The Cake Boss’s 17 Must-Have Baking Tools

Cake Boss Buddy Valastro shares his 17 essential baking tools from his book Baking with the Cake BossWhat the heck do you do with parchment paper? How do you use a pastry bag? Buddy Valastro, author of Baking with the Cake Boss, lists everything you need for at-home baking success—including how to avoid grating your knuckles on a microplane zester.

BRUSHES
I recommend that you have three types of brushes as part of your kitchen arsenal. A pastry brush is the best way to apply syrups and other soaking liquids to sponge cakes, to work with melted butter, and to apply water to fondant if you don’t have a water pen (see page 195). (A squeeze bottle with a sponge tip applicator or a spray bottle will also work.) A bench brush has long, stiff bristles and is made for sweeping flour off your work surface. I rarely see these in home kitchens, but I recommend you own one because it makes it very easy to get your surface clean. A large makeup brush, sometimes called a powder brush, is useful for patting down sugar or cornstarch on your work surface when you are working with fondant. Use it to get any lumps or clumps out of the sugar or cornstarch, whether on your work surface or on the fondant itself.

MICROPLANE ZESTER
In the old days at Carlo’s we made our lemon zest by rubbing lemons on one of those old-fashioned box graters. It wasn’t the best way to go—the now-familiar recipe instruction not to shave off any bitter pith with your grater wasn’t even on our mind—but we didn’t know any better. (We also had to garbage the occasional batch when a guy grated a little of his knuckle into the bowl along with the rind!) Then along came the Microplane zester. It’s a common kitchen tool today, but was originally devised as a woodworking tool. It’s got dozens of minirazors that produce a snowy zest from lemons, oranges, and other citrus fruits.

MIXING BOWLS
Ceramic and glass mixing bowls are perfectly fine options, but I prefer stainless steel for a very practical reason: They don’t break if you drop them. Get yourself a good assortment of mixing bowl sizes—generally speaking, I like to use a bowl that’s large for a given task because it helps keep ingredients from splashing or flying out of the bowl when you whisk or stir.

PARCHMENT PAPER
Always have some parchment paper on hand: You will use it to line baking and cookie sheets for a variety of items, and I often use a parchment pencil (see page 185) for decorating pastries, pies, and cakes. By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why some recipes call for parchment paper and some don’t, it’s almost always a matter of preventing what you’re baking from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Parchment can sometimes be left out if you’re baking a batter with a high fat content, because it will release just enough fat to keep itself from sticking. (In this book, I don’t use parchment in these cases.) Whatever you do, if you don’t have parchment paper, don’t substitute waxed paper instead. Waxed paper smokes like crazy and will fill your oven and kitchen with that smoke and set off your smoke detector.

PASTRY BAGS
The pastry bag is one of the most important tools for a baker. At Carlo’s and in this book, it is are used for everything from piping out cookie dough to filling pastries to icing and decorating cakes. There are four main types of bag: polyurethane, canvas, disposable, and makeshift. I don’t necessarily favor one over the other; instead, I like different bags for different jobs. For piping cookie dough and thick, heavy batters, the gold standard is a canvas bag, because of its durability. You can really squeeze it, using as much pressure as you like or need to, without fear of busting it open. For decorating and piping with buttercream, I prefer a polyurethane bag because I find it lets you feel closer to the cream, giving you a greater sense of control. If you’re working with anything that will stain a polyurethane bag, disposable pastry bags are perfectly acceptable to use instead. For example, dark buttercreams such as black, red, and green will all stain a bag, so I recommend a disposable bag for working with them. A makeshift bag isn’t really an “official” type of bag, but it can be a lifesaver if you don’t have a bag on hand and want to do something that requires it. You can fashion a makeshift bag by using a large (1- or 2-gallon) resealable plastic bag: Fill it with whatever you’ll be piping, fold the top closed, and snip off a corner to act as the “tip.” You can’t get much finesse with a makeshift bag, but it’s a perfectly viable way of frosting a cake, filling cannoli, icing cupcakes, and applying meringue to a pie. A note about working with pastry bags: When you are working with meringue, buttercream, and other sensitive mixtures, the temperature of your hands can cause what’s in the bag to soften. Different people’s hands have different temperatures; mine, for example, tend to generate heat, so after ten minutes of piping, I often squeeze out whatever’s left in the bag, then refill the bag with more of whatever I’m piping. If your hands run hot, you may need to do the same.

