Even just a year or two ago, if someone had asked me to write an article on how to avoid making baking mistakes, I would have written, “Keep me out of the kitchen.” I couldn’t bake or at least I didn’t think I could, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it. But I never back down from a challenge, and I needed to learn and perfect some recipes for foods I loved and missed such as challah. So, I got into the kitchen and tried…over and over again. I kept attempting to bake bread, cookies, cakes and even galettes. The more I tried, the more mistakes I made but that means the more I learned. Eventually, I got good at baking, even gluten-free baking. I got good enough that I wrote a desserts recipe e-book. Me! It still shocks me sometimes.
The baking mistakes I made were common ones, and many sprung from my cooking style. I’m not a measurer. I like to “chop and drop,” I eyeball ingredients and I add spices the way one might throw tinsel on a Christmas tree, tossing them in with glee and abandon. However, baking is a science and it has rules. My learning to understand and respect those rules greatly improved my baking skills, and I hope I can help you do the same.
1. Not Getting Along With Your Oven
Cooking on a stovetop is easy. You can see the flame or quickly raise or lower the heat. The food is right there, easily accessible for stirring or watching its progress from raw to cooked to burnt. The oven, however, is its own creature. We select a temperature and we hope that when the light goes on to tell us it’s ready, it really is the temperature it claims to be. Unfortunately, that may not always be the case. Some ovens might be off, and even though it says 350, the actual temperature might be 325 or 400, and that will mess with your baking. It’s good to have an oven thermometer so you can see what the actual temperature is and set the oven accordingly. An oven thermometer can also tell you if the temperature fluctuates during baking.
Your oven might also have hot spots. Do you ever notice that your foods cook faster in the back of the oven or that the veggies roast quicker on the right side of the pan than on the left? If you do, then you need to be aware of the hot spots and either avoid them or be sure to turn the pans at regular intervals. That way, your Double Chocolate “Everything” Cookies will turn out perfectly every time.
One last thing about the oven: make sure you preheat the oven before putting your anything in it. Using the oven before it comes to the proper temperature can lead to uneven cooking and mess up how a baked good rises or bakes. Set the oven to preheat and then go do something else while waiting for it to come to temperature like reading the recipe for this Banana-Walnut Bundt Cake.
2. Not Measuring Ingredients Properly
Yes, this one has me written all over it or at least, it did. But as I wrote before, I have learned that eyeballing ingredients has no place in baking. Ingredients, both wet and dry, need to be properly measured. Baking is not the time for “dashes,” “pinches,” and “handfuls.” It’s also important to use the proper measuring tools for wet and dry ingredients. Liquid measuring cups are usually plastic or glass with spouts and handles, while dry measuring cups are those plastic or metal cups that come in sets of four on a ring. Liquid cups measure 8 ounces of fluid but dry ingredients vary in weight so one cup of flour will not weigh 8 ounces. Some bakers, in fact, like to measure ingredients by weight rather than by cups and ounces.
When you measure a liquid, you pour it into the liquid measuring cup up to the line that is the amount you need but you need to hold the cup at eye level or you will read it incorrectly and end up with too much or too little liquid. The correct way to measure dry ingredients such as flour is to scoop the flour with a smaller cup and pour it into the measuring cup you are using. Don’t use the latter cup and just scoop it into the flour bag as it might compress the flour leading to an inaccurate measurement. Level off the measuring cup by sliding a flat edge such as a butter knife over it, removing any excess flour. With accurate measurements, your Seasonal Strawberry Rhubarb Pie and Hazelnut Coffee Cake will come out perfectly.
3. Changing the Recipe Without Knowing How or Why
I’m sure many of you are familiar with this mistake. We see a recipe for a cake or bread that looks good but we want to make it vegan or gluten-free or oil-free or sugar-free or all of the above. Maybe we try to substitute one ingredient for another or we just leave it out altogether. It’s ok to change a recipe but in order to do it correctly, we need to understand why a certain ingredient is used in the first place. In baking, ingredients are not just there for flavor but are necessary for the chemistry of the recipe. Baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable nor are different types of flour. Messing with the wet to dry ratio can also lead to undesired results. If you take out the oil or butter, you have to do something to replace the moisture or you will end up with something dry and crumbly.
Baking without eggs is probably one of the biggest substitution challenges since eggs have many functions in baking. In order to replace the eggs, you need to know why they were added to the recipe in the first place and then make the appropriate substitution. The same thing goes for gluten-free baking. Removing the gluten changes the chemistry of the recipe and you need to know how to adapt. For lots of detailed tips, see How to Cook and Bake without Eggs and 7 Tips for Gluten-Free Baking. Then try your hand at making this vegan Challah and gluten-free French Bread.
4. Getting Too Rough With the Batter and Dough
While it’s important to make sure ingredients get incorporated into batters and that dough gets kneaded, we have to be careful not to overbeat or overknead. Mixing, beating and kneading too much will lead to more gluten development which can result in tough, chewy textures or cracked surfaces. Most recipes will say to mix until the ingredients are just incorporated. Of course, we want to be sure our batters are smooth and not filled with lumps of unmixed ingredients so where is the middle line?
Liquid ingredients need to be creamed and mixed together before adding the flour. Flour and dry ingredients should be sifted to remove any clumps. Then the dry ingredients should be added to the wet ingredients in stages. I add one-third of the dry ingredients at a time. I also tend to mix batters and doughs by hand but if you use an electric or stand mixer, use the settings stated in the recipe and err on the side of caution by undermixing and then finish up by hand with a spatula. This will ensure the batter is light and airy, perfect for these Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cinnamon Chocolate Cookies and this Blueberry and Banana Brunch Bread/Cake.
5. Opening the Oven Door Again and Again
Here is another time when my impatience rears its ugly head. I head to the kitchen because I want to get busy and make something like my vegan and gluten-free Carrot Cake. I preheat the oven, measure out my ingredients and mix my batter, all as I should. I put the cookies or cakes in the oven, shut the door and …wait. But I’m not good at waiting and it isn’t like cooking where I can keep stirring while the food cooks. So I open the oven door and peek inside to see how things are going. Five minutes later, I do it again…and again.
Opening the oven door drops the temperature of the oven and then it has to heat back up so the food is not cooking at the proper temperature. That can lead to uneven cooking, cracked surfaces and improper rising. If you’re making this incredible Walnut Bread with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Roasted Garlic, the last thing you want to do is interfere with its baking. Just set the timer for a few minutes before the recipe’s specified time and step away from the oven. Go do something else and come back when the timer goes off to check for doneness. If you simply have to know what’s going on, turn on the oven light and look through the oven window. That’s why it’s there.
6. Not Cooling Baked Goods Properly
Your Special Dark Chocolate Cake or Chocolate Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins are done and they look beautiful. Good job but there is still time to mess them up. They need to cool; how hard can that be? Well, if you don’t let them cool enough and try to remove them from the pan or muffin tin, they could stick and the bottoms of your beautiful baked goods will rip off and stay in the pans. Be patient and let them cool but not all the way.
Remove the cakes or muffins from their pans or tins before they are completely cool and place them on a wire rack to finish cooling off. They need air circulation or the bottoms will get moist and soggy. You want the bottoms of your Carrot-Apple Muffins to be as delicious as their tops.
Baking has a lot of areas where things can go wrong but if you follow the rules and respect the science, baking can be fun. Best of all, you get to reap the rewards of all your patience and hard work and eat your delicious creations.
Lead Image Source: Seasonal Strawberry Rhubarb Pie