BraveTart's Essential Baking and Pastry Gear

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Videos: Natalie Holt]

With every recipe I share on Serious Eats, I always mention the specific equipment I use at home. Over time, I've found myself listing the same pieces over and over again, so it seemed time to gather up those recommendations in one place—everything you need to bake like a pro.

Of course, it would be impossible to write a guide that could cover every piece of equipment in the realm of pastry, so, as the author of a book called Iconic American Desserts, I'm limiting myself to the tools I use most, leaving out more obscure items that will sit around gathering dust. This isn't an exhaustive guide, but it covers the basics, as well as more specialized tools that can help intermediate bakers step up their game. Whether you're making layer cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream, candy bars, or a simple dish of custard, these are the essential tools you'll need to get the job done.

The following list has been adapted from my book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.

An Angel Food Cake Pan

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A basic two-piece aluminum tube pan is perfect for large chiffon and pound cakes, but it's absolutely essential for angel food cake, which will collapse in a nonstick pan. The two-piece construction allows the sticky angel food to be removed from the pan with ease, and comes in handy for removing crumb-topped coffee cakes as well.

A Brownie Pan

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For quick, even baking and the perfect crust on treats from brownies to hot cross buns, what you want is a nine- by 13-inch anodized aluminum baking pan. Anodization ensures the metal is nonreactive, which keeps recipes such as lemon bars and lasagna from taking on a wonky metallic flavor.

My favorite brownie pan goes the extra mile with a removable bottom, making it easy to extract fragile desserts for slicing into bars.

A Cast Iron Skillet

Aside from its many savory uses, a 10-inch cast iron skillet is ideal for roasting cherries on the grill, baking up a batch of buttermilk biscuits, or making a classic pineapple upside-down cake. If you're new to cast iron, be sure to read up on how to season a cast iron pan, as well as how to clean and maintain cast iron cookware.

Extra-Deep Cake Pans

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Dark, shallow cake pans produce cakes that aren't as fluffy as they could be, with a thick crust and pronounced dome—none of which are things you want. Instead, look for extra-deep pans made from reflective anodized aluminum. The additional depth helps cakes rise taller and fluffier, while reflective metal ensures their crust stays delicate and light and their tops nice and flat. Plus, deep cake pans can do double duty for messy, bubbly projects, like sticky buns—hence my obsession with these Fat Daddio's cake pans.

As with a brownie pan, anodized metal prevents unwanted reactions with acidic batters, such as my blackberry cake, ensuring baked goods taste and look like they should. Whether it's a recipe on Serious Eats or in my cookbook, all my cakes are based on eight-inch pans, because I love the tall, thick layers they make. For more information, check out my in-depth cake pan review.

A Cast Iron Turntable

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If you make layer cakes more than once or twice a year, a cast iron turntable is nothing short of revolutionary (pun intended, sorry).

The smooth spinning motion of a cast iron turntable helps creamy icings, like my silky Swiss buttercream or the marshmallow frosting in my book, glide evenly over a cake. When not in use for dessert, it can double as a lazy Susan for meals that require lots of condiments on the kitchen table.

Cookie Cutters

A set of nested round cookie cutters will see you through 99% of common baking projects, but having a fluted set as well can help you add some flair to basic cookie cutouts.

It's also fun to have plunger cutters that can cut and stamp cookies into varied shapes with patterned textures. While I love these circus animals, you'd be amazed at the variety of options available online, so find a set that reflects your style!

Cookie Dough Scoops

A spring-loaded scoop will make short work of portioning old-fashioned chocolate chip cookie dough, blueberry muffin batter, or drop biscuits for blackberry cobbler. For most projects, a two-tablespoon scoop is ideal, but I like having a one-tablespoon scoop for mini muffins and cookies as well.

A Digital Scale

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Switching from cups to a digital scale is the fastest way for any baker to level up in the kitchen. My favorite is this OXO scale; it toggles between ounces and grams and has a pullout display, so the readout is never obscured by large bowls or cutting boards. It can handle up to 11 pounds, so it's a great choice for scaling directly into heavy glass or ceramic bowls, which will easily max out a lower-capacity scale.

While I find it faster and easier to measure spices and leavening with teaspoons, if you prefer to go with grams for these lightweight ingredients, you'll also need to invest in a micro scale, which is capable of accurately weighing such small quantities.

A Digital Thermometer

With features such as "shattering glass" and "mercury poisoning," old-fashioned candy thermometers don't have much to offer, and besides, their markings can fade with use or fog with steam. A digital thermometer is a much more reliable choice, but it matters which type you use! Many of the most popular brands are designed to spot-check slabs of meat or pots of oil, but fall short when monitoring long-term stovetop projects, like toffee or fudge—popping a pocket thermometer in and out of the candy doesn't allow for the constant, steady readings required for good results.

Pastry projects are better done using a digital thermometer with a clip-on attachment, so you can monitor every second of the candy-making process, which can go from success to failure in a split second (most instant-read pocket thermometers require three or four seconds to register). My favorite is Polder's In-Oven Thermometer, which has a temperature alert function so I don't have to watch the readout like a hawk. I love that it has a timer as well.

