It doesn’t matter how amazing you are at baking, how long you have been a baker or what you are baking, eventually, you are going to mess up. I am a professional pastry chef with a 4 year degree in baking and I still make baking errors regularly. However, my mistakes are why I can write this article with confidence and experience- I’ve been there an I’m ready to help! I will help you avoid common baking errors. Now, where to begin on the long list of things that can go wrong when baking…
1 – Expired Ingredients Go in the Trash
Before baking anything, before even considering baking anything, check the expiration date on your ingredients. While things in the fridge may be obvious (you’ll know a bad gallon of milk when you smell one!), the dry ingredients may be a little trickier to spot. You may be surprised that the baking soda you though would last forever is actually expired. But it still smells good, it still looks good…what happens if you use expired baking soda or baking powder? Easy- your cake, muffins, bread, etc will not rise and you will get a dense, brick like baked good. No one wants that! So check the dates and only use ingredients that are not expired- logical, right?
2 – Test Your Oven
If you turn your oven on to 350 degrees F, you expect it to be 350 degrees F. However, that may not be the case. Ovens vary, a lot. It is important to know what your oven temperature actually is to avoid burning or under cooking baked goods. Grab a metal oven thermometer and stick it inside your oven to see what temperature you are really working with. If you set the oven to 350 and the thermometer reads 375, you just saved yourself a lot of burned cookies finding that out ahead of time! Oven thermometers are very inexpensive, so don’t let something this simple ruin your baked goods.
You should also test your oven for hot spots. Parts of your oven may be hotter than others, weird, I know. Put four pieces of white toast on a sheet tray and stick the tray in the oven for about 7 minutes. When you pull out the tray, you will clearly see if some of the toast is more toasted than others. Maybe the back left piece is black while the front right piece is still very light. Now you know where the hottest parts of your oven are and, therefore, where to place trays and cakes when they are baking. Oh those ovens can be so tricky!
3 – Keep it Closed
One more thing on the topics of ovens- keep it closed! Once you have a nice preheated oven and your beautiful cake is nestled inside cooking, resist the urge to check the oven every 5 minutes. Every time you open that oven door you are letting out precious heat. Lower heat means that your cake is not going to be baking the way that it is suppose to and you are going to be sad later on when your cake falls flat. Put your baked goods into the oven, close it and set a timer. Only open the door to check when your timer goes off. Simple as that!
Oh and lots of ovens have lights so you can peak in without opening the door…just saying!
4 – Ignoring Directions
If you are reading a book and don’t know a word, sometimes you just keep reading and pass over it. No harm done. In baking, if you don’t know a word or phrase, it’s best not to just skip it. For example, if instructions tell you to fold ingredients together and you don’t know what ‘fold’ means, you may mix and beat the ingredients together really hard, using all your muscles. Wrong. So wrong. And your baked goods will suffer. Folding means to mix something together lightly and it is an important step to follow to make a light fluffy cake.
Stop and take time to look up words that are unfamiliar. Fold, dredge, curdle, cream, caramelize, cut in, score, scald…. learn your baking terms or you’ll never get the end result you want.
5 – Read!
It is a really good idea to read a whole recipe before you start baking. Once you familiarize yourself with what you will be doing in the kitchen, you are better prepared to make the recipe. This is a simple tip and kind of common sense but make sure you follow this one- you will enjoy baking much more without a hidden surprise in the recipe when you are midway through!
6 – Grammar is Gold
Baking can be a lesson in grammar as a comma can mean a world of difference. The perfect example is when baking with nuts. If a recipe reads ‘1 cup of almonds, chopped’, they want you to measure a cup of whole almonds then pour them on a cutting board to chop. If the recipe said ‘1 cup of chopped almonds’ you are measuring the almonds after they have already been cut. The second version of this example will give you a lot more almonds in your recipe as you will be measuring one cup of small pieces. Pay attention to those commas!
7 – Don’t Just Wing It
If you do not have measuring spoons, measuring cups or a scale, go get them! Just guessing is not a good plan. Baking is a science and if you really want your baked goods to come out as planned, measuring is so, so, so important. The difference between a half a teaspoon of baking soda and a tablespoon of baking soda may be the difference in you having fluffy, tall cupcakes versus having short, dense pancake cupcakes. Measure everything as the recipe indicates- it’s an easy thing to do to ensure your baking is successful.