PASTRY BAG TIPS
At the very least, you should have a #6 plain and a #7 star pastry tip for piping cream, frostings, and fillings. For decorating cakes and cupcakes, a good set of interchangeable decorating tips is essential. There are many sets on the market that feature a variety of tips; you might want to purchase one, or you can amass a collection as you bake more and more recipes, but always check before embarking on a new recipe to be sure you have the necessary tips. You can purchase them individually if necessary, or if you don’t want to buy a whole set right off. Interchangeable tips are small tips shaped to produce specific effects, such as grass, leaves, or the shape that mimics rose petals. You affix these to pastry bags with a coupler that acts as a dock or port for them. In addition to empowering you to create visual effects, tips and bags are also convenient: If you need to create different effects with the same color icing, you don’t need to fill different bags; you just change the tip. Throughout the book, I indicate when an interchangeable tip is called for; if a recipe does not indicate “interchangeable,” then you just drop the desired tip (a regular pastry tip) into the bag before filling it with the desired filling or frosting.

RACKS
You should have at least two racks for cooling cookies and pastries after baking. (If space on your counter is limited, or you want to avoid resting hot trays on it, you can let the trays cool on top of the racks until the cookies are ready to be transferred.) Racks are available in a variety of sizes; I recommend having at least two nonstick racks, 17 by 12 inches each, which is toward the larger end of the size spectrum.

ROLLING PIN
Everybody in the kitchen at Carlo’s has his or her own opinion about rolling pins. There are only two main types of pin (three, if you count polyurethane), but we’re as personal about them as a hustler is about his pool stick. Both wooden and marble pins are fine; the overall weight and balance are more important than the material. For rolling out cookie dough, pie crust, and raspberry bars, I like a straight wooden rolling pin. (In reality, I leaned to roll those items with a broomstick, but you don’t want to do that at home!) For tougher jobs, such as rolling out rugelach, pasta frolla to stripe a wheat pie, or puff pastry dough, a wooden, steel, or marble pin with ball bearings that allow the cylinder to spin is better. Those ball bearings help a spinning pin make its way through denser dough. (But I generally use a wooden pin here as well. I’ve done it so many times that I’m comfortable with it.)
For rolling fondant, I recommend a polyurethane rolling pin because it stays at a good neutral temperature and has a terrific weight for pressing out the fondant, which can become uneven. You don’t want to use wood for fondant because wooden rolling pins tend to develop little divots over time, and these will get imprinted into the fondant.

SCALES
Some ingredients are measured by weight rather than volume, so if you don’t already own one, I suggest purchasing a kitchen scale. Digital battery-operated scales can be purchased for about $20 and many are small enough to tuck away in a drawer or cupboard when not in use.

SCRAPER
In a home kitchen, a rubber spatula fills in for most of the things we use plastic scrapers for in a professional bakery, namely folding ingredients together and scraping mixtures out of a bowl or a pot. But I still recommend owning a plastic scraper because a spatula keeps you at a bit of a remove from the food you’re working with, and sometimes you want to have a greater feeling of control. In our kitchen at Carlo’s, we also use a metal scraper for scraping our benches (wooden work tables), especially for removing caked-on flour. But I don’t recommend this tool at home because so many home kitchen surfaces are delicate or prone to scratching.

SIFTER
For ensuring the even distribution of leavening agents such as baking soda and baking powder, and loosening up compacted flour and other ingredients, a sifter is essential. If you don’t yet have a sifter and are dying to get started, in its place you can pour your ingredients into a fine-mesh strainer and gently shake it over the bowl into which you are sifting, but the result won’t be as fine.

SPATULAS
The three types of spatula called for throughout this book are so different that it seems odd to call them by the same name. Cookie spatula or pancake spatula: This is probably the first spatula you ever heard of, meant for lifting baked goods out of pans or turning cookies or pancakes as they cook. Sometimes also called a “turner,” it’s the one we use for checking doneness on cookies and pastries and for lifting them out of their pans. Icing spatula: Many baking books recommend an offset spatula (aka angled spatula) for icing cakes, but I like a plain old flat icing spatula (we call it a “bow knife” in the Carlo’s kitchen), which gives you a greater feeling of control because of its straight shape. I like an 8-inch icing spatula, which I find works well for any task. Rubber or silicone spatula: This common kitchen tool gets used a lot in baking, mainly for folding two mixtures together or for scraping mixtures out of bowls. It’s a good idea to have a set that includes small, medium, and large spatulas in order to be able to accommodate any size job.

