Tuesday February 5, 2013
In the Bag
Spending half your life in a professional kitchen kinda ruins your perspective when it comes to recipe writing. Having done something a million times doesn’t actually make you better at describing it. Think Fast: how many stop signs between your house and the bank?
Whatever the answer, I’ve got fifty bucks that says you missed one. You don’t pay attention to that sort of thing when you go to the bank because you already know how to get there.
Likewise, certain kitchen chores have become such a part of my routine they slip right past me as I write down the steps. For example, I have twenty seven recipes on this blog involving a pastry bag, but not once have I actually explained how to use one. Whoopsie.
If the lack of a pastry bag has ever caused you to skip a recipe or get all McGuyver with a Ziploc bag, listen up. For about five bucks you can have a virtually infinite supply of real life pastry bags. Writing “Happy Birthday” in cursive’s hard enough as it is, there’s no need to attempt it while squeezing chocolate from a sandwich bag.
Yes, recipe writers loooove to make it sound like baggies are a viable substitute, but piping stuff out of a zippy bag is why people hate baking. They’ll work in a pinch, but they have an awkward shape and are prone to bursting. So get over that phobia and next time you order something online, toss a roll of pastry bags in the cart.
Here’s how to get started.
1. Go for disposables. Canvas bags absorb odors and colors, require a lot of work to clean properly, take forever to dry, and unless you clean/dry/store them meticulously, they’ll harbor more bacteria than a dirty sponge.
If you think disposable bags feel uncomfortable, then you’ve probably just had the misfortune of buying a crappy brand. Day Mark and Matfer Bourgeat both make disposable bags that feel super comfy. If disposable bags make you feel wasteful, just think of all the energy, packaging, and gas-miles you’re saving by baking from scratch and not participating in Big Food.
2. Get the right size. Pastry bag sizes indicate their length. Frustratingly, that tells you almost nothing about the bag. Not even a math whiz can calculate the volume of a cone based strictly on its length.
But that’s okay, I’ve got a cheat sheet: 12” bags hold 1 1/2 cups. 16” bags hold about four cups and 18” bags hold six (your mileage may vary).
For detail work, like writing on a cake, go for the 12” bag. For piping macarons or cream puffs, use a roomy 18” bag so you won’t need as many refills.
3. Don’t cut too much. Drop a piping tip (or coupler) into the bag and then use a pair of scissors to cut off the tip of the bag, only as much as it takes to let the tip peek through. If you cut off too much, the opening might stretch under the pressure of piping and launch your piping tip (and filling) across the room.
4. Twist. Once the tip is in place, twist the bag and tuck the skinny neck into the piping tip. This will keep whatever you put in the bag in the bag until you’re ready.
5. Use both hands. Don’t try to hold the bag with one hand and fill it with the other. Even if a super famous cooking magazine shows you how.
There’s a much better way: nestle the bag into a plastic quart container, pitcher or tall, wide drinking glass, then fold the opening of the bag inside out. Pull it down over the container a few inches to hold it in place. This keeps the edges of the bag’s opening from getting messy as you fill it up.
6. Save room. Don’t fill the bag more than 3/4 full. You don’t get any extra points for cramming it all in. Overfilling a bag makes it difficult to close and creates a huge mess. Beyond that, the fuller the bag the less control you have as you pipe. You can always refill later!
7. Tape it up. If you don’t use piping bags often, use a strip of tape or a rubber band to hold the top tightly closed. Twist and fasten the bag just as you would a bag of bread. If you’ve got a lot of excess at the top, snip it off with a pair of scissors.
8. Write Handed. Hold the pastry bag in your writing/dominate hand, with the top pinched between your thumb and index finger, and the bag cradled in your hand. This gives you a good grip and keeps the top secure.
9. Unravel. When you’re ready to pipe, tug the tip free to unravel the “plug” you made by twisting the bag. Squeeze gently until the filling flows into the piping tip. Use your other hand to steady the bag.
10. Always, always, always squeeze from the top. I don’t care how you squeeze your toothpaste, there’s only one right way to squeeze a pastry bag and that’s from the top. Piping from a pastry bag is all about controlling the flow with pressure. Squeezing from the middle applies pressure in two directions instead of one, resulting in low pressure and poor control.
It’s not just bad form, it’s bad for whatever you’re piping. When the mixture gets forced up to the top of the bag, you have to go back later and squeeze it back down. This extra motion warms and “kneads” whatever’s inside, resulting in melty buttercream, overmixed macarons, and deflated meringue (sad face).
