Stories / Interviews

Knead to Know: Tips from a Beard Award–Winning Baker

Maggie Borden

March 01, 2017


Baking has been central to Joanne Chang’s life since the day she could read the recipe on the back of a bag of Nestlé chocolate chips. A former Harvard math student and winner of the 2016 Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, Chang traded a life of corporate consulting for croissants and crumbles, opening Boston's original Flour Bakery + Café in 2000 and expanding her Beantown empire to great acclaim in the decade and a half since. Read on for Chang’s insights into all things baking, including her top dos and don’ts, her must-have tools, and the surprising reason she recommends cutting back on sugar.


JBF: What suggestions do you have for someone trying to get over a fear of baking? 

Joanne Chang: Remember that most mistakes are still delicious. I have made (and still make) plenty of pastries that didn’t come out exactly like I wanted them to, but everyone who eats them still seems to enjoy them. Also, invest in a kitchen scale—it will make all of your baking much better.

JBF: You came to baking through a math and business background—do you think one has to be good at math to truly excel at baking? 

JC: Not at all. It helps in a lot of ways in terms of playing around with measurements and making adjustments, but to excel at baking you just need the desire to bake well—and then the patience to read the recipe carefully and follow the directions as instructed.

JBF: When you were still working in corporate consulting, you had a side business baking for friends. What are some good tips for home bakers looking at large-format projects?

JC: Measuring out all of your ingredients before you start with a recipe always helps, especially with big batches. Again, get a kitchen scale to ensure accuracy, and use recipes that are measured in metric so you can easily scale up the batches.

JBF: One of your recent cookbooks was Baking with Less Sugar. Has your approach to baking changed since developing those recipes and writing the book? 

JC: I’ve always had a less sugary sweet tooth than most people. I adore desserts but can’t do anything too sweet. Creating recipes for this book reminded me that when you bake with less sugar you have more opportunity to highlight the flavors of everything else in the recipe. In new recipe development at Flour we’ve worked hard to focus on the flavors in the recipe rather than relying on just adding more sugar to make something taste better. Our new vegan power bar is a good example: there’s a bit of maple to sweeten the bar, but there’s a bigger focus on the flavors of the almonds, cherries, oats, and cacao nibs that make this bar special.

JBF: Do you have any advice for home bakers who are interested in reducing sugar in their baked goods? 

JC: As long as you’re not trying to exactly replicate a pastry made with full sugar, you will have success. For example, our sour cream coffee cake made with full sugar bakes to a lovely golden brown. The low-sugar version tastes delicious, but when fully baked it’s pale and somewhat anemic looking. This is because sugar aids in browning, and with less sugar your baked goods won’t get that characteristic golden hue. In terms of the pitfalls, when baking with less sugar, the texture of many baked goods is different—cookies are cake-ier, cakes are a bit drier, ice creams and sorbets can be harder unless you make up for the lack of sugar. It’s not just the flavor, but also the texture that sugar affects. So it’s important to keep that in mind.

JBF: What tools do you think are must-haves for the average home baker? 

JC: I think you know what’s coming next—a kitchen scale! I’d also recommend an offset spatula, a good paring knife, a wooden spoon, a tapered rolling pin, a whisk, a baking sheet, and, if you can get it, a stand mixer is awesome. 

JBF: Although you trained under François Payard, your menu at Flour features just as many classic American baked goods as it does pain aux raisins and croissants. What is the common denominator of a good bakery, in your mind? 

JC: A good bakery is one in which you can tell the baked goods are made with love and care. They are presented beautifully and you can take any pastry and share it with someone you love and know you will both be happy. A good bakery has a warm, welcoming staff that is truly excited to see you and help you pick something you will enjoy. It’s not just the food, but also the atmosphere, the service, and the way it smells and sounds—all of these contribute to a bakery’s greatness.

JBF: Other than Flour, what are your favorite bakeries across the country? 

JC: Sofra and Clear Flour here in Boston, for sure. Tartine in San Francisco is the gold standard. Amy’s Bread and Sullivan Street Bakery are must-visits when I’m in New York, and I also went to Arcade Bakery when I was there recently and was blown away.

JBF: We’ve seen pop culture go crazy for Cronuts, rainbow bagels, and over-the-top doughnuts in recent years. Any idea what the next baked good to dominate our Instagram feeds might be? 

JC: Ha! Great question, and if I knew I’d be in the kitchen right now, testing it out. I am going to be testing something I tried recently: a croissant baguette from Arcade Bakery. It’s a baguette wrapped in croissant dough—chewy, buttery, flaky, and amazing. We’ve recently added merveilleux to our menu, which are meringues both filled with and covered in whipped cream. They are sweet and creamy and wonderful. I think those will do well.

JBF: What’s your favorite savory baked good? 

JC: Does pizza count? I love pizza more than almost anything in the world. A great pizza crust makes my day.  

Photo: Michael Harlan Turkell

Get the recipe for Joanne's Maple–Apple Upside-Down Buttermilk Cake.


Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.