Even if you don't make candies often, this thermometer has a heat-resistant cord, so it's great for keeping tabs on long-term savory projects as well, like a roast turkey. Worth noting: This thermometer is not meant for use on the grill.

A Food Processor

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A food processor is essential for recipes such as my magic bagels and homemade Wheat Thins, but it also makes short work of custom flours, like the freeze-dried fruit and cake flour blend in my double strawberry cake, as well as the honey-roasted-peanut flour for the peanut butter cookies in my book and the apple flour in my homemade Oatmeal Creme Pies.

If you're looking for an investment piece that can withstand heavy use and abuse (particularly in the realm of bread), I recommend the Breville Sous Chef.

For those in need of something reliable to handle casual use—like making the occasional batch of fruity, super-stable whipped cream or homemade digestive biscuits—I've been very happy with my Cuisinart 14-Cup Food Processor.

A 2-Quart Baking Dish

Whether you're making a rhubarb crisp or tiramisu, a two-quart baking dish (usually measuring seven by 11 inches, or else eight by 10 inches) is the perfect size for most baking projects. It can be great to have a three-quart (nine- by 13-inch) dish for parties and family gatherings, but otherwise, I've found three quarts of anything to be a lot to consume before it goes mushy or stale.

Simple Pyrex is my favorite (can't beat that accompanying lid!), but cobblers, crisps, and puddings do just fine in heavy stoneware as well. (Note that the listed measurements of the Creuset dish include the handles and far outer walls; the interior is just about seven by 11 inches.)

Half Sheet Pans

If there's one thing every pastry chef has in common, it's a deep appreciation for a bare-bones aluminum sheet pan. Don't get taken for a ride with pricey baking sheets; pick up the simple tool all the pros use at home, the humble half sheet pan. Buy some on the cheap at restaurant supply stores or wholesale clubs like Sam's and Costco, or pay a little more for the convenience of shopping online.

An Ice Cream Maker

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Due to their poor scraping mechanisms, stand mixer attachments for ice cream making tend to allow a thick layer of dairy fat to freeze around the sides of the bowl, preventing proper aeration in American-style ice cream and allowing for larger fat/ice crystal size, all of which can add up to a gummy, greasy, and/or icy ice cream. A stand-alone ice cream machine is far more effective.

Even if you don't agree with that assessment, once you consider the fact that a stand-alone machine is usually a lot cheaper (flash sales aside), it's hard to argue against choosing the machine that is designed exclusively for the task. My favorite is from Cuisinart, and it's what I use at home and in the Serious Eats test kitchen. It does a bang-up job with scraping and aeration, for ice cream that's always silky-smooth.

As with any canister-based ice cream machine, success depends on the temperature of your freezer, so make sure it's set to 0°F. (This can be tested by wrapping a bag of frozen vegetables around a digital thermometer.) If not, the canister won't be sufficiently chilled for use, and you may need to adjust the dial.

A Loaf Pan

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Aluminized steel isn't my favorite material for layer cakes, as it encourages the development of a heavier crust, but for that very reason, it's amazing for baking an evenly browned loaf, whether we're talking about classic banana bread or a sour cream pound cake.

I like the sharp corners and tall sides of Chicago Metallic's eight-inch aluminized steel loaf pan, also known as a "one-pound" loaf pan.

Muffin Pans

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Reflective metals like aluminum keep muffins from browning along the bottom, which is why I prefer to bake them in a dark nonstick muffin pan. By the same token, those pans aren't the best for cupcakes, which do best in aluminum pans that keep their crusts delicate and pale.

Since baking is what I do for a living, I have both, but if I could recommend only one, it would be a nonstick pan for muffins, with greaseproof foil liners to reduce browning in cupcakes. See my muffin pan review for more information.

Stainless Steel Sieves

Most bakers know a sturdy mesh sieve is one of the most useful kitchen tools around, but not as many folks realize how important it is for that mesh to be stainless steel. Bringing acidic liquids, like lemon juice or blackberry purée, in contact with aluminum can cause foods to discolor or develop an unpleasant metal twang. At home, I use an eight-inch stainless steel sieve for all sorts of tasks, including sifting flour and straining ice cream base; for smaller projects, I like to keep a three-inch sieve on hand as well. This set of three sieves should meet any need.

Offset Metal Spatulas

For years, my husband thought I'd been calling it an "upset spatula," which, frankly, he'll never live down because there's nothing upsetting about this amazing tool. If you're crumb-coating a cake or loosening Oreo dough from the counter, an eight-inch* offset spatula will always get the job done. For frosting cupcakes or homemade Lofthouse cookies, it's nice to have a mini offset spatula, too.

* Okay, fine, it's a 7.75-inch spatula, but who's counting?

An Oven Thermometer

The first question I always ask when troubleshooting a recipe for someone is whether or not their oven runs true to dial. Cakes that should be fluffy turn out gummy and dense when the oven temperature is too low, and excessively high heat can cause flaky pie doughs to turn out greasy instead. These problems can all be eliminated with a cheap oven thermometer, which can help you figure out what setting is best when a setting of 350°F isn't what it seems.

