Common Baking Mistakes
Don’t let crater cakes, soggy muffins, or lifeless loaves get you down. We have a fix for all of your baking fails!
If your baked goods have a questionable taste, weird texture, or just aren’t looking their best, let our solutions to common baking mistakes help.
First we have this mistake: You make substitutions to lighten your favorite full-fat recipes
The Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.
The Fix: Substitutions are a particular temptation, and challenge, with healthy cooking. At Cooking Light it's our job to substitute lower-fat ingredients―to change the cooking chemistry a bit while capturing the soul of a dish. When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art.
We'll get calls from readers about cakes turning out too dense or too gummy. After a little interrogation, we’ll get to the truth―that the reader used ALL applesauce instead of a mix of applesauce and oil or butter or went with sugar substitute in place of sugar. Best practice: Follow the recipe, period.
THE FIX: An oven that hasn’t been preheated may not drastically affect casseroles, but it will have a noticeable effect on baked goods. Placing baked goods in ovens that haven’t reached the specified temperature can cause problems with texture, color, and rise. Baked goods can also end up “done” long before the rise is complete or before they’ve sufficiently browned. The best advice: Always preheat to avoid having any surprises emerge from your oven.
THE FIX: When measuring sticky ingredients, such as honey, molasses, or syrup, avoid the mess by coating the measuring cup or spoon with cooking spray before you measure. The sticky ingredient will slide right out, ensuring you get the right amount, and cleanup will be a lot easier.
THE FIX: One reason to use the proper cup is kitchen tidiness. Liquid measuring cups are usually glass or plastic with a handle and a spout. They allow you to pour the liquid so that it reaches the measurement line without overflowing. Dry measuring cups hold the exact amount and are designed to be leveled o with a flat edge—filling the cup with liquid can easily result in spillage. Here’s the bigger issue: ounces. Liquid measuring cups indicate that 1 cup equals 8 ounces, but really it means 1 cup of liquid equals 8 fluid ounces. Dry ingredients like flour and sugar vary in weight. For example, 1 cup of all-purpose flour weighs 4.5 ounces, not 8. For dry ingredients, weigh the ingredient or use the dry cup measurement called for in the ingredient list to make sure you get the correct amount.
THE FIX: Don’t use glass baking dishes under the broiler or in temperatures 500° or over. At these temps, the glassware can break, ruining your meal and leaving you with a mess to clean up. Also, don’t use dishes that have cracks (even tiny ones) or dings, and don’t leave them on a hot burner or allow them to boil dry.
THE FIX: Measure. Some cookbooks call for swirls, coatings, even “glugs” of olive oil. Others, more precise, call for a teaspoon or a tablespoon—and you may be tempted just to guess. Our experiments with guesswork, though, show that most people overpour common foods and liquids. The difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon of any oil is 80 calories and 9g of fat. The difference between a . teaspoon and a teaspoon of salt is about 1,200 milligrams—half the daily recommendation.
THE FIX: Opening the oven door causes cold air to rush into the oven, dropping the temperature and interfering with the rise of your baked goods. It’s best not to open the door until the baked goods have fully risen and you’re ready to check doneness (ideally a few minutes before the recipe’s specified time). Opening the door can also slow the cook time for other types of dishes since the oven has to heat back up after a drop in temperature. If you must take a peek, use your oven light instead. It’s going to take a lot of frosting to hide this crater.
THE FIX: That smell is rancid flour. Light and heat speed up the decay of flour, and it’s faster yet in whole-grain varieties. The reason: The higher fat content (from the oil in the grain) makes these flours more susceptible to spoilage. Always store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator or freezer, and bring them back to room temperature before using them. Refined flours that have been stripped of the bran and germ (all-purpose, cake, pastry, and bread) are more stable and can be stored in a cool, dry place (no warmer than 75°).
THE FIX: It’s not that uncommon to double a recipe for a dinner party or halve it when you’re only serving two. It’s basically just a matter of math and measurements, right? Yes and no. It’s no big deal in many dishes, but it’s not universally true, particularly in baking. Doubling or halving a recipe changes the calculated chemistry of the ingredients and affects the rate at which they cook. For example, doubling a quick bread recipe and then creating a larger, wider loaf increases the surface area that’s exposed to the heat, changing the rate at which it cooks. The best advice when it comes to scaling recipes in baking is not to do it. If you must increase the quantity, make the same recipe in multiple batches.