STAND MIXER
If you can afford it and have the room for it on your counter, there is simply nothing better for mixing than a good, sturdy stand mixer, which is basically a miniature version of the mammoth industrial mixers we use at Carlo’s. You’ll need the paddle, whip, and hook attachments. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can also use a hand mixer for many recipes (I’ve indicated which ones in the book), but the motors aren’t generally as powerful as those on a stand mixer and your arm isn’t as durable as the stand itself, so you’ll need to take the time to let ingredients such as butter, cream cheese, and shortening really soften before you begin mixing with a hand mixer. If you do use a hand mixer, set a damp kitchen towel under the mixing bowl to hold it in place. It’s a tried-and-true trick that makes mixing much easier than trying to mix with one hand while holding the bowl with the other, especially if you have to pour or drizzle liquids into the bowl while mixing. In some of these recipes, you can simply use your hands to mix. I’ll tell you when that’s the best way. Just make sure that your hands are immaculately clean before using them.

THERMOMETERS
For checking the temperature of batters and buttercream, a kitchen thermometer is the only way to go. I suggest that you take advantage of modern technology and purchase an instant-read thermometer that gives you quick, exact, digital information. It’s a good idea to have an oven thermometer to be sure you’re baking at the right temperature. Even if your oven reads correctly today, it might begin to run a little hot or a little cold over time. Position your oven thermometer on the same rack you’ll be baking on, which will almost always be the center rack.

TIMER
Don’t rely on your memory in the kitchen; it’s a recipe for disaster. (“Did I put the cake in the oven at 5:45, or was it 5:54?”) Get a timer. In particular, I recommend a timer with at least two clocks in case you’re doing more than one thing at a time.

WHISK(S)
It’s a good idea to have a large and a small whisk on hand for beating mixtures of varying sizes by hand.

WOODEN SPOON(S)
For stirring mixtures as they cook, a wooden spoon or two should be a part of any kitchen arsenal.

How to Frost a Cake

Spreading icing on a cake takes practice. This technique from Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes, allows inexperienced cooks to produce a magnificent cake with a perfect, satin-smooth icing that looks as if it came from an expensive bakery.

Double-Icing Technique

1.    Place the cooled cake on a cardboard circle that is slightly smaller than the cake. This allows you to hold the cake with the sturdy cardboard bottom and tilt it as necessary. Next, place the cake on a cooling rack that is sitting on a large piece of parchment paper or a nonstick baking sheet. You want something that catches icing drips and allows you to scrape them up if you need to.

2.    Pour slightly less than half of the ganache or glaze into a 2-cup (473-ml) glass measuring cup with a spout. You want the glaze almost cool enough to set, about 90°F/32°C. Pour a puddle of icing in the center of the cake and continue pouring until the icing starts to overflow and run down the edges. Lift the cake and tilt to encourage the glaze to run where there isn’t any. With a metal spatula, smooth the icing around the edge. Do what you can to cover the top and all around the edges. Allow the cake to cool for about 30 minutes.

3.    No spatula from here on! Heat the remaining half of the ganache or glaze just until it flows easily. So that it will be perfectly smooth, strain it into a warm 2-cup (473-ml) glass measuring cup with a spout. If you are right-handed, hold the cake with your left hand, keeping it over the parchment. With your right hand, pour the glaze into the center of the cake. Allow the glaze to run down the edges and tilt to get it to run where it is needed. Pour more glaze on as needed, but to NOT touch with a spatula. You want this coating untouched, as smooth as a lake at dawn — a perfect, shiny, dark surface. Place the cake on the cooling rack and allow to cool.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirley O. Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes (Copyright © 2008 by Confident Cooking, Inc.), has a B.A. in chemistry from Vanderbilt University, where she was also a biochemist at the medical school. She has problem-solved for everyone from Julia Child to Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury. She has taught and lectured throughout the world. She has long been a writer– authoring a regular syndicated column in The Los Angeles Times Syndicate’s Great Chefs series as well as technical articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her first book, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking is a bestseller and won a James Beard Award for excellence. Shirley has received many awards, including the Best Cooking Teacher of the Year in Bon Appetit’s “Best of the Best” Annual Food and Entertaining Awards in 2001. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Arch.

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The Cure for Common Cookie Problems

What makes cookies crumble, lack color, go limp, and stick to the pan? Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes, diagnoses these common cookie cooking problems and provides the cures so your next batch will come out just right.