8 – Changing a Recipe
While we are on the topic of ‘winging it,’ let’s talk a little about changing a recipe. While experimenting when baking can be fun, you definitely need to understand the chemistry of what you are cooking before making any major changes. For example, you might have a recipe that asks for a cup of water but you think, hey, maybe some cream would make the recipe better. Cream is much tastier than water after all and it’s liquid so that’s kinda close to water…
Adding cream instead of water is not just replacing a liquid for a liquid but it would also be adding a lot of fat to the recipe (cream is super fatty…that’s why it’s so good!). So what will an added fat do to what you are making? Will it make your cookies spread? Will it make your cake dense, will it make your bread greasy? Any substitution in baking is going to have a big effect on the final product. So, unless you are just adding a pinch of cinnamon or touch of vanilla, really think about the changes you are making before reaching for that substitution.
9 – Divide the Wets and the Dries
You may see some recipes that ask you to sift all the dry ingredients together or alternate adding wet ingredients with dry ingredients. Why is that? Can’t you just throw everything in the bowl at once? What’s the deal with separating ingredients by consistency? Well, as I said before baking is a science but this wet dry thing is easy to understand if you can visualize this scenario.
Imagine you are making cookies and you throw the eggs directly into the bowl of flour. You mix it together and, already, you have a dough. Now you still have to add the rest of the ingredients to that thick dough. You mix and mix and try to incorporate everything but there are chunks of eggy flour dough all over the place. Cookies = ruined.
If you follow the recipe and add the wet ingredients together first followed by the dries, the dough is easy to work with and all of the ingredients will be evenly distributed. Nice dough will make nice cookies. Now that is a science that I can understand!
10 – Just Wait a Minute
You just pulled a beautiful loaf of bread out of the oven and you probably can’t wait to cut into it and have a nice, hot slice of bread! Stop! Don’t do it. You need to wait a little bit. Pretty much every baked good will benefit from resting for a few minutes after coming out of the oven. Cookies will continue to set on the hot sheet tray, cake centers will continue to cook thanks to carry over cooking and a bread, cut when piping hot, will have a crushed, doughy texture. I know it is hard to be patient but you can do it! Give your creations a few minutes out of the oven to cool a little bit.
11 – Choosing the Wrong Pan
There are so many different types of baking pans that it is almost impossible to have them all. However, you should always try to use the type of pan a recipe asks for. For example, if a recipe calls for a cupcake pan but you pour your batter into a loaf pan, your batter might not bake properly. A loaf pan is much deeper and bigger and, therefore, your batter will take longer to cook through. Your product might turn out raw in the center and charred on the outside because the batter was not designed to be baked in a large format.
There is also the matter of lining your pan with parchment, foil, a Silpat or greasing the pan. Each material will produce a different result (butter will make the bottoms crispy and greasy while parchment will keep the bottoms dry) so stick with whatever the recipe calls for. Once again, just read and follow! Easy.
12 – Over Mixing/ Under Mixing
This is a tricky one and knowing when your batter is properly mixed will take lots of practice. The reasoning behind wanting a perfectly mixed batter is simple. An under mixed batter will have ingredients that are not fully combined and therefore will not bake properly. No one wants flour chunks in their muffins!
Over mixing a batter can also ruin the final product. Most baked good contain flour in some form or another and when flour is over mixed, it will develop the gluten and make for a tougher product (think tough, bread which you mix for a long time versus the texture of a cupcake where the batter is quickly mixed). Over mixing eggs in a batter can have a similar effect on ruining the batter. Learn about the consistency you are looking for in your batter and practice, practice, practice!
As you can see, there is a lot that can go wrong in the kitchen when you start baking. There are mixers and pans, ovens and so many ingredients all at play. Something is bound to go wrong eventually but hopefully, with these tips and tricks, you are on the path toward some great baking.
The biggest tip I can give is to truly want to bake. Don’t force it! If you are not in the mood to bake, then don’t. You will avoid disaster just by saying no to baking that day! But when that urge to whip something up comes along, grab some recipes and start baking. Good luck!