Whether or not you’ve mastered the fine art of pastry baggery, next time you notice me bulldozing over an entire section of a recipe without giving a good explanation let me know!
UPDATES based on your comments and questions:
11. Cut it out. When you’re done piping and finished with the bag, cut the pastry bag free by using a knife to make a small cut down the portion of the bag that’s resting on the piping tip. Yeah, you’re cutting up a bag, but that’s why we love disposables.
12. From Ken: “My ganache/batter would spill out the top of the bag while I was piping, until I realized that I forgot to spin/twist it airtight! And as I pipe, I keep spinning/twisting it tighter to maintain the same amount of pressure.”
57 comments and counting
Feb 06, 2013 · 1:03 AM
These are fantastic tips (no pun intended)! I can’t wait to try them out. I’ve made most of the mistakes you mentioned in past piping experiences. Thanks!
· Lindsey (Lou Lou Biscuit) · www.louloubiscuit.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 1:12 AM
Thanks! This is useful!
· Sara Pratt · redheadcuisine.blogspot.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 1:31 AM
I cannot believe how important #7 is. I didn’t use tape or rubber band, but I would spin/twist the top of the bag to “seal” it. I think this is so important, a picture is necessary.
My ganache/batter would spill out the top of the bag while I was piping (not to mention there would be uneven pressure), until I realized that I forgot to spin/twist it airtight! And as I pipe, I keep spinning/twisting it tighter to maintain the same amount of pressure.
· Ken · www.torontofoodies.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 3:54 AM
Thanks! I’m one of those people that always use ziplock bags… The information about bag size and how much they hold is really handy, will have to write that down somewhere!
· Nathalie · seventypesofbiscuits.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 6:17 AM
I’ll be directing all my macaron class students this way in the future. What a fab, useful post. And thanks for showing that even accomplished pastry chefs recommend placing the bag in a tall glass to fill it. Because you know even if YOU can do it, doesn’t mean most people can, right? Great post Stella!
· Mardi (eat. live. travel. write) · www.eatlivetravelwrite.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 8:11 AM
Oh the frustration of having a plastic bag burst…been there and done that! Thanks for the heads up on what brand pastry bags are good.
· Silver Magpies · www.silvermagpies.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 8:15 AM
Thanks so much for these tips, Stella. Would you also mind touching on where to buy the “fat” tips, like the big round one and the one shown here? I can never seem to find them!!!!
· Allison · allisonswoolandflax.blogspot.com/
Feb 06, 2013 · 9:01 AM
Thank you for the pastry bag lesson!
· Tessa · feralkitchen.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 9:41 AM
this is great!!! thank you, stella!
the tip about plastic instead of re-usable was really helpful, as well as the tip to twist and tuck the bag into the tip pre-filling.
· megan · whyisfoodsogood.blogspot.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 9:53 AM
Whenever I do cupcake decorating with kids at the community center I use zip ties. So so so important when working with students new to pastry! Good post!
· Jason S · www.TheAubergineChef.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 10:00 AM
Yay! I’m hope this makes piping chores easier for everybody.
@Ken, I’ll see if Sarah Jane can snap a picture of that next time she’s at the restaurant. And you’re “pipe and twist” description is so spot-on and important for good piping!
@Mardi, it’s so frustrating because if one hand is holding the bag and one hand is holding a spatula, you have zero hand left to hold the bowl, which usually means you end up bracing it steady with your torso, or scooting it around the table.
@Allison, you just want to buy a large, plain tip. This one’s a size 4, I think (3/8” opening). You can find them at craft stores, like Michael’s or sometimes places like Bed, Bath and Beyond. Ateco and Wilton nice ones. Or <a href=“http://www.amazon.com/Ateco-Pastry-Tube-Plain-Size/dp/B0000VLE9K/ref=pd_sim_k_4”>shop online</a>, since those stores don’t usually sell very nice pastry bags.
Feb 06, 2013 · 10:02 AM
This sounds so stupid, but I’ve always had trouble removing the tip from the bag after I’ve finished, especially with greasy buttercream or slightly tough cookie dough(like sable viennois for example. It makes the bag stretch around the bigger end of the tip tightly) How are you supposed to remove it without slicing open the bag? Just force-squeeze it out and shoot it into the sink?