THE FIX: Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender because of the fat, even if the dough is overmixed and overkneaded. But in light baking, you absolutely must use a light hand. Vigorous mixing encourages gluten development, which creates a chewy or tough texture—great in a baguette but not in a biscuit. That’s why many of our biscuit and scone recipes instruct the cook to knead the dough gently or pat it out instead of rolling, and our cookie and piecrust recipes say to mix just until the flour is incorporated. To be safe, stop machine-mixing early and finish the last bit by hand. It really does make a difference.
THE FIX: Properly beaten egg whites are voluminous, creamy, and glossy, but they require care. First, separate whites from yolks carefully; a speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping up fully. After separating, let the whites stand for a few minutes. When they’re at room temperature they whip up better than when cold. Whip with clean, dry beaters at high speed just until stiff peaks form—that is, until the peak created when you lift the beater out of the bowl stands upright. If you overbeat, the whites will turn grainy or dry, or they may separate. When the whites are perfectly beaten, gently fold them into the cake batter or soufflé base. Otherwise, you’ll deflate them.
THE FIX: Compared to muffins, waffles have a higher liquid-to-dry ingredient ratio. When this ratio gets out of whack and the dry ingredients outweigh the liquid, the result is a doughy or undercooked center. To make sure your waffles get golden-brown (or even almost crispy, depending on how you like them), shoot for a batter that is still slightly thick but pourable and that spreads easily on the waffle iron. If after following the recipe, your batter still seems too thick, add additional milk by tablespoons until the batter reaches the desired consistency. Keep the cooked waffles warm by putting them on a metal baking pan or oven-safe platter in an oven preheated to 200°.
THE FIX: When left in the pan too long, the steam inside muffins or cupcakes can’t escape and they sit in the pan and sweat, which leaves you with a wet base. Instead, let them cool 5 minutes in the pan, and then transfer them to a wire rack. Cooling on a wire rack allows air to circulate around them, letting the steam escape and leaving you with muffins and cupcakes that have a delicious crumb.
THE FIX: Over-the-hill bananas, with their black-speckled (or totally black) peels and squishy flesh, may not be the best for eating out of hand, but they’re ideal when making banana bread. The soft flesh and broken-down starch from the ripened bananas mash easily and mix into the batter smoothly, distributing banana flavor and sweetness throughout. Unripe bananas lack the sweetness that develops as the bananas ripen, and the flesh will stay in chunks, leaving you with less overall flavor. To keep bananas from getting too ripe, stick them in the refrigerator or freezer. The peel will turn black, but the pulp won’t discolor.
THE FIX: Biscuit cutters (and even drinking glasses) are ideal for creating perfect rounds of biscuit dough. But resist the urge to twist. That simple movement presses the edges of the dough together, creating tiny seals that prohibit the dough from rising to its maximum flaky peak. Instead, gently press the cutter straight down. The sides of the dough will have slightly ragged edges that allow for those luscious layers to form as the dough rises.
THE FIX: Some foods that change color are destined for the trash—moldy bread, brown lettuce. However, in chocolate’s case, discoloration isn’t always a bad thing. When chocolate is opened and left at a warmer temperature, some of the fat on the surface melts and recrystallizes, leaving behind a white substance (referred to as bloom). Unless the chocolate is far beyond its expiration date, it’s fine to use in baking. The bloom will disappear as soon as the chocolate is melted. Or simply wipe it off with a damp paper towel. To prevent chocolate from developing bloom or losing flavor, keep it in an airtight container in a cool area or in the refrigerator, and keep an eye on the “use by” date.
THE FIX: The texture of cookies—cakey, crispy, chewy—depends partially on the fat and the number of eggs used in the dough. Fat plays a major role in how much a cookie spreads. In general, more fat yields flat, crispy cookies as the butter melts, causing the dough to spread, while less fat means less spreading and puffier, cakelike cookies. Many cookie recipes use a combination of oil and butter, which creates a soft and tender cookie without excess spreading because the oil disperses throughout the dough. The fat and protein in egg yolks bind the dough, give it richness, and create a crisp cookie, while egg whites have a drying effect that makes cookies cakey. Another cause of cakey cookies: Too much flour. Even an extra tablespoon or two can be too much for a cookie dough, so be sure you’re measuring accurately.