A Pastry Bag and Tips

Canvas bags may be traditional, but they absorb odors and colors over time. If not meticulously cleaned and thoroughly dried, the sugary, wet canvas can also be a fantastic breeding ground for bacteria and mold—gross. For those reasons, I'm all about disposable pastry bags. Even if you don't bake all the time, having a roll of these on hand beats wrangling with a MacGyvered zipper-lock bag.

A half-inch round tip will cover you for the bulk of pastry tasks, from profiteroles to homemade Oreos. For cupcakes, meringue cookies, and more, grab an assortment of large star tips as well.

If you'd like to try your hand at cookie decorating around the holidays, some couplers and fine tips are nice to have in your arsenal.

Pie Plates

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To bake a pie that's crisp and flaky on the bottom, steer clear of heavy stoneware or thick ceramic plates. They conduct heat too slowly, preventing the dough from puffing up as light as it should. While not fancy, glass or aluminum options have the sort of conductivity you need to make a superior crust—my favorites are these ultra-basic Pyrex pie plates. Or, if you'd prefer aluminum, try these sturdy anodized aluminum pie plates from Fat Daddio's.

For more information, including side-by-side photos of how a pie crust behaves in different types of pans, see my in-depth guide to pie plates.

Rolling Pins

As with finding the right chef's knife, what makes for a great rolling pin is largely a matter of personal taste, so go out to a kitchen shop or antiques store and try holding one in your own hands. The pin should feel light and smooth. For me, absolutely nothing can beat the maneuverability of a simple French pin, but if you prefer one with handles, be sure it rolls as smoothly as this Kitchen Basix pin. And no, I'm not a fan of those swanky marble pins; they're too heavy and awkward for me, and there are far easier and cheaper ways to keep a pie dough cool.

For experienced bakers looking to step up their cookie game, it's lovely to have an embossed rolling pin, too. Many manufacturers prioritize form over function, resulting in beautiful designs that are a death trap for dough, so it can take a bit of trial and error to find a great pin. The paisley pin below is carved to the perfect depth, with the right balance of white space to keep the dough from sticking, so it's one I can recommend without reservation (though, admittedly, it still takes practice to master).

Flexible, Heat-Resistant Spatulas

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I have...strong feelings about spatulas. There is no tool I use more often, so I need them to feel like an extension of my hand. For that reason, I have a zero-tolerance policy for stupid spatulas that don't do their job. If a silicone spatula is too chunky and thick to deftly scrape a bowl, it's a unitasking waste of space. If a flexible spatula could melt in my caramel sauce, it's going in the trash.

I love that these Good Cook Silicone Spatulas are thin and flexible and heat-resistant, too. Plus, their bamboo handles are easy to grip and won't get slick with steam.

A Stand Mixer

While hands-free mixing is a dang convenient thing, it's not even a factor in my preference for a stand mixer. For starters, it has more wattage than a hand mixer, enabling it to power through ingredients like cold butter and eggs, making it easier to maintain proper batter and dough temperature and ensuring cakes and cookies behave as they should. Hand mixers require slightly warmer ingredients and extra time to whip; the combination of temperature plus additional time and friction means that hand mixers often produce warmer batters and doughs, which can be problematic for many recipes, particularly cakes and cookies.

Aside from the simple issue of power, stand mixer attachments produce better results from creaming and whipping. Compared to the thin beaters of a hand mixer, the wide, fat blades of a paddle attachment will fold rather than cut through butter and sugar, entrapping more air. That leads to a higher yield in cookies and a better rise in cakes. Meanwhile, the stand mixer's large, open balloon whisk and higher wattage mean more volume in whipped cream and meringue, compared to what you'll get from the relatively narrow beaters of a hand mixer. Due to those issues of wattage and beater shape, there are many projects hand mixers simply can't tackle, like homemade marshmallows, nougat, and my whole-egg ladyfingers.

If you're shopping for a machine, my only recommendation is the KitchenAid Pro. Between its powerful motor and solid-metal gears, there's simply no better model.

Stainless Steel Sauciers

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If I could have only one piece of cookware, it would be a three-quart stainless steel saucier. Its size can handle most any stovetop task, the nonreactive metal prevents any funky flavors from developing, and the tri-ply construction conducts heat at the perfect rate. The curved-side shape of a saucier is designed to facilitate stirring, scraping, and even heat distribution, so it's the ideal vessel for persnickety pastry projects.

A one-quart saucier is handy for small batches of ganache or brown butter, and a two-quart saucier is convenient for medium-sized batches of candies and custard. They'll function equally well in savory applications, too.

Whisks

I've written in depth about whisks before, but the short story is that, for my needs and equipment, I prefer a simple set of balloon whisks. They conform to the curved shape of my sauciers, and can handle heavy custards, like the one in my chocolate cream pie. If you don't use sauciers at home, for most pots a ball whisk is great for reaching into the sharp corners of a pan. (Try the silicone-tipped version to mute the noisy clatter of metal on metal in the pan.)