Feb 06, 2013 · 10:16 AM
If I manage to neatly – and I emphasize neatly) – use a pastry bag after reading this, then you are a genius. I already believe that you are a master motivator, taking a pastry bag-shy person like me almost to the point of wanting to try piping again. All I need now is that final boost of courage. Going to the liquor cabinet right now xxoo
· MotherWouldKnow · motherwouldknow.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 11:03 AM
I’ve been decorating cakes for family and friends for 30 years…but only in the last couple have I pitched the canvas bags and gone the route of the disposables. I try to stay away from much of anything disposable but in this instance, so worth it.
I’ve tried to explain the ‘how to’ over the phone to friends who want to give simple decorating a shot; from now on I’ll send them here. Nice lesson and great photos to boot!
· Barb | Creative Culinary · creative-culinary.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 2:06 PM
I’ve always sort of felt guilty for using disposable bags, due in large party to my laziness, but now my go to line about why I don’t use cloth will be, “they harbor more bacteria than a dirty sponge” Love that.
· Jackie @ TheBeeroness · thebeeroness.com
Feb 06, 2013 · 4:04 PM
I only occasionally use disposables. I bought a couple of those silicon (fat daddy?) pastry bags and I LOVE them. They’re a breeze to clean and don’t get yucky and germy like the canvass ones.
· Bonnie · bakecookeatmove.blogspot.com
Feb 07, 2013 · 9:53 AM
@arissa, I added a point to answer your question, but yes! Just cut it out!
@tif, right?!? Sooo much easier!
@Laura, jump in, jump in! To warm up, just start piping out all your mashed potatoes for Duchess Potatoes. Super easy, low-terror way to practice with a piping bag.
@Barb, I’m the same way. We don’t use paper towels or paper plates, Swiffers, etc, at the house because I’m generally not into disposable stuff. But the reality is, the number of piping bags a home baker would use in a year is very low, but the savings (in time, energy, water, storage) is through the roof!
@Claire, I’ll try and keep sharp and think of of other tasks like this to demystify.
@Karen, getting psychotically straight lines is definitely more of a skill than a technique, per se. It boils down to three things. 1) How steadily you apply pressure as you squeeze the bag (any variation changes the rate of flow and results in squiggles). 2) How steadily you’re able to hold the bag (to eliminate side-to-side tremors) and 3) The strength of your inner sense of geometry, so your lines all stay parallel or perpendicular to each other.
The first two are all about muscle memory and experience. I’ve been piping stuff on a daily basis for ten years, so my muscles are extremely used to the work. The third could probably be obviated by a ruler or guide marks of some kind, but I always just free-hand it when I pipe. I mean, before I get started, I think really hard about where I’m going to put the piping tip down and where I want to go, but I don’t use any guides or anything. But given how much I’ve already typed up, maybe I should do a tutorial, lol!
Feb 07, 2013 · 11:16 AM
I’m a parchment girl, myself (I find it easier to control how much comes out, since I can support the weight of the filling without squeezing the bag at all, whereas the plastic bags always seem to squeeze out the tip unless the mixture’s really thick), but your suggestions above are great!
Re: super-straight lines: I’ve found it easier to get super-straight lines if I squeeze well above the surface and lay the line of squozen stuff down. So, instead of trying to draw a straight line with the tip touching the cake (or whatever), you keep the tip an inch or so above the cake and basically only touch it down to the cake when you want to change directions (or when you’re concerned that an upcoming bubble in the mixture is going to break your “string” ). It vastly reduces my shakiness. The height above the cake varies depending on the consistency of what’s being piped, but that’s the general idea – think about how much easier it is to stretch a piece of string straight vs. slowly drawing a long straight line with a marker, and you get more or less how it works.
Second piping tip for home bakers who don’t do this very often is to have a plate or cookie sheet or something nearby and pipe shapes or scallops or whatever you’re going to do for even just 30 seconds or so before starting on the actual dessert. It gets you to a more consistent, repeatable point and you avoid having your initial “wait, which direction does the shell go?” confusion and getting-the-muscle-memory-back wiggles on the “real” cake. (plus: many substances can be spatula-ed off your practice surface and stirred back into your bag if you’re running short. Not meringues. But most buttercreams, at least?)
Feb 08, 2013 · 12:32 AM
I wish I’d seen this wonderful post 5-6 years back when I first started decorating! Very well said, Stella.
· Radhika · sinsationscakes.wordpress.com
Feb 08, 2013 · 7:30 AM
@KC, even parchment for things like mousse and pate a choux? Hardcore! Your line piping tip is spot on. Yes, “laying” the line of icing/chocolate down is absolutely where it’s at and so much easier than when you’ve got the tip hoving only a millimeter from the surface. Thanks for sharing!
