9 Things Your Baker Wishes You Knew

With their displays of show-stopping layer cakes, cases of gleaming pastries and racks of perfectly crackly loaves, professional bakers may seem to have a touch of sorcery under their flour-dusted fingertips.

Tips from Pastry Pros

Like any cooking profession, baking is a craft, one that requires a lot of patience, practice and sacrifice—but it’s all made worth it by the joy their baked masterpieces bring to their customers. Here, pro bakers from around the country reveal the magic behind their craft and share tips for making your next bakery visit extra sweet.

Illustrations courtesy of CopyPress

Our Early Hours Aren’t Just for Your Breakfast

There’s often more to bakers’ 3 a.m. wake-up call than getting your morning muffins ready. In hot summers, dough is less temperamental before the sun heats things up. Plus, at combination restaurant-bakeries, like Cafe Alma in Minneapolis, the staff all compete for space on the counters and in the ovens. "We are also there early because that is when the kitchen is calm and quiet," shares Executive Pastry Chef Carrie Riggs. "There is more space to work, the temperature is more consistent since there are fewer bodies moving around, and you have all the oven space you need!"

You’re Freezing Your Bread Wrong

If you find a loaf you love, Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina, advocates buying extra and freezing them — with proper storage, they’ll last several months. The key is to first freeze the bread overnight unwrapped, so that the loaf freezes evenly and all the way through. The next day, take it out, wrap it in tin foil and then wrap it in plastic or tuck it into a resealable plastic bag before putting it back in the freezer. When you’re ready to thaw it, take it out of the freezer and remove the plastic, but leave the foil on while it thaws on the counter. His final piece of advice? "Once thawed, put in a hot oven for a short time...the moisture that collected around the bread/tin foil will create steam in the oven and help the bread to crisp up."

Cookie Prices Aren’t Cookie Cutter

There’s a lot that goes into that monster chocolate chip cookie besides quality butter, premium flour and top-tier chocolate. When bakers price treats, they not only have to factor in the cost ingredients, but their overhead too, including everything from the electric bill to the napkins. But as much as ingredients, utilities and labor factor in — French macarons are notoriously labor-intensive — so does perceived value and supply and demand. Some spots charge more for a signature item to offset the margins for their less-loved baked goods; sometimes other items, like coffee, are priced as loss leaders to attract new customers.

Choose Pastries from the Back

When you’re ogling the display case and land on the sweet treat you want, don’t leave your pastry’s freshness to chance. "In an ideal situation it's first in/first out, so the staff will know exactly the right one to grab," shares Allison Robicelli, who owned New York bakery Robicelli’s. Workers in a hurry, however, hardly have time to perfectly rotate product, so it’s more likely that the pastries at the back are the most recently baked.

Follow Your Nose

One way to differentiate between a mediocre bakery and a great bakery is by its aroma. Edan Leshnick of New York’s Breads Bakery advises taking a deep whiff as you walk in. "A really good bakery always has a distinct smell to it, a blend of natural fermentation of bread paired with [the] fresh buttery scent of its pastries," he explains. But if you smell yeast, it’s a sign that the bakery is using commercial yeast as a shortcut instead of high quality yeast, which requires a longer fermentation process. "It is during the fermentation process that breads develop their deep and complex aroma, texture and so much more," reveals Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery, in Cary, North Carolina, where the smell of caramelized crust permeates the bakery throughout the day.

The Bread Basket Is Worth the Splurge

Restaurants that bake in-house typically employ a pastry team to make those buttery dinner rolls and gourmet loaves, all of which require a lot of technique and time. So whether it’s served gratis or requires a small fee, go ahead and dive into the bread basket. "Bakers pour a lot of love and attention into what they do. They take care of and feed the starters as if they were beloved pets," explains Carrie Riggs, of Cafe Alma in Minneapolis. "Putting a price on a bread basket sometimes helps guests pay a little more attention to the quality and beauty of the bread."

Pastries Require Precision

When a baked item appears on a dessert or bakery menu, don’t assume that it didn’t take as much research and development as your dinner entree. "Pastry, and dough, can be very temperamental and mostly requires precise measurements. So much detail goes into baked goods and it's really a craft," explains Stephanie Dietz, owner of Doughminion Doughnuts in Norfolk, Virginia. Her carrot cake old-fashioned doughnut required more than nine hours of development until she concocted a dough that could withstand cutting and frying, and that doesn’t take into account the multiple tests needed to nail the overall flavor profile and balance of spices.

Tip Rates Can Vary

If you’re unsure whether to add to the tip jar, keep in mind that counter service staff typically make an hourly minimum wage, so you shouldn’t feel obligated to tip the standard 20 percent. That said, it never hurts to toss your change in the jar and good service always merits a tip, particularly if you’re a regular. Severs, on the other hand, usually make well below minimum wage and rely on tips, so keep the 20 percent industry standard in mind — plus extra if you’re planning to camp out at a table for several hours.

It's Not all Rainbow Sprinkles, all the Time.

Being a baker isn’t as glamorous as it seems: Irregular and long hours force many to give up a standard social life. "I often joke that I’m dating my cakes — that buttercream is my boyfriend — but that’s not far off," shares Rose McAdoo of Whisk Me Away Cakes in Brooklyn, who spends up to 80 hours a week in a hot kitchen. Though she often feels married to her job, the opportunity to share joy and tell other people’s stories through desserts keeps her going, including baking custom wedding cakes or collaborating on a 1,200-piece dessert bar honoring immigrant populations.

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