Many folks in Brazoria County are busy preparing for the county fair. The Junior Creative and Culinary Arts Contest is just one of the many competitions youths are preparing for. This contest is exclusively for 4-H, FFA and FCCLA members, but you can participate, too. There are more than 60 classes in the competition, including canning, baked confections and photography.

The JCCA needs judges to sample baked goods Oct. 5 and evaluate crafts and other items Oct. 7. If you have a sweet tooth or are willing to share your expertise with youth exhibitors, call or email me at 979-864-1555 or

In the spirit of the winning the grand champion cake or cookies, here are a few baking tips:

Always have the correct butter consistency: Butter is the starting point for an immense number of baked goods, so it’s important to have it prepped as the recipe suggests. The temperature of butter can dramatically affect the texture of baked goods. There are three different consistencies of butter baking recipes typically call for: softened, chilled (or frozen, as for scones) and melted.

Most recipes that include butter call for room temperature/softened butter. Room temperature butter is actually cool to the touch, not warm. When you press it, your finger will make an indent without sinking into it or sliding all around. To get that perfect consistency and temperature, leave butter on the counter for about one hour before beginning your recipe.

Chilled butter has been well chilled in the refrigerator or freezer so it does not melt during mixing. This helps create flaky pockets in recipes like pie crust.

Unless otherwise noted, melted butter should be liquified and lukewarm. If the butter is too hot, it can cook the batter and eggs.

Room temperature is key. Speaking of temperature, if a recipe calls for room temperature eggs or any dairy ingredients such as milk or yogurt, make sure you follow suit. Recipes don’t just do that for fun — room temperature ingredients emulsify much easier into batter, which creates a uniform texture throughout your baked good. Think of rock-hard butter — it’s not so easy to cream into a soft consistency, is it? Same goes for eggs. They add much more volume to the batter at room temperature. So, yes, temperature is imperative.

Read the recipe before beginning: This sounds sort of silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a complete disaster in the kitchen because I didn’t realize a certain step was coming up. Reading ahead will help you know the how, why, where and when of what you are about to do. It will take you one to five minutes and could save you from wasting ingredients (and money!) on a failed dessert.

Always have ingredients prepped: Measure your ingredients before beginning a recipe. Read through the ingredients, get them prepared and ready on your counter, then read the recipe in full. There is very little room for error when you begin recipes this way.

Learn how to measure: Baking is a science. Excellent baking requires precise ratios, proven techniques and successful recipes that have been tested for taste. Unlike cooking, you can’t just bake something by throwing some ingredients together, mess it up and eat it anyway. One of the most crucial parts of baking is measuring ingredients properly.

Measure dry ingredients in measuring cups or spoons — these are specially designed for dry ingredients. Spoon and level (aka “spoon and sweep”) your dry ingredients. This means you should use a spoon to fill the cup and level it off. This is especially important with flour.

Scooping flour (or any dry ingredient) packs that ingredient down, and you could be left with up to 150 percent more than what is actually needed. A recipe calling for 1 cup of flour and baked with 2 or more cups instead will surely result in a fail — and a rather dry baked good.

And for liquid ingredients, I always use a clear liquid measuring cup.

Get an oven thermometer: Unless you have a brand-new or regularly calibrated oven, its temperature is likely inaccurate. When you set your oven to 350 degrees, it might not really be 350 inside. It could only be off by a little — 10 degrees, 100 degrees or even more. Do you know what that will do to your cookies, cinnamon rolls and cakes? While this might not seem like a big deal to you, it is a loaded problem for baked goods. An inaccurate oven can ruin them, the hours spent on the recipe and the money spent on ingredients, and leave you hungry for dessert. The inexpensive remedy to these baking disasters is an oven thermometer. While cheap, they’re irreplaceable in a baker’s kitchen. Place it in your oven so you always know the actual temperature.

Keep your oven door closed: You now know how the oven’s temperature can ruin a recipe. But what can completely throw off the temperature is constantly opening and closing that oven to peek at your baking cupcakes. Doing so can let cool air in, which greatly interrupts your baked good from cooking. Or worse — it affects how your baked good is rising. If you need to test your cakes for doneness with a toothpick, do so quickly. Remove from the oven, close the oven immediately, test for doneness and put it back in as quickly as you can if more bake time is required.

Chill your cookie dough: If a recipe calls for chilling the cookie dough, don’t skip that step. If a recipe yields super-sticky cookie dough, chill it before rolling and baking.

Chilling firms up cookie dough, decreasing the possibility of spreading. Chilling cookie dough not only ensures a thicker, more solid cookie but an accentuated flavor. In soft chocolate chip cookies, for example, it helps develops a heightened buttery, caramel-y flavor. After chilling, let your cookie dough sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes (or more, depending how long the dough has chilled) before rolling into balls and baking.

Courtney Latour is the extension agent for Family and Consumer Science with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Brazoria County. Contact her at 979-864-1558 or

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