@uchujin, I always squish the bag back into the tip (forcing whatever’s inside back out) to re-form the “plug.” Then I put it back into the quart container and pull the edges down over the sides, just like before. That part is pretty straightforward, because the parts of the bag you’ll grab should be clean since they’re above the twist at the top. Then I use a spatula to poke open up the rest of the bag, which is definitely all gooey and sealed to itself.
Feb 09, 2013 · 11:17 AM
Any tips on piping pure tempered chocolate, especially for stringing? I can rarely get more than a few inches pipes before the tip hopelessly clogs. I’ve pretty much given up on the method. Thanks!
· xxchef · http://thekitchenchronicles.blogspot.com/
Feb 09, 2013 · 6:29 PM
Such a great post. I wish I’d had something like this to refer to when I picked up my first piping bag!! Thanks for the tips!
Feb 09, 2013 · 9:10 PM
Yep, even pate a choux – I think I got a bad batch/brand of disposable bags and had a bunch split on me (with royal icing, even!), which was somewhat traumatizing, so I swapped to parchment for pretty much everything. But I use the heavy-duty pre-cut piping triangles, not the thin full-sheet baking parchment, and that makes a difference (again, one box will last home cooks and their friends pretty much FOREVER). The parchment softens and is more prone to breakage if you have to “hold” soft fillings for a long time (say, overnight in the fridge), and I wouldn’t recommend it for that particular purpose, but I love it otherwise.
Feb 12, 2013 · 8:24 AM
I second someone else’s comment about parchment cones – I’ve been shown how to make them more times than I can count and I can’t get it! I’m hoping, since everyone does it slightly differently, one lesson will finally click with me. Could you do a post on parchment cones, or include a quick lesson in another post? Thanks!
Feb 13, 2013 · 10:03 AM
I have had so many difficulties piping! And after using my reusable bag to pipe some chocolate ganache a few weeks ago, I’ve been unable to get the brown color out. Thanks for letting me know about the disposable bags. I would never have thought of that, especially for the home cook, but that will last me so much longer than a gross chocolate covered petri dish piping bag.
· Eliza · www.elizabakes.wordpress.com
Feb 15, 2013 · 5:59 PM
excellent roundup of tips!
OK if I share this link for my friday link roundup?
· vanillasugarblog · http://vanillakitchen.blogspot.com
Feb 16, 2013 · 10:06 AM
HI vanillasugarblog! Thanks for wanting to include me, by all means link away.
Mar 04, 2013 · 9:09 AM
Hi Chomper! It’s actually a pastry cream; there’s a link right at the bottom of the post. As you discovered, though, it can be used as the basis for a pretty killer buttercream too.
Mar 10, 2013 · 11:29 PM
Plastic bags are not good for food, especially when had to heat them up, I wouldn’t do it with plastic.
But nevermind, this is a great post!Thank you OP!
· Pengconglong · www.rkpipeanddrape.com/Information/256.html
Mar 11, 2013 · 9:51 AM
Hi Pengconglong! Fortunately, you should never need to warm whatever’s inside a pastry bag, so no worries there! Not all disposable bags are made from plastic, either. There’s a pretty wide range of materials used, including silicone.
Mar 15, 2013 · 7:14 PM
Hi Sarah! I’m not sure to what extent overmixing and hollows are interrelated, but for something as picky as a macaron, any overmixing is usually a bad thing and squeezing from the middle will definitely push them in the wrong direction. If you have a chance to put to the test, I’d love to hear how it turns out for you!!
Mar 23, 2013 · 11:38 AM
Hi Martha! Oh, I agree. Those Wilton bags are wimpy! And they only seem to come in super-tiny sizes, which is probably fine for decorating a cookie or two, but they’re always too small for me, haha. Good luck in your hunt for pastry bags!
Mar 29, 2013 · 1:57 AM
Hi Stella, this comment might be a little late but I wanted to ask you a question related to piping.
I was shown by my sous chef to pipe with both hands, the dominant writing hand holding the bag very close to the tip to have more control over what comes out and the other hand over the top of the rest of the mixture.
I thought when I did it that it felt more in control than squeezing from the top but after reading your post, it seems I might be wrong.
Have you ever piped in this way before? And do you recommend I just stick to the top-squeeze down method?
