I’ve been meaning to write an article like this one for a while, since I started the Tasty Fever blog years ago.
When I was first getting into baking, I noticed that a lot of cookbooks that focused on baking often assumed that the reader had a number of kitchen gadgets that I, as an undergraduate and one who was working part-time, really didn’t have. I found it incredibly frustrating to see a killer photograph of a really delicious cake, for example, and then see the recipe start off with the words “In a food processor…” or “In a stand mixer….”
Well, for those of you who have found similar barriers into the world of baking, fear not, for I am going to discuss how one can bake a number of excellent items *without* shelling out $50 or more for a food processor or $70 or more for a stand mixer. Although I do like to bake, I don’t currently own either of these pieces of equipment, and what’s more, I can–and have–made plenty of cookies, cupcakes, cakes, muffins and other sorts of tasties without them.
If you’re just starting to get into baking and you’re not ready to invest in expensive appliances, or if you don’t have the space in your kitchen for them, or if you’re worried a shady housemate is going to nick your KitchenAid stand mixer and pawn it for some quick cash to go buy drugs with, don’t sweat it. A bit of extra elbow grease can often compensate for electric mixers, and there are a good deal of recipes available in books as well as online that are easy enough to make after, say, a trip to Target or IKEA, or a bit of shopping on Amazon. Even if you do have the money and inclination to shell out for a stand mixer or food processor, you’ll still need many if not all of these items below.
So what do you really need to start baking? Firstly, you will need:
1. A good fork and knife. No, seriously, a good, sturdy fork that won’t bend easily is a great tool for the home baker to have. I use forks often to cream softened butter and sugar together–a task some recipes feel you have to have an electric mixer for. And you don’t; just get a good fork and use some muscles to whip that butter into sugary shape. You’ll also want to have a butter knife on hand as well, to help with scraping the batter off your other utensils, as well as to cut butter up with and level off your measuring cups and spoons.
If you have a recipe calling for you to pulse cold butter with other ingredients in a food processor, what you can use instead is:
2. A pastry blender. A pastry blender is a handy thing to have to crumble up butter with dry ingredients in order to make a variety of things: scones, pie crust, crumble, etc. I normally use one with wire tines, like the ones Publix sells. This Oxo one on Amazon.com looks to be just as good, and it’s under ten bucks. I use mine quite frequently, often to blend dry ingredients like flour and baking soda/powder together quickly and a lot better than a fork can.
Some more basic essentials to consider when building up your baking arsenal:
3. A spatula. The very best spatula I’ve used is a Chef’n spatula I bought at Target, which I am so enamoured with I’ve carried it in my carrying luggage when visiting friends, when I first moved to London and on my most recent move back to Orlando. I probably should buy another one to have so I can quit guarding the one I have like it’s my Preciousssss. But really, what makes this spatula great isn’t its dual ends, which I don’t use as much (but hey, some might), but the fact that it doesn’t have that bit between the handle and the business end where food can get caught. The silicone coats the entirety of the utensil, making it easy to clean and utterly elegant. Plus, having spatula heads get stuck in the batter sucks, and a design such as this completely eliminates trying to put a spatula bit back onto its handle when it’s all covered in cookie dough. I think the one I have is the “Arugula” colour, and they’re $9.99 on Amazon.com.
4. Mixing bowls. As I progressed in my home-baking mania, I happened to get quite a few different mixing bowls, and I currently have a number of kinds, thanks to my hoarding. In the US, I have melamine butter-yellow mixing bowls that came in a set of three from Williams-Sonoma. Yeah, poshy, but these particular bowls were on sale–probably because they went with hawking 4-bowl sets at $38. But you don’t have to pay forty bucks for mixing bowls. You’ll need at least two bowls, and when I was living in London, I was first using a couple of pound shop picks, but eventually I moved to buying two metal bowls from MUJI. Their stainless steel bowls are between £5.95~7.95 (£7.95 = $12.50 currently), which isn’t cheap, but they’re durable as hell, and unlike melamine bowls, you can put metal bowls over a pot of boiling water to melt chocolate. Cheaper mixing bowls abound, however I’m partial to the melamine bowls or the metal ones. Glass bowls are often quite heavy when hefting around a set of three. Ceramic is nice, but many sets are quite expensive, and the bowls may break. It’s up to you, but many mixing bowl sets can be gotten for under $25.
