Preppy Kitchen's John Kanell reveals the one tool you need to conquer your baking anxiety

Want to be a better baker this holiday season? It's easier than you think . . .

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 4, 2021 6:05PM (EST)

John Kanell (Preppy Kitchen/John Kanell)
John Kanell (Preppy Kitchen/John Kanell)

It's easy to see why John Kanell has more than 2.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, "Preppy Kitchen." As he reassuringly shows viewers techniques for "delicious homemade dishes" with a special emphasis on baking, Kanell has the encouraging, assured demeanor you'd expect from a former school teacher. And from apple pies to lemon barsthe recipes on his blog happen to be flat out spectacular.

Kanell has appeared on "Ellen," "Kelly Clarkson," "The View" and more TV shows. He recently joined me on "Salon Talks" to help us conquer some of the trickiest baking questions of the season. Watch the full "Salon Talks" episode with Kanell here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about finding simple pleasures in the kitchen over the holidays. 

You didn't start out in the world of professional baking, but you hit the trifecta of things that would make somebody a great baker. You're a teacher, specifically a math teacher, and you're an artist. Tell me how that perfect storm came together, and why you wound up becoming a baker.

My dad's passion was being a painter, basically. He loved painting, he did it all of his life. Even though it wasn't his profession, it was his outlet. My mother is from Mexico. She left her small town when she was 16, because her dad wouldn't let her go to school and she loved learning. Learning is her passion, and she took a long route, but eventually she got her doctoral degree in education in San Francisco. She just retired. She taught all of her life and was a superstar. So I had these two inspirations in my life. I would always do fun art stuff with my dad — my mom loves to paint, too — and I had a love of learning early on from both of them.

When it came to finding a career path, I was an art major in college. My parents gave me free rein to do what I wanted. I was like, "I want to do art." They said, "OK, enjoy." Then I became a teacher later on until I got my credentials, and I had all this together. I loved using art and math in science lessons, but all the while I was baking. I love baking. My mother makes everything from scratch and she's really a superstar. I always say that I'm a mom taught chef. I didn't go to culinary school, but I had an education in the kitchen on my mom's coattails all my life. Eventually I met Brian, and we decided we want to have a family. Teachers get a lot of time off, but as you might know, it's very structured.

My husband had a very intense career and I knew that I wanted to spend a lot of time with our kids if we had them. So we pivoted over and I followed my passion for baking to create Preppy Kitchen, where I could be home with the kids a lot more and also doing something I love.

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.

I want to ask you about the name "Preppy Kitchen." I looked at you, and I assumed that "preppy" was about your shirts — but it's not. It means something else to you.

A lot of times, as a teacher, I saw that students came into a lesson and they had the best of intentions, they want to succeed, and they might even love the subject, but they just weren't prepared. Some of the building blocks were missing and we were doing work with them one-on-one or in small groups. It's called scaffolding, where you take small successes so you can get to a really big goal. The same thing's happening in baking. Some kids have math anxiety, but some adults have baking anxiety. They think they can't do it, when baking is really one of the joys in life that I hope everyone gets a chance to experience. I wanted to apply what I learned as a teacher, where I reduced that anxiety by having students be really well prepared with all the basics and everything's at hand, and just apply that to baking and making food.

When someone comes to a recipe, and if they watched all my videos and they've read one of my recipes, they know, hopefully, everything that can go wrong, why it might go wrong, and how to avoid that. If I ever have a mishap in the kitchen, like I might have just made biscuits that flopped over, I'll always keep that in the video. I show people, "Look, this is what happened. It's OK. They're still delicious. But if you don't want it to happen, here's what we're going to do."

For people who have baking anxiety, what would you suggest as a first step? Things that you're probably not going to fail, so you'll feel good about yourself and build that confidence.

I'm going to give you one tool. It's a scale. If you can just invest in something, grab a scale. This little tool is going to make your life so much easier. I'm telling you this because one of the things people do wrong is they take a recipe, they follow it exactly, and it just doesn't turn out. It's a little bit bready, it's a little bit dry, maybe it's gummy. I'm going to give you my top two things to avoid. If it's bready and dry, you might be scooping up your flour, innocently thinking you're using a measuring cup the right way. But you're packing all that flour down, and you're adding like 50% more to that beautiful, melt in your mouth cake recipe so it becomes just not so beautiful and melt in your mouth.