THE FIX: Besides producing cookies that aren’t uniform, unevenly portioned dough bakes at different rates, potentially leaving you with some cookies that are overdone while others are still soft and doughy. A small ice-cream scoop is a helpful tool if you bake cookies often. It allows you to portion the dough quickly and evenly.
THE FIX: That gooey, sticky quality that endears brownies to us is also the reason they often end up in sloppy squares when they’re cut. The culprit is likely the metal knife you’re using, particularly if you’re cutting still-warm brownies, which don’t hold together as well as cooled ones. The secret weapon: a plastic knife or thin silicone spatula. Both lack sharp edges for the brownie bits to cling to, so they cut more smoothly through without picking up crumbs, and they work even if you’re cutting brownies that haven’t completely cooled. Plus, plastic and silicone won’t damage pans like metal knives will.
THE FIX: A darker pan absorbs and retains more heat, causing the exterior of the cake to brown (or burn) before the inside is done. But you don’t have to ditch your dark pans. The trick to evening the playing field is adjusting the oven temperature. If you bake in either dark metal pans or glass dishes, reduce the oven temperature by 25° and check for doneness early. Lighter-colored aluminum pans with a dull finish are ideal for baking since they absorb and conduct heat evenly.
THE FIX: Even if you’re in a hurry or just eager to dig into a freshly baked cake, it’s worth the wait to let it cool. If you frost too soon after it has come out of the oven, crumbs and pieces of the tender, still-warm cake will speckle the frosting. Let cake layers cool completely before frosting, or freeze the cake overnight. The layers will retain their freshness and be nice and firm for optimal results. Another way to avoid a crumb-filled frosting: Apply a thin layer of frosting—known as a crumb coat—to seal in those crumbs, and allow it to set in the fridge for 15 minutes before applying the rest.
THE FIX: One cause of the cracks is overbeating the cream cheese mixture, the eggs, or both. Excess beating causes the mixture to get really fluffy. It then falls as it cools, creating those ravine-like cracks that speckle the cake’s surface. Make sure the cream cheese is at room temperature before you begin so there’s less need for heavy mixing. Another cause is overcooking. It’s easy to do since cheesecake often still looks underdone when it’s time to turn off the oven. Recipes usually read something like this: “Cook until the cheesecake center barely moves when pan is touched.” When it comes to cheesecakes, the center is actually the 3-inch area in the middle of the cake, and it should slightly jiggle when you shake the pan to test doneness.
THE FIX: To get the quintessential flakiness that defines a perfect piecrust, the dough has to stay cold. Here’s how it works: Pie dough recipes usually call for the fat (butter or shortening) to be cut into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender or two knives, which distributes small bits of fat coated in dry ingredients throughout the mixture. While the crust bakes, those bits of fat melt, giving off steam and creating flaky layers. When the dough gets warm before making it to the oven, the bits start melding together too soon, altering the consistency of the crust and preventing the formation of the flaky layers. Once the pie dough is rolled out, chill it for 30 minutes before adding the filling.
THE FIX: Venting and sealing are crucial pie-making steps. As the pie bakes, steam is created from the moisture in the filling, causing it and the crust on top to expand. Properly sealing the edges keeps the filling from leaking out and creating a sticky mess beneath the pie and in the oven, while the vents in the top allow built-up steam to escape. For added insurance, place the pie plate on a foil-lined baking sheet in case some filling does bubble over.
THE FIX: The difference between perfectly ripe and overripe can be a fine line, but when it comes to cobblers and crisps, the distinction is important. Fruit at the peak of freshness will not only deliver optimum flavor, but it will also hold its shape better, leaving you with sweet, tender pieces after cooking. Soft, overripe fruit will break down further in the heat of the oven, leaving you with a mushy filling.
THE FIX: Phyllo must be handled with care. The paper-thin sheets are delicate and can dry out easily, leaving you with dough that isn’t good for pastries, tarts, or anything else. Before beginning, thaw the phyllo in the refrigerator overnight. (You can store the unused portion in plastic wrap, and keep it in the fridge for up to a week.) To prevent it from drying out, work with one or two sheets at a time and keep the rest covered with a damp towel. If the phyllo tears as you’re working with it, spray the tear with cooking spray as a quick fix to bond the torn dough.