5. Baking pans. In the case of baking pans, be careful in getting cheap ones in these sets of three or five, because from my own experience in buying them, the pans will often warp while baking stuff. Also, some of these baking sets with many pieces of bakeware will throw in something utterly ridiculous that’ll only take up space in your kitchen, like a damn 6-cup muffin tin. What recipe will only make six muffins or cupcakes?! Who wants to put in that much work for only six muffins or cupcakes?! Shenanigans! Anyway, personal preference is paramount when selecting baking pans, as you’re not going to buy a pan for making pie crusts if you don’t see yourself making pies any time soon. Making cakes? Get some nice cake tins. If you plan on making cookies, a good baking sheet and cooling racks are good to have for your Cookie Monster moments. You may pooh-pooh the cooling racks, and you don’t really *need* them, however they are nice to have not just for cooling your cookies nicely so they don’t brown too much on the bottom or get stuck to some plate, but also for when you’re making cakes and you’re drizzling a glaze on top, or when dusting a cake with powdered sugar.
Amassing a good assemblage of baking pans won’t be cheap, but no one’s making you do it all at once. Start out with getting the gear for making the recipes you want to make, then later pick up other pans on the way. Although I love layer cakes, I don’t often bother with them, so when I was reassembling a kitchen in London, I started first and foremost with a good baking sheet for cookies and scones, the things I bake most often. After that, I bought a small ceramic casserole dish to make apple crumble in. Then came a muffin tin, and then I acquired a small loaf pan from a friend. Because of how busy (and broke) I was, I never got a bundt pan or other cake pans, but I managed to delight friends with what I was able to make using those four baking vessels–and the loaf pan was something I only used a few times for banana bread.
Oh, but I did have a cooling rack.
6. Measuring cups and spoons. Okay, so nobody told me that when I moved to London I would be moving to a country that doesn’t use measuring cups when baking, so when I made my first batch of cookies on that side of the Atlantic, I was painfully scooping with a tablespoon approximate measures, as well as checking with everything on a scale when baking with an American recipe. After a hunt, I managed to score a decent set of measuring spoons from Gill Wing’s cookshop on Upper Street in Islington, but if you live in America, you don’t have to go far to get a set of measuring cups and spoons. Good ol’ eHow has some tips on how to buy measuring cups, which are good to consider. I’ve also been advised to avoid cups with little bits–like pouring points (or whatever they’re called)–as this may have an affect on obtaining an accurate measurement.
If you are using British recipes or are living in the UK, you may be baking by weight as opposed to volume, a la the American system. In which case, you will need a scale. Although purportedly more accurate, I feel like scales are sort of a barrier to baking, making it seem more harder than it actually is. I’m sure once one gets the hang of it using a scale can be fairly easy to use as part of one’s baking equipment, and yes, it may be more accurate. But, can you throw a kitchen scale in a drawer or tuck it into your carry-on luggage? Maybe a very small one. That being said, kitchen scales often seem quite expensive, but there are some decent-looking ones on Argos for around a ten-pound note.
So what else do you need? Well, since I fuss with dough a lot, I have a baker’s blade, but I wouldn’t really put that down as an essential unless you plan on making a lot of American-style biscuits or scones, because there isn’t much use for it in making cakes or cupcakes. You may want to buy a sifter to sift ingredients like flour and powdered sugar, but I hardly ever have the need for one, and when I do, I feel like a big mesh strainer works just fine and is a hell of a lot easier to clean. As you bake, you’ll figure out what you like to bake and you’ll see the need for certain other utensils, pans and so on as you go. Try not to be tempted into buying pans or other equipment you’re not going to use, no matter how much you think you’ll be waking up early to make madeleines all the time.
So now you’ve got your cookie sheet or your cake pan, your pastry blender and your mixing bowls, and you’re ready to throw down? Well, if you’re looking for recipes, the internet is a good source to find things. My friend Marie swears by Allrecipes.com, whereas I often pick through recipes on MarthaStewart.com. I know, Martha be askin’ for some crazy stuff you can’t find anywhere else, but when I search for a recipe for something, what I do is go straight to the Everyday Food recipes, which are a bit less fuss than the recipes found in other publications. There’s a way of filtering out all the other stuff by just selecting the source as “Everyday Food” on the site.
If you’d like to start collecting books, I recommend getting The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge. The recipes are nice because they are either quick, or can be done in steps in which you can put the unfinished product in the fridge and then later get back to it another time when you can. You can purchase it on Abebooks.com for quite a discount than what it would be otherwise sold in stores, along with other cookbooks. Cookbooks/cookery books can be quite expensive, and many times they wind up not being used for their recipes so much as for food porn, so not only can used bookstores be a good inexpensive way to get a collection going, you can also see if your local library carries cookbooks, and then borrow what you think you might like to make.
So, food processors be damned… until I can get set up in a place and start getting to the point where I can actually make a decent living for once. Until then, me and my fork’ll throw down like it’s going outta style. Good luck on your own baking adventures.