe, whether you're trying to find the perfect chocolate chip cookie or attempting lamination, always take notes on what you're making, how you're going about making it, and what you liked or didn't like about the finished product. Failures in baking are all but guaranteed; it's what you learn from failing that will really help you excel."

Alex Bonnefoi, pastry chef at Strip by Strega

Alex Bonnefoi Provided

"Start with something easy, like cookies. With so many different cookie recipes, the baker will not get bored but can practice all year long for holidays and special occasions."

Amanda Baker, pastry chef at State Street Provisions

Amanda Baker Provided

"Read your recipe fully before starting your project. People get excited with pictures and titles of dessert, but allowing yourself to read through the recipe beforehand will give you confidence in the kitchen."

Ashley Low, head baker at Loyal Nine

"Egg wash. I put it on everything: scones, brioche, pie crust. It takes just a second to throw together, and it gives anything with a crust that little extra sass."

Ben Dorn, pastry chef at Saltbox Kitchen

Ben Dorn Provided

"Invest in a scale. It may take a few minutes to convert ingredient amounts from volume measurements to weights, but you will only have to do this once for each ingredient. As you use different ingredients, you will continue to build this reference tool. Not only will this yield more consistent results, it will make clean up easier."

Brianne "Bee" McCaughin

Brianne "Bee" McCaughin Provided

"Start with the basics! Find a cookbook that inspires you but also lays out the essentials really well. Learn the core recipes — a really great pate brisee (pie dough) recipe or a classic buttermilk cake can be imagined and adapted into almost anything your heart desires!"

Carla Pallotta, co-owner of Nebo (and head of the dessert program)

"Don't be afraid to experiment. It seriously took me about 20 times before I came up with the recipe I liked for my flourless chocolate cake. Some turned into liquid, some hard as a rock — I just kept trying!"

Chris Mendonca, chef at Granary Tavern

Chris Mendonca Provided

"Use a cheese grater for biscuits — use frozen butter and grate into the flour. Flaky deliciousness."

Christina Allen-Flores, executive pastry chef at ArtBar and Studio at the Royal Sonesta

Christina Allen-Flores Brian Samuels for the Sonesta

"Watch the Food Network shows; read cooking magazines and cookbooks; try not to limit yourself to one chef, author, or subscription. If something doesn’t come out right the first time, don't get discouraged. With every mistake, there is opportunity to learn; sometimes the mistakes come out better than the original product."

Dave Becker, chef/owner of Sweet Basil and Juniper

Dave Becker Provided

"A Kitchen Aid mixer: It's worth the price, doesn't break, can handle fairly big home projects, and has tons of attachments, like dough hooks and paddles and pasta extrusion. Digital scale: It's more exact than a leveled measuring cup. Silpat sheet: It'll never stick."

Doug Phillips, executive pastry chef at Woods Hill Table

Doug Phillips Provided

"Start by buying a good quality kitchen scale. This is the professionals' number one tool for precise recipes. Skipping the cups and tablespoons to use a scale will not only make less to clean up, but it is much easier to replicate and give others your recipes."

Hannah Lurier, executive pastry chef at Alta Strada Wellesley

Hannah Lurier Provided

"Educate yourself on the ingredients involved. If you understand what each ingredient does, then you're more likely to have a greater end result."

Jamie Bissonnette, chef/owner of Little Donkey, Coppa, and Toro

Jamie Bissonnette Nick Solares for Eater

"Start off with easy-to-follow recipes and a trusted book. I love Jacques Pépin's pastry recipes."

Jenn Harvey, bar manager at Temple Bar (formerly a pastry chef at Stix)

Jenn Harris Nina Gallant for Temple Bar

"Advice that I really need to heed myself is to make sure you have all your mis en place in place and to clean as you go. There's nothing more disheartening than getting halfway through a recipe just to realize you're just a little shy on flour/sugar/milk. And trust me, the recipe won’t work the same without the right amounts. Cleaning as you go just means you can enjoy your treats right away when you’re done instead of having a mountain of dishes to clean! Other tips: You don’t need every little kitchen tool that stores sell. It'll just clutter your drawers and cabinets, collecting dust. And my favorite Pinterest-type tip? When I make things like chocolate chip cookies, I'll double the recipes and scoop/form half the dough, freeze it on a tray, then stick it in Tupperware. That way, when all my fresh cookies are long gone and I just want one, I can take out one of the scoops of cookie dough and pop it in the toaster oven (or two, or three, or just eat it raw — who am I kidding?)"

Jesse Jackson, III, executive pastry chef at No.9 Park

Jesse Jackson, III Dale Cruse for No. 9 Park

"My ultimate tip for home bakers is to purchase a good scale! Accurately weighing your ingredients will ensure consistent results each and every time."

Kate Holowchik, pastry chef at The Townshend

Kate Holowchik Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

"Home chefs should learn the basics before getting super fancy. Learn to make a basic pastry cream, a basic pie crust, and then progress with similar recipes that use similar techniques so that you can start understanding how connected processes are. Also, keep reading and researching. There is so much amazing information available now."

