Common Baking Mistakes You Can Avoid (and How to Correct Them)
A lot of science goes into baking which means mistakes are easy to make if you're not careful. We're here to help you figure out what you're doing wrong and how to fix it.
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Baking is tough. We get it. It's science, and most of us aren't scientists. The fun of baking comes with perfectly baked treats fresh from the oven — the frustration comes with unfluffy cake, overbaked cookies, or flat biscuits. But if you learn to avoid a few of the most-common baking mistakes, you're on your way to baking success.
Ambiguous Leavening Agents
One of the more intimidating ingredients to work with or understand is the leavening agent. By "leavening agent" we mean an element used to make bread or pastry puff up or grow as it's baked. Yeast is what leavens regular sandwich bread, baguettes, and artisan bread. In cakes, quick breads, and cookies, the leavenings used are baking soda and baking powder. These two chemical compounds could definitely use some explanation.
Baking Soda & Baking Powder White powder in baking can be perplexing. While baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents, the difference between the way the two of them act in baking is negligible. I'm not going to refute what the internet tells you, but I have done a few experiments and how they behaved in different situations is very similar.
Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate (a base) and when it comes in contact with liquid acid like vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk, it immediately bubbles up. Those bubbles are what make cakes and quickbreads fluffy and what give cookies a slight lift. The heat of the oven adds vigor to this reaction.
Baking powder actually contains baking soda; the difference is that baking powder also contains acid in powder form so that when any liquid is added and the mixture is heated, there's an intensely bubbly reaction.
Despite these differences, if you substitute one for the other in recipes, your results — though slightly different — will generally be fine.
Leavening cakes and quick breads Cakes and quick breads need that burst of gas from the baking soda or baking powder when the heat activates it. The bubbles help the egg build the batter's structure and maintain it. But they are volatile enough that they lose their puff power if they sit in the wet ingredients too long. It's best to bake batter immediately after you mix it up; don't try to save it for another day. If you want to pre-prep your batter for quick breads and pancakes, just keep the wet and dry ingredients separate until you're ready to bake or griddle.
Leavening cookies Cookie recipes don't always contain both (or either) leavening agents. Puffier cookies might contain both, while thinner, crispier cookies likely only contain baking soda.
Flat confections If your cakes or cookies are not puffing up the way you expect, it may be because your baking powder or baking soda has lost its potency. That means that, yes, baking soda and baking powder do "go bad." Exposure to air, moisture and time will wear them down. If you're unsure if yours are still good, you can test them.
Testing baking soda To test the strength of baking soda, take a teaspoon of baking soda and mix it with a Tablespoon of vinegar: It will foam up almost immediately if it's still good. If it doesn't, throw it out.
Testing baking powder To test the power of baking powder, add a teaspoon of baking powder to hot water. It should start bubbling up instantly. If it doesn't bubble, it's no good.
If you're a baking novice, this is one of the most confusing parts of baking: How much should I mix the batter?
Overmixing quick bread batter Intuitively, we want smooth batters, but that's not actually good for quick breads and muffins. Your batter should be pretty lumpy, which means you should mix your wet and dry ingredients until they're just combined. There are two reasons for this:
- You don't want the gluten (protein in the flour) to develop. Developed gluten makes baked goods tough and chewy, which is awesome for sourdough bread, but absolutely awful for banana bread or blueberry muffins.
- Your baking soda will go flat before it goes into the oven by the time you're done mixing, so you'll end up with dense bread.
Overmixing cake and cupcake batter This one was a hurdle for me for a long time because it's neither a quick bread nor a regular bread — I would follow all of the directions to the letter, but my cakes always ended up denser than I liked (i.e. not light and fluffy like boxed cake mixes). Cake calls for a smooth batter unlike the lumpy quick bread batter, but smooth only comes with mixing, right? The answer to that is kind of. Just like kneading bread dough makes delightfully chewy bread and overmixing muffin batter makes frightfully solid muffins, mixing cake batter too much makes cake dense as well.
When you look at cake and cupcake recipes, many direct you to cream the butter and sugar together until they're fluffy, followed by beating in the eggs one at a time — this is the part in which you should make everything smooth; no worries about overbeating here. Then, while recipes vary, many call for sifted flour. If you sift your flour — which you can do by tapping it through a metal sieve, or by just whisking out the lumps in a pinch — you guarantee smooth flour going into the mix, which helps avoid overmixing. So that's the first tip here: Sift your flour.
Recipes will have you alternate between the wet and dry ingredients, making sure it’s combined before each addition. Some recipes direct you to keep the mixer on while you're doing the alternating. This is the point at which I made my mistake: I wasn't concerned about overmixing so I would take my time making the additions — DON'T DO THAT. Either make your additions very quickly, or turn off your mixer until you're ready to make your next addition. I actually turn off my mixer as soon as each addition is mixed in to eliminate any chance of overmixing, but if you have your ingredients measured and laid out ahead of time, you should be able to do it all at once.
Biscuits and pie dough Like cakes, breads, and quick breads, any handling of biscuit and pie dough activates the gluten and how much you work with it determines how flaky or chewy your results are. For both biscuit dough and pie dough, you should cut the fat (butter or shortening) into the flour, leaving small chunks, before mixing in your liquid. Once you've added the liquid, work it in only enough to create a shaggy dough before rolling it out.
Side note: After you cut out biscuits and cut the edges from your pie dough, don't try to mix them back together to repurpose the dough. If you roll out the dough again, you'll get chewy, unpleasant results.
Salt can sometimes get abused in baking. It is a flavor enhancer, so you need it in the right amounts.
Salt in batter What you should remember about salt in any kind of batter is that you should use unsalted butter. Salted butter has too much salt in it to be used in baking. My workaround for buying two kinds of butter is only buying unsalted butter. If I need to butter bread I sprinkle a little bit of salt on the butter just before I spread it.
