I've never attended formal culinary school. Instead, working at King Arthur functioned as my baking education. Colleagues were forever offering up little gifts of their knowledge, like tiny breadcrumbs leading me toward becoming a better baker, and I took classes at the Baking School when I could. Any baker worth their salt knows that you're never finished learning, and if I could have spent all my time in those cheerful, brightly lit classrooms, I would have.
Luckily, my job indirectly led me to do just that. I've spent the better part of two years working on the forthcoming King Arthur Baking School Cookbook: a vibrantly photographed compilation of the classes and curriculum taught in the school (out October 11!). Writing the book required a deep familiarity with the school, which meant spending hours interviewing instructors and watching (and re-watching!) taped classes.
Speaking with instructors was like attending my very own private baking school. Through their confident yet comforting guidance, I discovered a novel piece of information or a new way of looking at a familiar concept nearly every week. But there were a few things in particular that fascinated me, stuck with me, or surprised me with their elegantly simple approach. So here are the top seven lessons I learned while writing the King Arthur Baking School Cookbook:
1) A good cat visual makes all the difference
Cats, you ask? No, that’s not a typo. This was the visual that took my ciabatta bread from just okay to superlative. We rely on this visual when teaching the "slap and fold" technique instead of traditional kneading. The method is often used for wetter doughs like ciabatta because the sticky, slack dough is so difficult to pick up and manipulate.
The cat analogy helps bakers remember how to properly handle the dough: You picture the mass of bread dough as a cat. Slip your hands under the dough as if you were picking up the cat behind its front legs, rather than by its head or tail, and then continue with the rest of the motion (rotating the dough, "slapping" it down, then folding it over). Eventually, the dough will start to smooth out and gain tension and elasticity as it develops.
2) A simple order-of-ingredients trick
Sometimes recipes give specific instructions on how to combine ingredients, but not always. Guest instructor Jackie King, who teaches a class on laminated doughs, has a tried-and-true rule of thumb. She adds the dry ingredients on top of the wet; this ensures that no dry ingredients get left at the bottom of the bowl, as her method allows the wet ingredients to "clean" the bowl from the bottom up. Never again will I pour out my batter only to find a deposit of dry ingredients hiding at the bottom of the bowl, unmixed and abandoned!
3) Look for flavor in unexpected places
There is no end to creative pie recipes: wine-soaked blueberry, purple sweet potato, peanut butter marshmallow, black walnut chocolate, and gingered plum streusel, just to name a few. Recipes tend to showcase exciting flavors in the filling, but in our pie classes, our instructors turn that template on its head, showing bakers how crust is an excellent vehicle for flavor.
The book's pie chapter has an entire section packed with inspiration for mixing and matching flavored pie crust with different fillings and toppings. Since I wrote the chapter, I’ve been dreaming of a toasted hazelnut crust spiced with cardamom, a cheddar cheese crust flecked with thyme and sage, or a tender cornmeal crust bright with lemon zest and dotted with poppy seeds.
4) Rules are made to be broken
The conventional wisdom when making pie crust is to handle the fat as little as possible, ensuring it doesn't get too warm and create a homogenous dough. You need those small chunks of flour-coated fat: They're responsible for a flaky crust because the water in the butter evaporates in the oven's heat, emitting puffs of steam that make pockets of air and create a flaky texture and appearance. Yet fraisage, a French technique shared in the Baking School Cookbook, uses the heel of your hand to smear the butter into the flour.
This should not work! It goes against all my pie instincts! But it does work: Smearing creates long, thin sheets of butter, translating to long, thin layers (i.e., more flakes!). Although the new method flew in the face of what I thought was an ironclad baking rule, it reminds me to keep my mind open.
5) Bread flour isn't just for bread
Yes, it's called bread flour, but don't let that limit you. Bread flour is higher in protein content, and more protein means more gluten-forming potential and strong gluten networks. But this doesn't always translate to an overly sturdy product. The book's kouign-amann recipe taught me that bread flour can also be an incredible asset in non-bread applications — it can even yield a gorgeously flaky, light pastry!
Here, bread flour is used to give the dough more structure so it can stand up to all the folding and manipulation required of a laminated dough. The dough has a higher hydration level than other similar pastries, which bread flour’s higher protein content necessitates — in combination with a light hand, this helps to keep the final result ethereal and delicate rather than dense and heavy. I’ve used bread flour in other places since writing the book (cookies, pie crust, and more): It takes some experimentation, but the results continue to surprise and impress me.
6) Butter isn’t always better — but you have to know what you’re doing
The magic of the Baking School lies in teaching the why of baking, rather than just the how, to help students develop their own baking intuition. That said, working on this book emphasized to me how important a great, thoughtful recipe is as a starting point. For example, one of our cookie recipes calls for coconut oil instead of butter. The goal was to offer an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie made with an alternative fat to butter to demonstrate the difference in flavor and texture.
Instead of simply swapping an equal amount of oil for butter, the recipe calls for the unusual step of whipping melted coconut oil with cold water and a cold egg. This emulates the creaming action of butter, and adding liquid compensates for the difference in water content (coconut oil is 100% fat, whereas butter is 80% fat and 20% water). This sort of clever reverse-engineering comes from bakers who really know their stuff and how to write a recipe that works. From now on, I reach for coconut oil when I want a chocolate chip cookie that really wows — and I follow these very specific steps to make it.
7) Learn your own oven
Every oven is different. Some run hot, some run cold. Some have hot spots, and some don't. It's helpful to buy an oven thermometer (they're inexpensive) to get a better sense of the accuracy of your oven's temperature and to learn the hot spots. (Use this tip to find out how to uncover them.) I’ve learned that my home oven runs about 15 degrees cooler than it actually says: Now, I add 15 degrees to the specified temperature in a recipe and I’m good to go. And as our instructors gently remind students, remember that times and temperatures are still just guidelines: Your nose, eyes, and hands are the most valuable tools for knowing if something is properly baked. Touch the bread! Smell the cake! Look at the edges of the cookies!
If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending an in-person class at the Baking School (either on the east or west coast), I hope one day you can. Standing in the classroom with the green hills of Vermont unfolding beyond the windows and the smell of freshly baked bread hanging in the warm air is a joy. But while the atmosphere is incredible, what’s truly special about the school is its wise, timeless teachings. With this book, you’ll be able to bring that knowledge home to your own kitchen.
The King Arthur Baking School Cookbook is available for pre-order now and will be published soon, on October 11. Order your copy today!
Cover photo by Kristin Teig.