Top ten test kitchen disasters to avoid

Lots of folks who call our bakers’ hotline (802-649-3717) comment that they’d love to work in the King Arthur test kitchen. “Boy, what a great job. I really envy you,” is an oft-heard comment. In truth, it IS a good job. Baking, eating, writing… what’s not to love, right?

Not to say that everything is peaches and cream every day, though. We have our fair share of kitchen disasters–more than the average baker, simply because we’re baking all the time. Odds are good that not every muffin, cookie, loaf of artisan bread and apple pie is going to turn out perfectly first time out of the gate. Like baseball players, we figure a .400 average is darned good. In fact, we employ a baseball adage about recipes we’re developing: three strikes and it’s out. If we don’t get VERY close to an acceptable product after trying a recipe three times–out it goes.

So, based on our collective 35 years in the King Arthur test kitchen, we, the King Arthur test bakers–Susan, Monte, Sue, and myself, P.J.–would like to offer you the following list: 10 things you should never do in the test kitchen.

1. Bake brownies without the flour. I did that once. They baked and bubbled, looking like a heaving earthquake in the pan. “Wow,” I thought. “Did I put in the baking powder twice? What’s up with this…?” After an hour at 350°F, they were still a gloppy mess. That was when I noticed the cup and a half of flour sitting on the counter–the flour I’d neglected to add to the cocoa, butter, sugar, and eggs.

2. Mistake lemon oil for lemon extract. When we got our first lemon oil sample to test–oh, about 16 years ago now–we thought OK, it’s probably like vanilla. Let’s try 2 teaspoons in these lemon cookies, to make them EXTRA-lemony. One bite was all it took to alert us to our mistake. Does the word “Ptooey!” sum it up sufficiently? How about “EWWWWWWW!”?

3. Blind-bake pie crust in a pan that’s been preheating in the oven. Remind me why we EVER thought this would be a good idea…

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4. Make porridge out of teff. While we were writing King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, our latest book, we gathered together every grain classified as “whole” available to the home baker. This group, unfortunately, included teff. Now, there are those among you who love this grain; and to you we give a hearty, whole-grain salute: injera aside, you must have had better luck with it than we did. Susan Miller, our Baking Education Center director and one of the book’s three authors, made teff porridge. “Looks like mud,” noted Susan. We nodded in glum agreement. We tasted. “Tastes like mud, too,” said Susan. Yup.

5. “Baking Sheet” editor Susan Reid says, “I was making a maple applesauce quick bread. I measured everything out on the recipe page, put it in the pan, and thought, ‘Hmmm… This must really rise a lot, because the pan isn’t quite halfway full.’ I double-checked the recipe; all the ingredients written there were in the batter, so I went ahead and baked it. After the full baking time, I had a loaf that was about, uh, 2” tall. It didn’t taste bad; it was actually quite moist. It was only afterward that I realized the recipe version I was using had lost 2 cups of whole wheat flour. I’d edited them right off the page. Sigh…”

6. Let the dough in your pain de mie pan over-rise. I make pain de mie a lot. I LOVE this moist, close-grained bread, with its Pepperidge Farm texture. Pain de mie is the ne plus ultra loaf for sandwiches, toast, and French toast. You do, however, have to be sure it doesn’t rise too high in the pan. One day I lost track of time (see #10, below). Whoops… I pulled open the lid just a crack to take a peek. The dough was trying to shove its way out of the pan. I quickly slid the lid back, and stuck it in the oven. WHEW! Guess I caught it just in time. NO WAY can that dough force its way through a metal lid and out of the pan…

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7. Assume recipes that come from professional bakers are going to work in the home kitchen. We’ve all been burned on this one. You see a recipe in a trade magazine, a golden raisin-fennel flatbread from Chef HighHat of Restaurant WaDoSo, and you think, “Hey, that sounds pretty good,” and you carefully do the math to cut it back from, oh, 580 servings to 12, and you make the dough, and… no way. NO way. The dough you’re supposed to knead till stiff is the consistency of pancake batter. Wha… ? Note to self: Make up your own recipes, don’t crib from the pros.

8. BEAT cocoa powder. So you’re making frosting. You put cocoa and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer. And then you absentmindedly hit the switch… Faster than you can say “Oh my goodness, why did I do that?” (though a few other choice words leave your lips), there’s a sooty mushroom cloud of sugar and chocolate exploding over your mixer and heading towards the ceiling. You quickly stop the mixer, but–TOO LATE. Like the ash from an erupting volcano, cocoa now coats every surface within three feet of the mixer. P.S. Cocoa doesn’t wipe clean easily; because of its oil content, it smears. Have fun!

9. Assume a cake is done just because it’s been baking for the required amount of time at the required temperature. Cake testers, broom straws, bamboo skewers, and toothpicks exist for a reason. Use them.

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10. And here it is, the most common test kitchen mistake of all, leading to an eclectic array of disasters: FORGETTING TO TURN ON THE TIMER. All of us in the test kitchen do this occasionally; some of us–those entering those challenging “mental-pause” years–do it regularly. The result? Well, the obvious: acridly burned brownies, heralded by the ominous callout from another baker, “Do I smell something burning?” And burned bread; not just burned, but scorched, torched, and incinerated, if we all happen to be away from the kitchen for awhile. And then there’s the oatmeal, simmering on the stove in anticipation of making oatmeal bread. Simmering, and simmering, and simmering, and turning black on the bottom as it cements itself to the pan… Boiling sugar syrup? Let’s not even go there. FORGETTING TO TURN ON THE TIMER means 1) wasted ingredients, 2) wasted time, 3) pot-scrubbing or other onerous cleanup, 4) the loss of whatever goodie you were trying to produce, and 5) another opportunity to wonder how you could be so dumb–again! If there’s one lesson all of us here in the King Arthur Flour test kitchen wish we could internalize, on a permanent basis, it would be simply this: TURN ON THE TIMER.

And there you have it, disastrous (tattle)tales from the test kitchen. All of us–you, me, the folks I work with here–make mistakes in the kitchen. Have you got a favorite kitchen disaster story to tell? Email me via the link on the right side of our blog landing page: kingarthurflour.com/blog. After all, kitchen idiocy loves company!

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...