I'm not going to go into flour in depth, but I wanted to point out that different types of flours behave very differently and, for the most part, they are not interchangeable. All-purpose flour is designed to work in most cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and breads, so if you're a novice baker, stick with recipes that call for all-purpose flour and save the recipes that use pastry flour, cake flour, and bread flour, or specialty flours (e.g. coconut flour, rice flour) for when you're comfortable with all-purpose flour recipes. The one thing to know about all-purpose flour: Measuring it correctly is critical.
Measuring flour Measure your flour the way the recipe is written. If your recipe calls for 4 cups of flour, for instance, use the "scoop and sweep" method: Dip a cup measure into the flour bin to overfill it, then sweep a knife across the top of the measuring cup to remove the extra. Don't use a liquid measurig cup. If you want to get more serious about baking, you can start weighing your dry ingredients, which is much more accurate. A digital kitchen scale is an excellent investment; they're suprisingly inexpensive and small enough to store in a kitchen drawer.
Crispy and crunchy or soft and chewy, people can be very particular about their cookies. There are special methods for getting them to turn out the way you want them to, but you may encounter hurdles along the way to cookie bliss.
Spreading cookies If your cookies spread in the oven, that could mean a few things, but they all have to do with butter.
- Make sure your butter is room temperature when you mix it. Try to resist the urge to warm it in the microwave as it may melt. If you do that, cool it in the refrigerator and wait until it's hardened again before you use it.
- Chill the dough in the freezer for 15-30 minutes before you bake it.
- If your cookie dough is wet and slightly loose in your mixing bowl, try adding more flour a tablespoon at a time until the batter gathers around your mixer paddle and sticks to it when you lift it; it should be sticky and light in color.
Cakey cookies Not everyone likes puffy, cakey cookies. If that's what your batter yields and your taste leans toward thin and crispy cookies, you may have too much flour. Before baking, if it sticks to your paddle and leaves nothing on your fingers when you touch it (like Play-Doh), you can try mixing in a tablespoon of softened butter or an egg yolk (add a half a yolk at a time) to loosen the dough.
Overbaked cookies or burnt cookies Your oven may not be calibrated — that's ok! It can be remedied by using an oven thermometer. Once you've taken your oven's temperature and know if it runs hot or cold, you can adjust the temperature you set it to in order to make sure you get the the temperature you want. I highly recommend having an oven thermometer in your oven at all times so you have an accurate reading of your oven temperature. It will make all your cooking and baking a little bit easier.
Chewy cookies If you don't like chewy cookies, you may want to cut back on the brown sugar. Brown sugar contains molasses — that's the only difference between brown sugar and white sugar. It's also what makes cookies chewy. Regular brown sugar has about one Tablespoon of molasses per cup of granulated sugar. If you want your cookies chewier, add an extra teaspoon or two of molasses. If you like your cookies crispier, adjust your white sugar to brown sugar ratio to lean heavier on white sugar. I wouldn't recommend leaving out molasses/brown sugar completely or you may end up with crumbly cookies. Pro tip: If your house is divided between soft cookie vs. crunchy cookie preference, this can be remedied post-baking. Bake them all until they're crunchy and after they've cooled, put half of the cookies in a container with a slice of bread. The cookies will absorb the moisture from the bread and soften, making everyone happy.
More Cake Tips and Tricks
Cake is definitely a real-world example of science in action. It's very precise from start to finish — but don't let that scare you; you won't have to balance any chemical equations, you just have to mix things properly. Here are a few baking tips for cakes.
Measuring accurately If you have a habit of measuring as you go, you should stop that now. You should be meticulous about measuring and organizing your ingredients ahead of time (mise en place). You know when you watch cooking shows and all of the ingredients are measured out in tiny dishes? That's both to make it fast for TV as well as to eliminate the risk of making mistakes.
Cake stuck to the pan Don't forget to "prepare" your pan — it's a common phrase in recipes that means to butter the pan, line it with parchment paper, butter it again, and sprinkle it with flour. When cake is in the oven, it acts like a living creature — it expands, grows, and crawls up the sides of the pan but it doesn't like to let go. The butter (or cooking spray) helps the cake release its grip on the pan while maintaining its shape. It makes a huge difference as far as ease and aesthetics go.
Melting frosting It's hard to be patient when it comes to warm cake, but giving your cake time to cool is extremely important. If you try to frost a warm cake, the frosting will melt into the cake and/or slide off of it, making an unsightly mess. Your chances at a good-looking cake will increase exponentially if you let it cool completely before frosting it.
Sunken cake If your cake sinks in the middle it's probably because the temperature has changed too much during baking. In other words, you probably opened the oven door too many times. Try to resist checking on your cake; opening the oven door lets out more heat than you might think and the cool air greatly affects how well the cake bakes. The smell of a cake baking is a good indicator of when cake is approaching doneness. To determine if your cake is done, you can do a few things:
- Toothpick test When you think your cake is done, insert a toothpick in the center of the cake and pull it out. If it comes out clean, it's done.
- Cake tester A cake tester is basically a long wire that acts just like a toothpick in the toothpick test. It's a gadget you can buy so you don't waste toothpicks.
- Digital thermometer A digital thermometer gives you the internal temperature of cake, which is the most accurate way of telling if your cake is done perfectly. A toothpick or cake tester tells you if your cake is undercooked, but it's not going to tell you if it's overcooked. A digital thermometer can do both! The ideal internal temperature for cake is between 200 and 210 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now that you know some of the basics of the science and technique of baking, it will be much easier to whip up impressive desserts. The next thing to do: Practice, practice practice!
If you're up for practice, here are a few of our favorite basic recipes to practice with.