So You Want to Learn to Bake

Yay! You’ve decided that you want to learn to bake.

Welcome to the baking club! We’ve been waiting for you!

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People who learn to bake are the best people

Their families love them more and their friends are more loyal and… ha ha… OK, well, maybe there is baking bribery involved in these statements. I have noticed everyone gets very excited when I start looking through recipes.

BUT really, baking is a solid skill to build.

The power of “whipping up a cake” or serving freshly baked cookies is a beautiful thing. Everyone is always happy to see me when I have a box of baked goods in my hand!

The Art of Baking:

Have you heard all of that “cooking is art” but “baking is science” business?

I hate to break it to anyone thinking that way, but there’s a heck of a lot of science in art. Along with math, and history, and philosophy.

Not to mention practice. That’s how I leaped from being an artist and art teacher to a baker and never felt like I left art behind. My artistic media is now edible!

When I’m baking, I’m concentrating on getting my mixtures right. Working on making sure to build a solid foundation so that the dessert I present will fulfill my vision. I don’t want failure to be because of a technical detail.

Then, when I am done baking, I begin the aesthetic exercises of making the food as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.

There’s color mixture, composition, all of the elements and principles of design are just as important when creating a cake as they are when painting a picture.

The best thing is that with food I get to incorporate the senses of taste and smell in a whole new way.

Although I am a sucker for the smell of plate oil, (a printmaking thing) I never get compelled to eat it. The smell of a chocolate cake in the oven entices everyone.

The Best Way to Learn to Bake:

The very best way to learn baking for beginners is… ready for this one?…. BAKING. Trying a recipe and learning from your mistakes is the very best way I know to really, really learn to bake.

You can watch others, read books, and go through all of the comments and still not be one bit closer to learning HOW to bake.

Even if you go to pastry school, you have to get that apron on and get in the kitchen, then you will be on the right path to learning to bake.

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Some practical tips to help you learn to bake:

1.  Get to know your oven:

Your oven is your new BFF. It’s also quirky, even if it’s brand new. All ovens run a little different and getting to know your oven will save you some tears and ruined desserts.

Is it conventional or convection? If it’s convection or has convection ability, you will see it labeled on it somewhere (hopefully).

Conventional Oven:

A conventional oven is the “regular” type. The heat comes from a heat source and bakes the food with hot air. Most online resources and test kitchens for home cooks use a conventional oven as their guide. If the recipe says “350” it’s on your conventional oven.

Convection Oven:

A convection oven uses a fan to disperse the air all around the oven and your baked goods. This is great for baked goods like pies, cookies, and tarts where the air circulating all around gives even an even browning.

Depending on the strength of the fan, it could be good or bad for other baked goods.  I’ve heard of muffins and delicate cakes being blown sideways by the convection fan.

If you choose to use the convection type of oven, your heat will most likely need to be lowered and the baking time will be less than the recipe states.

Do the toast test!

Two major factors in how your oven performs are the temperature being accurate and the heat is evenly dispersed.

If your oven’s temperature isn’t calibrated properly, you might have a lot of needless problems. A cheap oven thermometer is your best bet. I like this one link to it

You can calibrate your temperature according to your oven manufacturers guidelines or you can just adjust your temperature dial accordingly.

The hot spots are easy to find with the toast test. A cheap loaf of bread will do, but if you feel like making dried bread crumbs feel free to use whatever bread you’d like.

  1. Place bread slices evenly on a sheet pan.
  2. Place in oven until the slices are visibly toasted, but not burnt.
  3. Observe toasting patterns on the slices. Is the back corner burnt and the front barely toasted? Is the center burnt?

What the toast test will teach you: That you may need to turn your pans halfway through cooking to avoid over and under browning. That you may need to avoid placing something in a certain spot in your oven. The more you know, the better you can strategize your baking.

2. Choose a great recipe:

You kind of need to know what you are going to start out with when you learn to bake. I suggest something that you know how it’s supposed to turn out. Choose something that you really love to eat! Don’t pick an experimental recipe that you don’t really know what the end result should be, save those for much later.

I suggest an old family favorite or a baking standard so you can know when you’ve succeeded.

You Can’t Go Wrong with a Great Book!

Another thing you can do, get a comprehensive,well-reviewed baking book, like The Baking Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum or a newer book, like The Fearless Baker: Simple Secrets for Baking Like a Pro by Erin Jeanne McDowell. The Fearless Baker actually has a foreword by Rose Levy Beranbaum!

