Easy Chocolate Cobbler
I cannot count the number of times I've heard the phrase, "I am just not a baker." Even my friends and family members who love to cook claim that they cannot possibly pull off a basic cookie recipe or sheet cake. To this, I say, resolutely, you are all wrong.
Anyone can learn how to bake, whether it's a sweet dessert or a savory bread. All you need to do is take a deep breath and remember a few simple tips.
First: Read the gosh darn recipe!
Yes, it is true that baking involves more attention to detail than, say, whipping up a clean-out-the-fridge stir fry, but much of that attention just needs to be directed to the directions. One full read-through of the recipe (don't get distracted by Instagram, or your dog, or dogs on Instagram) will be enough to make sure you understand which ingredients go where, and how long you'll need to have your oven on. Taking the time to read will also ensure that you don't get halfway through baking before realizing that you don't have eggs in the fridge.
While you're reading, pay attention to any ingredients or terminology you don't understand. How do you "fold"? Can I use regular flour instead of pastry flour in this cake? What's "proofing?" If you've read the recipe bebfore you've started, you'll have the chance to consult other online resources, such as Southern Kitchen's Facebook page, or one of the many instructional videos on YouTube, to hopefully answer your question. I'm guessing you, the non-baker, don't have an arsenal of baking books on your shelf, so the internet will be your friend as you become more comfortable baking.
Second: Measure everything before you start mixing.
As a general rule, I always try to prepare all of my ingredients before cooking, or baking, anything. If you've watched any cooking show or culinary reality television program, you've surely heard the phrase "mise en place," which means, roughly, "everything in its place." In professional kitchens, this refers to each building block of a dish, prepped, arranged and ready to go before the restaurant opens. You can think about it the same way in your home, and it can apply to anything you make in it.
Again, this step will help you to avoid any last minute, "Oh [insert Southern expletive here], I forgot the salt," outburst. And it will help to keep you feeling calm and organized. Purchasing lots of small bowls will help you stay the most organized, but, even if you don't have these, you can easily "mise" your dry ingredients (that is — flour, baking powder, sugar, etc) out onto a large plate and your wet ingredients (i.e. milk, eggs, vegetable oil, etc) into coffee mugs and cereal bowls.
Third: Speaking of measuring ...
This is important. You do need to actually measure when you are baking. Yes, you've seen the videos of Southern women baking biscuits, measuring flour by the handful and buttermilk by sight. Once you've baked thousands of biscuits, you can do that, too. For now, though, it is best to pony up and purchase three sets of measuring devices: dry measuring cups, a liquid measuring glass or two (you know, the Pyrex glass cups with a pour spout and lines up the side), and measuring spoons.
If you're feeling bold, spring for a digital scale while you're at it. Measuring by weight sounds intimidating but it's way easier and requires much less clean-up than measuring by volume, believe it or not. However, if you're not ready to go there, it's totally fine. Get the cups and spoons and actually use them.
Finally: Follow the directions.
This sounds obvious. Yet many "non-bakers" I talk to say that they can't follow directions. Real talk: You are wrong.
Anyone can follow directions; y'all learned how to do this in elementary school. If you're tackling something like a cupcake recipe for the first time, keep any distractions at bay. Put your phone in another room, turn off the television, and close all of the other browser tabs on your computer. Better yet — use a cookbook and leave the computer in the living room. I promise it will be far easier to pay attention to the directions if you're not also making an Instagram story of your baking project.
When the recipe says to stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients, do as it says. When the recipe says to fill cupcake tins three-quarters of the way, do as it says. When the recipe says to bake the sponge cake without opening the oven door, do as it says. Once you've baked something a few times, you should feel free to experiment and fiddle with these rules, but you won't know what is supposed to happen if you don't follow a recipe as written the first time.
Side note: Sometimes recipes don't work.
There are many reasons why this fact is true. The internet, while it can function as a great resource for beginning bakers, is full of untested and/or just terrible recipes. Site like AllRecipes.com exist to be the biggest recipe databases of all time, not to be the best recipe databases of all time. If you've pulled a recipe off this type of website, I'd recommend doing a quick search for related recipes to see if they line up.
There are also plenty of poorly tested cookbooks out there hogging space on Amazon and at your local bookstore. An easy way to avoid purchasing a junk cookbook is to check and see if the images in the book actually match the recipes. (Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, especially with photo-less books like Joy of Cooking.) If the book is full of stock images, there's a good chance the author rushed through publication and likely hasn't really tested the recipes.
Your best bet is to stick with well-regarded culinary websites and cookbooks. Scour awards lists from organizations like IACP and James Beard to get started, and look to websites like this one, as well as America's Test Kitchen, Serious Eats, Food52 and the site of bloggers who regularly test recipes, such as Smitten Kitchen, A Brown Table and My Name is Yeh. (Full disclosure: I have written for America's Test Kitchen and Serious Eats, and have recipes published on Food52.)
And sometimes, even if you've taken your time and followed directions and chosen a good recipe, it still may just not work. Or may not be exactly what you thought it was going to be. That's okay. Take notes (or at least mental notes) so you'll know what you don't want to do next time!
Ready to get baking? Good! Here are some great recipes to help you get your feet wet.