If you use a scale every single time, it's going to be perfect, and you won't have extra measuring cups to wash at the end of the day, so it's a win-win. Then also, one thing to avoid is over mixing your batter. If you ever had a cupcake or a cake and it comes out of the oven looking perfect, smelling amazing, but then as it cools down, it begins to sink a little bit, and when you taste it, it's a little bit denser or gummier than you might have imagined, it's because the batter was over mixed maybe even just a little. All of our batters where we have flour and it's not a bread are just going to be mixed until just combined. You're just seeing the flour disappear and then it's ready to go. Otherwise you're activating proteins in the flour and it's becoming just not so cool.

RELATED: Nigella Lawson loves to "Cook, Eat, Repeat"

I'm one of those people who was reluctant about getting a scale — one more thing, one more piece of equipment. However, you can get a $10 scale. It's not so bad.

And it takes no room. It's like it could fit in your bookcase. If you're a beginner, I always think the stir together recipes are so fun. Right now people are doing a lot of pumpkin and apple recipes, and almost all of those are really simple stir together batters. All you need is a wooden spoon and maybe a whisk. The nice thing about that is you can have little ones in the kitchen or total inexperienced people helping you, and there's no worries. You want to reduce the stress during this baking season. You don't even have to get any equipment out. There's less things to wash, there's less problems with little fingers going places. You can just have a nice relaxing time stirring together some ingredients gently.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that pretty much anyone can make banana bread.

I had my kids make it by themselves. I did some supervision and I pre-measured things, but I have two four year old boys, and they had the best time ever. It was not without mishaps. They might have added a little bit more sugar than the recipe called for, but it was still delicious. And they were so happy to have made something on their own and been in the kitchen working.

That's such an important part of learning to do anything. Maybe it's going to be a little messy. Maybe it's not going to be Instagram perfect — and that's OK, too. You can still have a great time. 

I want to ask you — you talked about the scale. Do you have any other pieces of equipment that you really love in your kitchen? I love my Microplane. I'm addicted to my Microplane.

Do you love freshly graded nutmeg?

And lemon peel.

Oh, my gosh, lemon peel. Everyone needs to buy a Microplane, too. Mine is right where I can grab it at a moment's notice. If, for example, you're making a lemon cupcake or a lemon loaf cake, or an orange one, and you get that lemon zest and you work it with your fingers into the sugar and create a wonderful sugar infused with the oil from that skin, it's going to be so fragrant and have so much flavor than if you just added it in. It's also really fun to do.

But back to my must have things, you know what I like to use? It's so lame, a skewer. I find that normal wooden skewers are a lifesaver. If you ever have a cake and maybe it's a layer cake and it's starting to flop over and you're like, "Oh, no, it's going to fall," and it's like the icing's too soft, or maybe the cake was a little bit warm. Straighten it out with your fingers. It gets a little messy, but it's OK. And pop a skewer through the center. You can always use them to tell if something is ready or not, and they've saved my life so many times.

The one other thing that I always think someone should have in the kitchen is a set of graduated circle cookie cutters. Use them to make biscuits and everything else, but a lot of times people make cookies and they're a little bit disappointed because it doesn't look like the pictures and they spread a bit more or they are a little bit uneven. It's because all the pictures are lying to you. Everyone has used a circle cookie cutter to just reel it back in and make it look perfect when they're right out of the oven. The second they come out of the oven, just reel those cookies back in with the circular cookie cutter and they look amazing.

John, I think what's really important here is what we're talking about when you say a scale, a Microplane, cookie cutters and wooden skewers. People spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on very fancy equipment that then they never use. We're talking about, if you paid $25 for all of those things combined, you can set yourself up for real greatness in the kitchen.

You're going to be so much happier. Just the small joys in life that make everything so much brighter. You grating nutmeg into a bowl, I can see that. I can see the lemon zest here, and you're looking at the color and just smelling the fragrant oils. So many simple pleasures to be had just for a little Microplane. Everyone needs one.