PITIFULLY PALE COOKIESBROWNING
“My cookies taste good, but they are pale and unappetizing.” Three ingredients determine color: the amount of a specific type sugar (reducing sugar), the amount of protein, and the acidity.

More Reducing Sugar
Using even a small amount of corn syrup (glucose), which is a reducing sugar, is a major browning enhancer. Adding 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of corn syrup to your cookie dough will dramatically increase browning. That is, as long as the cookies are not strongly acidic. Too much acidity prevents browning.

Less Acidity
Baking powder contains baking soda and enough acid or acids to neutralize the baking soda, therefore baking powder does not influence the color of cookies. Baking soda by itself is alkaline and is a major contributor to browning.

Some cookie recipes that contain acidic ingredients like brown sugar may contain baking soda—not for leavening, but to reduce the acidity and improve browning.

Color At a Glance
What to Do for More Color:
Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of light corn syrup.
Why: Reducing sugars enhance browning.

What to Do for More Color: Use unbleached or all-purpose bread flour.
Why:
Protein enhances browning.

What to Do for More Color: Use an egg.
Why:
Protein enhances browning.

What to Do for More Color: Use baking soda.
Why:
Baking soda neutralizes acidity, and enhances the browning.

LIMP COOKIES
“My cookies are crisp and perfect the day I make them, but the next day they are soft and limp.” If your recipe calls for brown sugar, molasses, or honey, they all contain some fructose, a sugar that is hygroscopic (absorbs water out of air). Honey contains 42% fructose and baked goods made with honey keep well. They stay soft and don’t dry out easily. Some cookie recipes with part brown sugar stay firm for a day or so, but if you want really crisp cookies stick with plain granulated sugar.

STICKING
Some recipes say to bake on an ungreased pan to limit spread. This is a bad idea. It doesn’t limit spread, and the cookies can stick as if they were cemented to the pan.

I love the Reynolds Release foil. It is a miracle for cookies. It is aluminum foil with a nonstick coating on one side. (This stuff is great and is pretty widely available.) Just twist a cookie and lift off. I like it even better than parchment, because sometimes cookies can stick to even parchment. You can slide the foil off the cookie sheet and onto the cooling rack. Your pan is free for the next batch.

You can already have the next batch on foil. Cool the hot pan by running cold water over it, dry, and slide the foil with your next batch onto it. No more washing dirty cookie pans.

In the past I used parchment, but it I did not have it I always sprayed the pan with nonstick cooking spray or a nonstick cooking spray with flour such as Baker’s Joy.

Without Release foil or parchment, there is an ideal time to remove cookies from the baking sheet. If you try to remove them immediately after they come out of the oven, they come apart, but if you wait 1 to 2 minutes, they will lift off the pan easily. If you wait longer, they may be “glued” to the pan. You can reheat the cookies for a couple of minutes, then remove them.

You can get cookies that are “glued” to the pan off by reheating for a couple of minutes.

OVERBAKING
Overcooked cookies can be rock hard. Since cookies require a short baking time, some as short as 6 minutes, and for most 10 to 12 minutes, 1 minute more or less can make a world of difference. Take cookies out of the oven when they just start to brown around the outer edge. Don’t wait for the center to brown.

Other Cookie Problems at a Glance
Problem:
Crumbling
What to Do: Stir 1 tablespoon (15 ml) water into the flour before you mix it with other ingredients.

Problem: Lighter, shiny separated crust (“meringue”)
What to Do: Stir just enough to incorporate each egg. Keep any beating to a minimum once eggs are added.

Problem: Cookies are pale
What to Do: Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) light corn syrup. Use baking soda. Use a higher-protein flour like unbleached or all-purpose bread flour.

Problem: Cookies are limp
What to Do: Use granulated sugar only, no honey.

Problem: Cookies stick to pan
What to Do: Use Release foil (foil with a nonstick coating).

Problem: Cookies are overbaked
What to Do: Do not wait for cookies to brown. Remove from the oven when the edges start to brown.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirley O. Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes (Copyright © 2008 by Confident Cooking, Inc.), has a B.A. in chemistry from Vanderbilt University, where she was also a biochemist at the medical school. She has problem-solved for everyone from Julia Child to Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury. She has taught and lectured throughout the world. She has long been a writer– authoring a regular syndicated column in The Los Angeles Times Syndicate’s Great Chefs series as well as technical articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her first book, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking is a bestseller and won a James Beard Award for excellence. Shirley has received many awards, including the Best Cooking Teacher of the Year in Bon Appetit’s “Best of the Best” Annual Food and Entertaining Awards in 2001. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Arch.

