panera test bakery

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Panera Bread test bakery in New Haven, Connecticut. The Panera Small Batch Bakery is an amazing small batch bakery concept. Freshly baked and artisanal. It is across the street from the Yale campus, and until now has been a bit of a secret. When you walk in, it feels like a Panera, but not one, all at the same time. There the head baker, Tom Gumpel, has a lab to bring us the most innovative, flavorful, and collaborative experience that you have ever had at a Panera. The new things (sprouted grains are coming soon!) that you buy in the bakery section of your local Panera are born here.

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We got to Panera all the time. It is one of the few places where all 5 of us like to eat, and can get something that each one enjoys. Basically, a meal a Panera is always going to be conflict-free. When the PR team reached out and asked me if I would like to visit the test bakery, I jumped on the chance.

Not only did we get to sample all of the things that were baking in the test bakery that day (think pretzels, croissants, waffles, cookies, scones, bread pudding, it was AMAZING), but we got to bake alongside the bakers. As you can tell from the picture below, I am a very serious baker. That picture of Jennifer and I from Bake or Break makes me laugh. We are intent on making sure we don’t overwork our scones.

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I bake a lot, and am comfortable in the kitchen, but I learned some new things too. That is what I love so much about cooking and baking with other people, you glean so much from them. I thought that today, I would share some of my top baking tips with you.

1. Baking is a science, you need to measure and use the ingredients that the recipe calls for. This one is probably the #1 most important thing when it comes to baking. Unlike with cooking, you can’t just swap things or wing it. It needs to be accurate and precise, or there is a very good chance the recipe will not come out the way that you expected it to.

2. Make sure that your leaveners are fresh. Baking soda and baking powder are uber important when it comes to making cakes and cookies rise. If they have been in your pantry for more than 6 months, throw them out and use fresh ones. When you open them, use a marker to write the date on it so that you can be sure how fresh it is.

3. Butter. I could write an entire blog about this single ingredient. I use unsalted butter. I like the way that it tastes better, and I control the amount of salt in a recipe. If it calls for room temperature (for cakes and cookies) then it needs to be left out for a few hours. If it calls for cold (like for scones and pie crusts) keep it in the fridge until the last second. It really makes a huge difference in the texture of baked goods. Also, here in the US, a stick of butter is 1/2 cup or 4 ounces.

4. Bakes times are not set in stone, they are a suggestion of sorts. All oven temperatures vary. You can buy an oven thermometer and find out where yours falls. For me, my oven runs on the slow-ish side, so I almost always have to add an extra 5 minutes to most recipes. My rule, bake it until it is done. That is why there is usually a clarifier on the end of a recipe. For instance, 22 minutes, or until golden brown.

5. Use high quality ingredients. If you are making a chocolate tart, use the best chocolate that you can. The end product will thank you for it. When baking, you can’t taste it as you go, so you don’t know how it will turn out until it is baked and cooled. High quality ingredients give you a little insurance.

6. Parchment paper is a baker’s best friend. I use parchment for everything. I use it to line baking sheets and cake pans, but I also use it to wrap my finished product. So versatile.

7. You don’t need a lot of tools, just a few of the right ones. Measuring cups for dry, one for liquid, measuring spoons, rubber spatulas, mixing bowls and a whisk. You can make almost anything with those few tools. If I have to add one more – an offset spatula.

8. Read the recipe from start to finish before you start baking. If I had a dollar for every time that I did not do this – I would have saved myself a lot of time and ingredients, not to mention, be a very wealthy woman.

9. Invest in a good pans. They maintain heat better and tend to be sturdier. When I stopped using cheap cake pans, my cakes improved dramatically. Now I go to a bakery supply store (or online) and spend a few extra dollars for thicker pans. Also, I  like the straight sides.

10. Don’t over-mix batters or overwork doughs. Muffins and cakes (pancakes too) will get tough if you mix them too much. Stop when it is just combined. Same with scone dough, biscuits or pie crust – touch it as little as possible. The heat from your hands will start to melt the butter and you want light and fluffy and layer. The cold butter makes that happen.

Okay, 11 tips.

11. Once you find a good recipe and have made it successfully a few times, then you can play with it. You would be amazed how you can change a recipe by changing a few little things. For instance, my scone recipe is great on its own, but I can do a million variations of it when I change out the flavors, or add fruit.

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 Thank you to Panera Bakery for inviting me to tour and bake in their test bakery. They paid for my travel, but all opinions are 100% my own. And thank you to Sally, Zoe, Lindsay, Nicole, and Jennifer for baking with me.  

What are YOUR best baking tips? I’d love to know, leave a comment below to add it to the list.