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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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