Mar 29, 2013 · 9:27 AM
HI Brendan! It may come down to a matter of personal taste; if you’re experienced and comfortable with that route, there may not be any need to change.
I’m right handed, but I pipe holding the top of the bag with my right hand and my left hand lightly touching the the pastry tip, to steady it. My right hand guides the bag through most of the motions and controls the pressure.
You might get a better motion control from the bottom, but for me, precisely controlling the flow is more important, since most piping bag motions are graceful swoops and swirls rather than intricate maneuvers. I think the real trick to better piping is getting a steady flow of mousse/cream/batter/whatever, but again, if a different technique works for you, I’d say it ain’t broke!
Mar 31, 2013 · 2:55 AM
Thanks for the reply Stella.
I think about what you said about gracesul swoops and swirls is kinda important as what ive been mainly doing is piping macarons and profiteroles which requires less steady flow as opposed to small sharp bursts, if that makes sense.
Hmm…maybe I should try your method when I need to decorate a cake and have to pipe messages or something.
Once again, thanks for the reply, Stellla. Greatly appreciated.
Apr 01, 2013 · 9:26 AM
@Brendan, do you squeeze the bag with your non-dominate hand?
Apr 13, 2013 · 4:36 PM
I always bought the wrong size bag. I now know what to look for – thanks so much.
· Madonna/aka/Ms. Lemon · makeminelemon.com
Apr 13, 2013 · 9:08 PM
Hi Ms. Lemon! Glad you’ve got some extra information to make your decisions when you’re pastry bag shopping. Happy baking!
Apr 17, 2013 · 11:15 AM
Hi Stella, I came upon your website when i was looking for tips on making french macaroons. I’m so glad I did! The pastry bag you show in your picture, what brand are they? I did check the link you had for pastry bags but I’m looking for 18’ so it can fill more than 1.5 cups. Thank you!
Apr 17, 2013 · 9:21 PM
Hi Papayacream! The ones from the photo are DayMark; I think you can find them on Amazon, if you want to buy ‘em online.
Apr 25, 2013 · 10:11 PM
Very kind of you to post these specific tips. It is very useful to me. However, is it healthy for us? A little worry!
· windysmith · http://www.flightinthecases.com/news/
Apr 26, 2013 · 9:23 AM
Hi windysmith. Well… I try not to let health enter the equation with dessert. Dessert is a sometimes-food, and I see it as something that should pull all the stops. Healthiness is what salads are for.
May 18, 2013 · 7:42 PM
I work on the savory side and only on occasion work with a pastry bag but I want to expand my skill set especially for catered events and a pastry bag provides a lot of options.
In order to practice economically, can you recommend a substance that comes close to mimicking the consistency of pastry cream? I was thinking of the flour / water / salt paste that we made as kids. What do you think?
May 18, 2013 · 10:16 PM
Hi Chef Taz! This is going to sound super gross, but you can buy big tubs of Jello type pudding at Sam’s Club and Costco. Should give you something cheap and easy to practice with. Happy piping!
Oct 18, 2013 · 4:08 PM
Is there any added benefit to using a coupler when piping? I never go without but I see from this post it looks like you haven’t used one… Thanks for the info, I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and am very inspired. I’ve just started making macarons and have had a lot of success using the recipe from I <3 Macarons, but I can’t wait to try the recipe you’ve posted and have enjoyed reading your best tips and practices.
Oct 22, 2013 · 10:22 PM
Hi Macall! Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you found me. I tend to use couplers when I’m using smaller tips and/or chunkier fillings, which both can contribute to clogging. That way I can pop them off real quick for cleaning. I also use couplers more often if I want to switch up my piping styles; like if I were decorating a cake and I knew I wanted to pipe a border and some stars or flowers. If you’re just going to do a whole bunch of one thing (frost a ton of cupcakes, fill some cream puffs, etc) you don’t need to fuss with a coupler. But it certainly doesn’t hurt anything!
Nov 11, 2013 · 6:41 PM
wow…have made my first set of mistakes with pastry bag..it just does not look that hard! And as soon as I get the macaron out of my eyebrow I think I will be game for the next batch! Or maybe I will invest in some jello practice first…amazing…it just does not LOOK that hard! I have new admiration for piping!
Nov 12, 2013 · 11:00 AM
Hi Jane! Oh, no. I wonder what happened? I know exactly what you mean, though. It takes a surprising amount of practice to get a good feel for how to hold the piping bag and control the flow. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!