Just start at the beginning and work your way to baking confidence!

If you are on the fence about how you want to learn, I’ve gone pretty deep into teacher vs. self in these articles, Self Directed Learning or Classroom and 5 Tips to Read Before Buying an Online Course

Visit the Library!

The library is a great place to get all the best cookbooks. I love to check out new baking books and try before I buy.

I try to only buy the books when it hurts me to have to give them back to the library or I find myself returning to check it out again and again. Otherwise, I would have been on an episode of Hoarders a looooonnnnnnnngggggg time ago.

Find a Recipe Online

Screen Shot of Apple Crisp Recipe with Reviews circled in pink

Choose one with great reviews and start there. Great reviews mean more than the stars it received. Go with a recipe that has a lot reviews on a site like All Recipes or King Arthur. Then, READ some of the best reviews and the worst reviews. 

Sometimes the reviews point out things to watch out for in the recipe.

Like, maybe it will take a little longer to cook, or you need to be extra careful when greasing the pan because a lot of people got their cakes stuck You know, little tips that matter.

Avoid the listening to people who say they substituted ALL the ingredients, the recipe turned out terrible and they rate it 1 star. Please… avoid them… please don’t be them. Please, for the love of all that is sweet, I beg.

Only listen to people who followed the recipe. Do not indulge the wannabe recipe developers who do their best work commenting on other people’s recipes.

(Who me? Bitter at commenters? Noooooo….Well, maybe a little… The teacher in me wants them to JUST FOLLOW THE RECIPE AT LEAST ONCE before deciding it’s a bad recipe or that they are a better baker than the creator of the recipe.)

More of my articles on recipes: How to Read a Recipe and Do I Need to Make My Own Recipes to Start a Bakery?

3. Learn to accept success and failures as part of learning to bake.

After each bake comes the best part. The taste tests!

This is when everyone else gets as excited about your baking as you are. Sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes the results aren’t as good as you hoped.

Sadly, some recipes aren’t keepers. Don’t feel like you have to keep it. If it wasn’t what you hoped, keep looking. In fact, I tried 5 different Red Velvet Cake recipes before I settled on the one I like now. I may even change it again in the future!

4. Make notes on your recipes.

Taking notes is a super scientific thing to do, but baking is very scientific. (Remember all that baking is a science business?)

Any changes will change the recipe, even tiny substitutions can make a huge difference in taste or texture.

Also, I also know myself well enough to know that I will not remember what I did (even though I always think I will) unless I write it down.

Best practice, make notes.

If you think more nuts were needed jot that down.  The baking time was longer than the recipe said it would be, take a note! When you want to change anything at all, write it down. Then, next time you get out the recipe, you’ll be set to try your changes.

I do always keep the original recipe, even if I end up re-writing it. I like to know where I started.

If You’d Like Some Instruction When You Learn to Bake:

Local instructors:

Usually, community colleges and technical schools offer workshops over methods and baking techniques. A lot even offer cake decorating classes.

You can also look at your favorite local bakery websites. You will be surprised how many local bakeries teach weekly classes. They aren’t always easy to find, but if you search and ask around, I bet there are at least a few near you.

Online Instruction:

Personally, I love to get online instruction. It’s not for everyone, but I just love working at my own pace and watching the courses over and over again, like I can on Craftsy (now closed) and the unlimited service Bluprint (now also closed, but I learned a lot from their services.)

Plus, with their services, I get to take classes with the top industry professionals for pennies compared to the price of their in-person classes!

In-person Classes/ Workshops with BIG Names:

If you ever do get a chance to attend an in-person workshop with one of your baking or decorating heroes, DO IT!

Start following your heroes on social media and they’ll announce where they’ll be teaching and how to enroll.

A great way to do that is to start attending conferences, like the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS) or CookieCon. They always pull big names for presenters and demonstrations and you can see A LOT of good stuff in one place!


Questions or comments?

What are your big questions about learning to bake? Who are your baking heroes? I want to know! Leave a comment or drop me a line!

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Sources of research for this article:

Iowa State University: Test Your Oven for Hot Spots 

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About Mikel Ibarra

Mikel Ibarra holds a BFA in painting, is a certified cake decorator, teaches baking and cake decorating classes, and frequently combines her passions for the sake of art. Sweet Bytes is where she shares everything she knows about the art of baking and running a baking business.