Tips from The Kitchn

12 Secrets for Better Holiday Baking from a Professional Pastry Chef

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman

It's (finally!) prime holiday baking season. And although we may have our favorite recipes for pies, cookies, and cakes that we go back to year after year, it's never too late to add fresh tips and tricks to our baking arsenals. After all, baking is a science — and small, smart changes can have a big impact on the final product.

And no one knows this better than the professional bakers and pastry chefs who spend all day long doing just that. So we turned to one for advice: Kyle Bartone is the executive pastry chef of Eataly Downtown in New York City, where he oversees all pastry production from cakes to cannoli. We asked him for his best baking-on-the-job tips and techniques — that anyone can still use in their home kitchen this season. Here's what he told us.

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Measure ingredients by weight, not by volume.

Before you do anything else, ditch your measuring cups for a digital scale. "Using measuring cups to measure ingredients by volume is very inconsistent," explains Bartone. Measuring by weight is especially important when making baked goods like bread that rely on precise ratios, because even the smallest inaccuracy can make a big difference. "You can get a good scale for less than $20 now," says Bartone. "And the money you spend on it is an investment in better bakes."

Read more: 5 Reasons Every Kitchen Should Have a Digital Scale

2. Use cocoa powder (instead of flour) to prevent chocolate doughs from sticking to countertops.

"Rolling out dark dough with white flour can leave you with a dull, pale finish," says Bartone. "To prevent this, I like to use cocoa powder in place of flour when rolling out chocolate doughs." And as a bonus, your baked goods will have an extra bit of chocolate flavor.

Image Credit: Emma Christensen

3. Add milk powder to batter or dough to add richness and promote browning.

"Milk powder is one of those secret ingredients professional pastry chefs use to amp up their desserts," says Bartone. The powder can be found in the baking section of most grocery stores and is marketed as either dry or powdered milk. "The powder adds an extra boost of dairy flavor to cookies and cakes, and it helps breads brown evenly," says Bartone. If you've never baked with it before, try adding a tablespoon to your next cookie recipe.

Read more: Christina Tosi's Favorite Ingredient for Better Cookies? Milk Powder

4. Keep layer cakes moist by soaking them in simple syrup before assembling.

Soaks come in especially handy with cakes that need to be baked further in advance, or cakes that will be sitting out for a while. "I shower almost every cake I make in simple syrup," explains Bartone. "It keeps the cake extra moist and prevents it from drying out." When making soaking syrup, a good rule of thumb is to use one part sugar and one part water. You can also add flavors to your syrup such as vanilla extract, jam, or liqueur. (There are even special soaker bottles that have multiple nozzles for maximum soaking, but a pastry brush works just fine too.)

Read more: How To Flavor a Cake with Jam Syrup

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman | Kitchn

5. Prevent cookies or pie doughs from spreading in the oven by freezing them for at least 15 minutes before baking.

"After crimping your pie or cutting out sugar cookies, pop them in the freezer for about 15 minutes to firm up before baking," says Bartone. This chilling time will firm up the butter so it doesn't melt too quickly and deform your pastries. "If you go straight into the oven with room-temperature dough, it will spread and you won't get much definition," explains Bartone.

6. Use plastic wrap instead of parchment paper when blind baking pies.

This will help prevent wrinkles in the dough. "Parchment paper can be too rigid to weigh the dough down evenly, and it can leave unsightly wrinkles," explains Bartone. Instead, he recommends using plastic wrap to line pies and tarts before blind baking them with dried beans. (However, he says: Make sure you're using plastic wrap that's oven-safe — and don't use it for super-high heat applications, like broiling.)

Read more: How To Blind Bake a Pie Crust

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Cut costs (but not taste) by swapping vanilla beans for vanilla bean powder.

"Vanilla beans are expensive, so we reserve them for premium baked goods and special orders," says Bartone. To get around the cost, Bartone uses vanilla bean powder instead of paste or fresh beans. "Vanilla bean powder is made by grinding up the entire pod, not just the seeds," explains Bartone. "This makes it much cheaper, and you still get a wonderful vanilla flavor and beautiful specks." For most recipes, you can use a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla bean powder in place of one fresh bean.

Image Credit: Emma Christensen

8. Master the art of meringues with a secret ingredient: lemon juice.

When it comes to making meringues, fat is the enemy. Just a hint of egg yolk or residual oil can prevent egg whites from whipping properly. "Whenever I whip egg whites, I rub my mixing bowl with a bit of fresh lemon juice to break down any residual fat stuck on the bowl," says Bartone. This old-school trick acts as added insurance that your bowl is clean, and the small amount of juice isn't enough to add unwanted flavor. "I add about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice to my mixing bowl before adding my egg whites," explains Bartone. "Then I wipe it around the sides of the bowl with a paper towel and it's good to go."

9. Swap all-purpose flour for cake flour if you want an airier cake.

"Cakes from professional bake shops are light and airy because we typically use cake or pastry flour," explains Bartone. "While you can use all-purpose flour for your cakes, it won't give you that airy texture you get with professional cakes." Cake flour has less protein than all-purpose flour, meaning your cake will develop less gluten — and less gluten means a more tender cake.

Read more: What's the Difference Between Cake Flour, Pastry Flour, All-Purpose Flour, and Bread Flour

(And if you're out of cake flour? Make your own by combining cornstarch and all-purpose flour.) If your recipe calls for cake flour and all you have is all-purpose, don't fret. "To make one cup of DIY cake flour, just measure out one cup of all-purpose flour, take away two tablespoons of it, and then add two tablespoons of cornstarch," says Bartone. The cornstarch will prevent gluten from forming and the mixture will act similar to cake flour. Just remember: 1 cup all-purpose flour – 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour + 2 tablespoons cornstarch = 1 cup DIY cake flour

Read more: The Easy Way to Make Cake Flour Substitute

Image Credit: Apartment Therapy

10. Invest in an oven thermometer.

Oven temperatures aren't always accurate. Older ovens can be up to 100°F off, which can have serious consequences on your baked goods. So instead of trusting the dial on your oven, use the oven thermometer as a guide and adjust your heat dial up or down.

11. Use acetate paper when you want extra shiny and smooth chocolate garnishes.

Acetate paper is a rigid sheet of plastic with a shiny coating used in bakeshops —mostly for chocolate decorations and cake assembly. "I use acetate daily," says Bartone. "Chocolate sets beautifully on it and comes out super shiny, and we use it to line large ring molds and assemble cakes with clean edges." Next time you make chocolate bark, try setting it on acetate paper instead of parchment. It'll give the bark a beautiful shine and smooth finish.

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman

12. Watch your ingredient temperatures — especially when it comes to eggs.

If a recipe calls for room-temperature eggs, it's for a good reason. "Most recipes call for room-temperature eggs because it prevents creamed butter from getting cold and seizing up," explains Bartone. If a recipe calls for whipped eggs, room-temperature eggs will also make whipping them easier. "If I'm making a sponge cake, I leave my eggs out for at least 30 minutes just to make things easier," says Bartone.

Read more: The Easiest Way to Quickly Warm Eggs

What's your most useful baking tip that you use in the kitchen? Tell us in the comments below.