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How to Roll a Perfect Pastry Crust

The perfect pastry crust is the key to a divine pie. It all comes down to how you roll — the dough, that is. To perfect your technique, follow these rolling tips from Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes.

Techniques for Rolling

The Dough
The dough should hold together well but not be wet. Press the dough together into a 6-inch (15-cm) disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. This will allow the moisture to distribute more evenly. If you roll a crust immediately after making it, the wet spots will stick to the surface and the dry spots will tear.

Wrapping the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerating for at least 2 hours or overnight allows the moisture to distribute more evenly.

The Surface for Rolling
Roll on a lightly floured counter, a pastry cloth or plastic sheet, or between two pieces of lightly floured wax paper. Carole Walter, in Great Pies & Tarts, recommends a canvas pastry cloth and rolling pin cover made by Ateco (available in some cookware shops). Rose Levy Beranbaum in The Pie and Pastry Bible says that the ideal surface for rolling pastry is marble covered with a pastry cloth. She recommends a 16 x 20 x 3/4-inch (41 x 51 x 2-cm) piece of marble available in gourmet shops or from marble supply companies. A marble slab stays cold and helps to keep the pastry cool.

Gourmet shops sell a plastic sheet that is marked with circles for the different size pie pans. It is very helpful to have a guide when trying to roll an even circle. My early pie crusts looked like strange-shaped amoebas!

Some cooks like to roll the dough between two sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap, or a layer of foil on the bottom and plastic wrap or wax paper on top. You may need to peel the paper or plastic off once or twice during rolling and reposition and smooth it out. Regardless of the surface — pastry cloth or countertop — you want to flour lightly to prevent the dough from sticking.

Rolling Pins
There are many different sizes and shapes of rolling pins available. Those that are straight cylinders are called straight French rolling pins and are usually 17 to 19 inches (43 to 48 cm) in length. There is one that is fat in the center and tapers narrower toward the ends — tapered French — and is about 19 inches (48 cm) long. This tapered French pin is designed to prevent the edges of the dough from getting too thin. Carole Walters feels that it is a little easier to roll evenly with the traditional ball-bearing pin with handles. These come in lengths of 12 to 15 inches (30 to 38 cm).

Your choice of the rolling pin and the rolling surface are personal preferences. Feel free to go with whatever works best for you.

Rolling in Detail
On limited counter space, rotating the dough works very well. This technique also ensures that the dough does not stick to the counter or pastry cloth. Flour the rolling pin and place it in the center of the dough disc and roll forward. Place the pin back in the center of the dough disc and roll back, taking care not to roll over the dough edges, making them too thin. Gently lift and rotate the dough 45 degrees, roll forward and back again, rotate, and so on. Keep a little bleached all-purpose flour on the counter to one side. If the dough tends to stick when rotating, drag the dough through the flour when rotating and repositioning the dough. If you enlarge the dough a little at a time, in different positions, it helps to keep the circle even.

Rotating the dough prevents sticking and aids in rolling an even circle.

Try to avoid rolling the dough thinner in one area. These thin spots will brown or burn before the rest of the crust is done. To get a very even thickness, stop when the dough is nearing the desired thickness. Place a ruler or a strip of wood (which is the thickness that you want) on one side of the dough, and another the same thickness on the other side. Rest the rolling pin on the two rulers or wood strips, and roll across the dough.

Another way to get a very even dough thickness is with rolling pin rings that are available in some gourmet cookware shops. Pairs of these elastic rings are of various thicknesses and fit on both ends of the pin. They keep the pin an exact distance from the counter so the dough is rolled to an even thickness.

Keeping the dough an even thickness prevents excessive browning or burning in the thin spots.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirley O. Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes (Copyright © 2008 by Confident Cooking, Inc.), has a B.A. in chemistry from Vanderbilt University, where she was also a biochemist at the medical school. She has problem-solved for everyone from Julia Child to Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury. She has taught and lectured throughout the world. She has long been a writer– authoring a regular syndicated column in The Los Angeles Times Syndicate’s Great Chefs series as well as technical articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her first book, Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking is a bestseller and won a James Beard Award for excellence. Shirley has received many awards, including the Best Cooking Teacher of the Year in Bon Appetit’s “Best of the Best” Annual Food and Entertaining Awards in 2001. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Arch.

MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR

LEARN MORE

WATCH THE VIDEO

  • Shirley Corriher talks about BakeWise and shares some baking tips