A lot of people know the classics. I can do a million versions of a chocolate chip cookie, as well as apple pie and brownies. But do you have any sleeper hit baked goods that you like to make that people don't recognize and that you think, "You know what? These deserve a little more love."

I do. But I want to hear yours first, because I know that you're a baker. I feel like you must have some amazing recipes for me.

I'll tell you it's not even amazing. A couple years ago, my younger daughter was like, "Mom, why don't you make those sugar cookies that I love? They're my favorite thing in the world." I don't really make sugar cookies. I'm not a fan of roll out cookies. I finally figured out that she was talking about palmiers. And palmiers are the easiest thing in the world.

Two ingredients.

Two ingredients. They're my secret weapon. You can just roll out some puff pastry, sprinkle it with sugar and in 10 minutes you have a dessert that is your child's favorite cookie. And it looks so fancy and French and delightful.

So fancy, and it's so easy. I love that. For me, I think that a pavlova does not get the respect it deserves in this country. I'm trying to spread the gospel as much as I can. If you don't know, it's a beautiful meringue and it's topped with anything you want. A lot of times it'll have a lemon curd or it could even be a passion fruit curd, and then a mountain of whipped cream, which is one of my favorite things to eat, along with a mountain of berries and fresh fruit. It's the most enchanting, wonderful way to end a meal, because it has everything you want in a dessert, but it's so light and airy and fresh. It just like a kiss of dessert at the end of the day.

It's also the fact that it's rustic and a little messy. That's what makes it so charming and delicious.

They're never supposed to look perfect. I see some of them on Instagram, they're gorgeous, but I'm like, no. A pavlova is at actually pretty messy. It's supposed to have some cracks and some stuff oozing off the side. It's just how you know it's going to be so delicious.

Another dessert that's kind of similar because it has a lot of eggs, is angel food cake. Oh, my gosh. If you make angel food cake, it's like a cake and a marshmallow had the most delicious baby ever, and it's so tasty. Along with a little bit of whipped cream and some more fresh fruit, it's one of my favorite things to eat. My husband loves it. If I make one, I have to hide a piece for myself, because the rest is gone.

So let me talk to you a little bit about this time of year. This year it's exciting, because we might actually get to see our loved ones. I want to know first and foremost, what can I make that will travel OK? Is there a way to set myself up when I bake that I'm not going to arrive with a heaping mass of broken stuff?

Cookies travel well. If you wanted to make a little gift for your host, there is my homemade pumpkin spice mixture. It's just a mixture of all my favorite spices, and it's so much better than the store bought version, travels very well. But if you wanted to be really ambitious and make a cake, be everyone's favorite person and make a German chocolate cake. Just transport it separately so you have your cake layers, you have your frosting, and it's nice, because it's a really messy gooey frosting. Just use an ice cream scoop to scoop it on at the party or wherever you're at, and assemble the cake. It's going to be delicious, it's going to be messy and amazing, and it transports really well because the frosting is just going to be in a separate container.

I want to ask you — because I've seen you do this — you use a scoop for frosting. What is that? What am I missing when I'm just spooning it straight out of the bowl?

One thing is the very best cake. The German chocolate cake is one of my all time favorites, and it's one of those really delicate cakes. When you make a delicate cake, you are straddling a thin line between melt in your mouth and fall apart on the plate. You do not want to tear the cake, you don't want to press it down. You want to be very gentle with it. So when you use an ice cream scoop and you just plop little scoops of ice cream on top, you can use an offset spatula and just smooth it out gently. And you're going to get a nice even coating of frosting without having any risk of tearing or marring that precious, delicious cake.

You've convinced me. Speaking of which, I want to know one way to make the simplest and most humble desserts look beautiful is with good decorating. What are your favorite shortcuts for people like me who didn't go to art school to zhush up their baked goods?

What I've been practicing myself, which is funny because it's what I started off with at the very beginning as a child, is the swoopy, rustic frosting. It's something that anyone can do. If you just practice your swoops a little bit, and you get infinite numbers of redos when you're swooping, you can just keep swooping to your heart's content. It looks so stunning. There's something very nostalgic and just beautiful about a rustically swooped cake that just is very inviting, even more so than a perfectly decorated, completely smooth cake with amazing decorations on top. It just says, "Come and eat me."

