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caramel cake

Kate Williams

Old-Fashioned Southern Caramel Cake


The Southern Kitchen guide to baking the best cakes, pies and everything in between

For even the most experienced cook baking can be incredibly intimidating. Too much of this or too little of that and instead of a decadent masterpiece you could end up with a flat, dry cake or other baked good.

Unlike savory cooking, baking and pastry are as much about actual scientific technique as they are intuition and pure talent. Baking gets a bad rep from time to time for requiring a little too much precision. Thankfully, it’s a learnable skill. Read on for all of our baking tips and tricks.

You’ve turn your oven dial to 350 and baked your tea cakes for the exact amount of time the recipe you’re following calls for and yet, they’ve burned. How did that happen? This may sound like a no brainer but cakes, cookies and other baked good are pretty delicate. As such it is incredibly important when baking to make sure that the oven is set at the correct temperature. Many ovens actually run either warmer or cooler than the heat settings displayed so in order to ensure that you’re actually heating your appliance correctly consider investing in a thermometer specifically made to be kept inside of your oven. This will help to make sure that you’re always spot-on with your baking temperature.
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southern soda bread
Not all flour is created equal
Unless you’re a professional or avid baker odds are that the only flour in your pantry is all-purpose (or AP). In most baking situations, AP flour will work just fine, but make sure you’re paying attention when a recipe specifically calls for cake, bread or “00” flour. Why does this matter? Different flour types have completely different levels of protein and gluten. High protein flours, such as AP and bread flour, are better suited for baked goods that require structure, such as biscuits, cookies and breads. Flours with lower protein levels, such as cake flour, are better suited for delicate pastries, such as, well, cake, since the texture is supposed to be soft, moist and crumbly.
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hummingbird cake
Same goes for sugar
White sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, caster sugar and powdered sugar all have their own specific uses as well. Try to make chocolate chip cookies with just pure brown sugar and they will turn out completely different from the ones made with white sugar. Why? The molasses in the brown sugar reacts differently. White sugar is really all-purpose, and odds are if you’re using a recipe that calls for sugar, this is the one you'll want to grab. Because of its fine texture, powdered sugar is usually used in glazes for cakes, to sweeten whipped cream or for dusting over muffins or brownies. Make sure that when baking you pay close attention to which kind of sugar is being used because that will make all the difference.
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Butter, lard, and shortening? Oh my!
All types of fat have their places in baking but they are not (usually) interchangeable. If you want flaky dough with a lot of texture, use ice cold butter. When it melts in the oven it helps to create little air pockets that help give dough some height — think of fluffy biscuits. Lard's usage in pie crusts is legendary and helps to create beautifully tender dough that also has a more savory taste. However unless the recipe says substitutions are okay, or you're very comfortable with your skill level, do not interchange butter, lard, vegetable oil or shortening.
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What about salt?
Salt is one of the most essential ingredients in the baking process, but be careful. Putting salt in at the wrong point in your baking process can be harmful. For instance, when proofing yeast for bread dough, adding salt along with the yeast can kill the buggers, which will result in flat, tough bread. On the other hand, adding it in to cookie dough, or pie dough helps to bind all the ingredients together.
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And adding a good measure of salt to our butterscotch pudding is key for balance

Reading is fundamental
The last but most important step in mastering baking is of course reading a recipe thoroughly. If a recipe says you need to weigh 33 grams of flour, you better break out that scale and weigh it because eye-balling ingredients is a recipe for disaster. Read every recipe through first before even beginning the process. Measure out your ingredients and try to keep everything separate in the beginning. This will help you keep track of your mise en place (a French culinary term meaning "everything in its place") and also allow for you to slow down and make sure you’ve got everything you need.
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Photo (bread): Kate Williams
Photo (hummingbird cake): Catherine Baker
Photo (pie): Kate Williams
Photo (chocolate cups): Ramona King
Photo (cookbook): Ranji McMillan

Author image

Ryan Shepard is the editor-in-chief at Southern Kitchen. Though originally from Los Angeles, she has lived in Atlanta since early 2017 and cannot imagine calling any other city home (except maybe New Orleans). Before joining Southern Kitchen's staff, Ryan worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on public policy issues. When she's not at work, she enjoys hunting down the best Mexican food in the city and drinking whiskey, obviously.