5 Kitchen Tips From Joanne Chang

The Flour founder knows her stuff

5 Kitchen Tips From Joanne Chang

Texas-born chef Joanne Chang knows what it means to literally have her fingers in all the pies.

A Harvard grad who spent her first couple of post-college years "living my parents' dream" at a consultancy in Boston, Chang can now boast three bakeries under the Flour name, plus a casual Pan-Asian restaurant called Myers + Chang. Her business background gives her the knowledge she needs to smartly run all four outposts, but her kitchen know-how is pretty unbeatable too: After stints at some of the most respected restaurants in New York and Boston, she spent months literally touching every product that came out of her first Flour bakery – too easy, since she lived upstairs.

I had the pleasure of attending Chang's class at the Central Market Cooking School Tuesday night, and while I've really never had a bad experience in that cozy upstairs kitchen, I have to say some of the kitchen tidbits that Chang included in her two-and-a-half-hour lesson were ones that I've always wondered about despite years of baking.

So, since sharing is caring and all that, here are five of the handiest tips from Chang that you can use in your kitchen effective immediately.

1) Buy a kitchen scale, and be sure to do your mise en place for every recipe.

While plenty of bakers keep 10-pound bags of flour and sugar lying around, plus more sticks of butter than even Paula Deen could use in a week, some of us don't, and it's important to make sure you have everything you'll need before you've got caramel burning on the stove and sifted flour all over your house. And even for you folks who do stock up: Sometimes that makes it that much easier to not realize you've run out of something, so if you run through an ingredients list and measure all your needs precisely before you get started, you'll find baking to be a breeze.

Bonus tip: When you're preparing the bottom of that cake pan and it asks for a round of parchment paper in the bottom, fold your paper in quarters, line the corner up with the center of the bottom of the baking pan, cut around the edge, and then just simply unfold to get a perfect-fit parchment round.

2) Preheat, preheat, preheat.

While you're looking closely at those recipe headnotes, don't forget the first sentence of almost every cake or pie is telling you to preheat your oven. Because of the way cakes and crusts rely on steam to puff and flake just so, it's important that you put your doughs and batters into the temperature the chef has called for. Otherwise, instead of steaming up into perfect flaky bubbles, the liquid in your recipe would just slowly melt into the dough, creating a soggy (or at least a little flat) mess. (One additional note here: An appliance- and science-minded friend of mine once said that it's not just a matter of waiting for your oven to beep, either: Because the metal walls of the oven and the air within it heat at different rates, it takes a good half hour or so for the oven to heat consistently. You think you're saving energy by starting the preheat later, but you could be sacrificing the quality of your baked goods.)

Long story short, buy an oven thermometer, know your oven (note: convection ovens work differently and run hotter, so be sure you know how to adjust), and preheat, preheat, preheat.

3) Define your terms.

Sometimes, knowing how a French phrase literally translates is just good for a little entertainment – how they got "cabbage" from the adorable cream puffs made with pâte à choux (literally: "paste of cabbage") is beyond me. But sometimes, knowing the history behind a simple baking phrase like the verb "to cream" makes a world of difference. Once you know that the term comes from the yellow color of the butter fading into the whitish hue of whipping cream, you'll never second guess whether the stuff in your mixer is where it's supposed to be.

4) Be careful when piping.

So many amateur bakers (myself included!) have a tendency of filling their piping bags too full, holding the now-overflowing top with their dominant hand, and then squeezing the bag's middle with their other hand. But when you're doing something like buttercream, the heat from your hand will start to melt the frosting inside the bag, making for messy cakes and sloppy details. Chang's technique is to cuff the bag almost in half over your hand (which keeps the top edge nice and clean), and then to squeeze from the top of the bag with your dominant hand, using your other hand's pointer finger simply to guide the tip. Keeping the bag perpendicular to the baking sheet will also help keep your work neat.

5) Know your baking science.

As is sort of hinted at in the tip about butter and other liquids evaporating into steam in order to form the flakiest crusts, it's important to understand some of the science behind how recipes work. Sure, you can follow a recipe and measure ingredients precisely and everything can turn out beautifully, but if you start to grasp why the ingredients act the way they do, you'll be able to adjust recipes better to your taste/altitude/humidity/etc. – and even begin to create your own.

So whether it's understanding that maple syrup can easily foam over the top of your pan when boiling or grasping the reasoning behind using pie weights or beans during a blind bake (the pre-filling bake time is to keep the bottom of your crust from getting soggy, and the added weight prevents the crust from just puffing up where filling should go), try to figure out what's going on in your oven – other than baking magic. My favorite chemistry lesson from Tuesday night? Baking soda reacts with acids, so if you want to check if your little orange box is still good, drop a bit in vinegar to see if it bubbles up like an elementary school kid's volcano project. Baking powder, on the other hand, is just baking soda mixed with cream of tartar (itself an acid), and it activates solely with liquid; this ingredient was created especially for those recipes that don't otherwise include an acidic ingredient to get the soda to react.

Happy baking!

Joanne Chang's second cookbook, Flour, Too, was released by Chronicle Books (304 pp., $35) earlier this summer and is available at fine booksellers everywhere. Monica Riese blogs about her baking at The Yeast I Can Do.

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