Before you begin cooking or baking anything, even if you are an experienced cook, you need to read the recipe through to make sure you know what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be done. Especially with baking, you can’t skip a step, ingredient, or instruction/process. They all matter in creating your dish.
To begin, take about 10-15 minutes or so to read (and sometimes reread) your recipe. Most recipes will have the ingredients listed in order of use. For those that don’t, you may need to reread the recipe a few times so you can make sure you organize your ingredients in the order they’re used. This will make executing your recipe much easier. Whenever I encounter a recipe with the ingredients listed out of order, I rewrite it in the proper order.
There’s a fancy French term for laying out all your ingredients and equipment in the order in which they will be used: mise en place (meez on plahs). Every time you go to cook or bake something, even if it’s a cake mix, you should lay out your mise en place. Get out all the equipment you will need (plus a few extra things you think you may need just in case), then get out your ingredients. Measure and lay each item out along your work space in the order in which you will use it. For ingredients that are used in two different areas of the recipe, divide them up as indicated and place each portion in the order of usage. For perishables that are divided, or for recipes that have you complete a step after a long period of time, take out and measure the ingredient only as needed, and return it to the refrigerator/freezer when you’re done.
Whenever you need to bring something up to room temperature, do that step before laying out your mise en place. Butter and cream cheese should only take about an hour or so to soften. However, you shouldn’t soften the butter or cream cheese in the microwave. That will ruin it. The softened ingredient should be soft enough to press a finger into the surface for up to ¼” but the indentation should be able to hold its shape completely.
When separating eggs for a recipe, the trick is to do it right from the fridge. They’re easier to separate when cold because the yolk won’t break as easily, which contaminates the whites and makes them useless for whipping. On the other hand, whites should be whipped at room temperature; this loosens the protein bonds and makes the whites whip fluffier.
One more note about room temperature ingredients. If it says that one ingredient needs to be at room temperature (such as butter), then all of the ingredients need to be, as well. So picture this. The butter is softened; this helps it in a process called creaming. You cream together your butter and sugar to incorporate air into the mixture and coat each individual granule of sugar with the butter. This process takes around 2-3 minutes. Just imagine how that room temperature butter would feel if a cold egg were added. It would be like someone going straight from a sauna to a snowstorm! Take the time to bring all of your so-called “wet” ingredients–eggs, dairy, etc., to room temperature for at least an hour before you start baking. Your finished product will be better, and your taste buds will thank you.
You have all of your ingredients measured and in order. It should be smooth sailing after that, right? Not necessarily. A lot of experienced cooks forget things, too. Reread the recipe at this time and point to each ingredient to make sure you’ve got it all. Reread the instructions, too. Keep the recipe on hand so you can reference it when necessary. If you immediately go to turn the oven on, but the dish needs to be chilled for a time before baking, you’re just wasting that energy/money. Do each thing at the time it says, and everything will actually run smoothly.