But if you wanted something that you could do that's really simple, think about having a meringue topping to a dessert. I have a s'mores cake that has a meringue crown on top, and you can get the kitchen torch out and torch it. It's so easy and dramatic. It's something you could do at a party, too — just torch the cake at the last moment. It's very stunning, but it's so easy. And it's foolproof. No matter what you do, it's going to look cool after you give it a little torch.

That's another good piece of equipment that I hesitated to pull the trigger on — but now I love my torch.

I'm going to upgrade and buy the torch I always wanted. I want one of those big ones, like a garage torch. I have a delicate little one; I want the big guy. It's going to be really fun. That's a really good purchase that everyone can get on board with.

As we're getting into the holidays, are there recipes that you think adapt really well to this time of year? There are the classics, such as crushing up some candy canes. But are there any other things you do to adapt your year round recipes to make them really specific for the holidays?

I love bringing in flavors of the season, and they don't have to be the most expected one. I love pumpkin, we actually have a big pumpkin patch at our farm. It's one of my favorite flavors, but if you're not a pumpkin person and you're in the holiday season, what about pears? It's so beautiful to poach a pear in a nice sauce. You can add Brandy and spices and lemon juice and brown sugar. That could be covered in pastry, it could be cut up and added to cakes or muffins. You're just going to be on cloud nine. It gives you those nice mulled wine vibes.

I love that. That's beautiful. Finally, I also want to ask you — you're a dad. You've got your kids in the kitchen. You were raised in the kitchen. Baking is so great to introduce kids to cooking, because there are cookies at the end of it — so there's an incentive for them. What do you like to bake with your kids? What are some good seasonal things to get them messy in the kitchen this time of year?

I love things like the banana bread, the banana muffins, zucchini muffins. You can do a lot of those stir together recipes we talked about. All of these pumpkin recipes that we're loving right now, you just stir together in a couple bowls. Those are the ones that I've had Lachlan and George helping me with, and actually doing on their own with some guidance. It's just so fun and wonderful. You just see kids take more responsibility, and they have a little bit more agency so they're able to really feel like they're empowered and helping. Because kids love to help, they love to have a job. When you give them those opportunities, it's so fun.

And if you're worried as a parent about little fingers going into your mouth and having this raw dough experiences, one thing that you could do is get the flour that you're going to use for the recipe, and you can bake it for 10 minutes at 350. Just spread it out on a baking sheet. That'll destroy any pathogens that could be in the flour, so if they do put it to their mouth, it's going to be OK. If you're using eggs, you can pasteurize them really easily with some warm water, there's instructions for that online. Doing those steps really takes a lot of parent anxiety out of the kitchen, because kids love tasting things and you don't have to worry about them like, "No, don't do that."

I want to ask you one more question: Is there something that you've made — and maybe it's not baking, maybe it's just a dinner or a meal — that was the toughest, trickiest thing for you to come up against?

You know what? This is what my husband described as my white whale. It was a classic French macaron. It took me so long to learn how to do it, and it's because a lot of the recipes just weren't precise enough, and they weren't giving me a couple crucial tips. When you make a macaron, the meringue has to be really stiff. It has to be at a stiff peak. If it's at a softer peak, total fail. That's one of a couple stumbling points, so when I did a YouTube video for it, I actually showed a lot long succession of weird cracks, just misshapen meringue little dots.

They were all delicious and I ate them, It was kind of galling, because no matter how it turns out, they're still tasty. It's just how it looks and a little bit the texture, but I was eating all of my fails and being, "This is delicious. Why isn't this what a macaron should be?" But eventually, I did it. And now it is one of my favorite things to make, just because I remember that long path it took to make it the right way.

I have yet to conquer the macaron, but I love watching your videos, though. Thank you so much for joining us. It's such a pleasure. And happy holidays, John.

Happy holidays. And I hope to see you in the kitchen soon.


More Salon Talks food conversations: 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baking Food Holidays John Kannell Kitchen Tools Preppy Kitchen Producer's Picks Salon Talks