Katie Gordon, pastry chef at Trade

"Know your own oven. Know its hot spots, and really get to know how it bakes. I learned this the hard way one Christmas baking two cakes at the same time — one was perfect, the other under-cooked, because my oven didn't heat evenly. Also, mixing properly with a spatula: be sure to get everything from the sides of the bowl when mixing."

Kenny Hoshino, pastry chef at Alden & Harlow and Waypoint

Kenny Hoshino Galdones Photography for Waypoint

"Look for cookbooks and recipes that list ingredients by weight, and invest in a small kitchen scale. Serious home cooks can achieve much better consistency and quality with this approach rather than standard measurements."

Kevin Walsh, chef/owner of Tapestry

Kevin Walsh Provided

"Try making a meringue. It's impressive but very easy."

Laura Campagna, former pastry cook at Tamo Bistro & Bar

"I would suggest buying professional tools. A digital scale to weigh ingredients vs. measuring cups and silpats would be my two suggestions."

Lauren Kroesser, pastry chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar

Lauren Kroesser Michael Harlan Turkell for Island Creek Oyster Bar

"My tip for home bakers trying to up their game would be to think about the finishing touches that can make homemade desserts special. If you're making brownies, top them with a shiny (and easy!) dark chocolate glaze and toasted coconut, or cream cheese frosting and toasted pecans. Use a very hot knife to cut perfect squares and plate them on a nice platter, evenly spaced out. A couple other examples are using a piping tip instead of a butter knife to frost cupcakes and adding sprinkles or shaved chocolate as a topping. Sometimes just one extra touch will turn the same cupcake or brownie recipe into something magnificent and professional."

Lilah Rogoff, pastry chef at Catalyst

Lilah Rogoff Provided

"Buy a scale. The amount of flour in a cup can vary greatly based on how much it is packed in. Weighing in metrics is way more precise, and it’s easy too! You don’t have to bend down and stare at your measuring cup and try to figure out if your sugar is level."

Maria Cavaleri, executive pastry chef of Big Night Entertainment Group (Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge, Red Lantern, and GEM)

"Don’t be afraid to experiment! Everyone thinks baking is such a science, but people should play around with flavors and throw in what they like."

Marissa Rossi, executive pastry chef at Puritan & Co.

Marissa Rossi Provided

"Don't take shortcuts; it's not worth it in the end! More often than not, the end product ends up in the garbage because it's sub-par or totally ruined. When I was a pastry cook, I tried to take shortcuts; I always had to throw the product out and start over."

Meghan Thompson, pastry chef at Townsman

"Have a game plan! Most desserts have several components and can be made in stages, or over a week's time. That way, the day of a family holiday or get-together, all you have to do is assemble or bake and put finishing touches on!"

Michelle Boland, pastry chef at Davio's Lynnfield

"If home bakers are trying to up their game, I would suggest using any recipe as more of a guide than something set in stone — doing some research on different substitutions, flavors, and potential mix-ins could help create something awesome!"

Nathan Kibarian, pastry chef at Bastille Kitchen

"If you mess up, try and try again. There’s no way you’ll improve at something if you don’t practice. Start with an item that you enjoy to eat, and learn how to make it. Once you begin to tackle larger and more complicated items, your repertoire will grow, and you will start to hone in on your skills. Once you have the basics down, then you can really begin to experiment with flavors and ingredients with confidence. Also, make sure you are using ingredients at the proper temperature. There is nothing worse than trying to work with a pie dough or cut-out cookie dough that’s too warm or trying to achieve the highest volume in meringues or other whipped egg items with cold eggs."

Rachel Gibeley, pastry chef at Rosebud American Kitchen and Bar

Rachel Gibeley Provided

"Don't be afraid to try something new. Look for a technique that's familiar but has an ingredient that you've never used before. Or vice versa — try a new technique with familiar ingredients. Take your time, and read the recipe twice through before beginning."

Rae Murphy, pastry chef at Porto

"Always use a kitchen scale. Scaling recipes is a great way to learn how ingredients work in proportion with one another, and it makes comparing and combining recipes a breeze."

Robert Differ, pastry chef at Bar Boulud

Robert Differ Provided

"Invest in professional tools and equipment. I would highly suggest a French-style wooden rolling pin as you have more control and can really feel and work your ingredients during preparation."

Robert Gonzalez, pastry chef at Bistro du Midi

Robert Gonzalez Provided

"Having the proper equipment to get the job done. Baking is very technical, and any slight variations can affect your outcome tremendously. That goes from measuring to using the proper equipment to bake and/or cook your delicious goodies."

Shawn Dresser, pastry chef at Boston Harbor Hotel

Shawn Dresser Provided

"Keep it simple. Try to master your technique over glitz."

Main image: Shutterstock/fasphotographic

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