THE FIX: The crust is undeniably one of the best parts of homemade pizza. To get the coveted golden-brown crust, you need to give pizza dough some love. There are two ways. The first option: Prebake the crust. This is helpful if you’re topping the pizza with particularly wet ingredients like fresh tomatoes that will release water as the pizza cooks. To prebake, roll out the dough onto a baking sheet and place it in a preheated oven for 2 to 3 minutes. This initial time in the oven seals the dough and prevents moisture from penetrating it. The second option: Place the pizza dough on a preheated baking sheet or pizza stone. The heat beneath the dough gives it a jump start in the oven, creating a brown rather than soggy crust. To preheat the pan, place it in the oven when you set the temperature. It’ll be ready to go when you are. Sprinkling the pan with cornmeal before the dough goes on is also helpful. Cornmeal stops the dough from sticking to the pan, reducing moisture absorption.
THE FIX: Yeast bread has a reputation for being complicated and temperamental, with a wrong step yielding flat dough. The secret is in the yeast, a live, active organism that must be kept happy. Yeast will only perform correctly in temperatures that allow it to thrive and multiply. The first step: Dissolve yeast in water that’s the correct temperature—100° to 110°. Water that is too cold will prohibit growth, and water that is too hot will kill the yeast. Use a thermometer until you feel comfortable recognizing the target temperature. Then, after the dough has been kneaded, keep it in a warm area (85°), free from drafts, for maximum yeast activity. One way to achieve this is to cover the dough and place it in a cool oven above a bowl or pan filled with boiling water. If the bread is still not rising, the yeast may have expired. To check it, dissolve one package of yeast in warm water. If the mixture produces foam, the yeast is still good. If not, it’s time to buy some more.
THE FIX: When you find your brown sugar in a brick-like mound, blame improper storage—exposure to air causes the moisture in the sugar to evaporate. There are a couple of ways to restore softness. If you need the sugar immediately, place it in a microwave-safe container, cover with a damp (but not dripping) paper towel, and cook at HIGH in 30-second intervals until it’s softened. Microwave-softened sugar hardens as it cools, so only heat the amount you need. A longer method with more lasting results: Add an apple slice to the container, seal, and wait a day or so. The sugar will absorb the moisture from the apple. In the future, make sure you store brown sugar in an airtight container in a cool, dry place (but not in the refrigerator).
The Fix: In lighter baking, you're using less of the butter and oil that can hide a host of measurement sins. One cook's "cup of flour" may be another cook's 1¼ cups. Why the discrepancy? Some people scoop their flour out of the canister, essentially packing it down into the measuring cup, or tap the cup on the counter and then top off with more flour. Both practices yield too much flour.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife. A dry measuring cup is one without a spout―a spout makes it difficult to level off the excess flour with the flat side of a knife. "Lightly spoon" means don’t pack it in.
The Fix: We’ve done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave to do the job quickly. Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes to get the right consistency. You can speed the process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.
Properly softened butter should yield slightly to gentle pressure. Too-soft butter means your cookie dough will be more like batter, and it will spread too much as it bakes and lose shape. Butter that’s too soft also won’t cream properly with sugar, and creaming is essential to creating fluffy, tender cakes with a delicate crumb.
The Fix: If you're new to lighter cooking, you may not know that even though you can boil cream just fine, the same is not true for other milk products, which will curdle. The solution is to cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of 180° or less.
Use a clip-on thermometer, hover over the pan, and heat over medium-low or low heat to prevent curdling. And if it curdles, toss and start again. One alternative: Stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling (and it'll thicken the milk, too).
The Fix: Too often, pancake cooks put up with a few poor specimens at the beginning—splotchy and greasy—and a few more duds at the end; the latter can be scorched from a too-dry pan yet perversely underdone within. This is not a heat problem or a batter problem: It's a pan-prepping problem.
Don't pour oil directly into the pan. Hot oil will spread, pooling in some areas, leaving other parts dry. Just a scant amount of cooking oil creates a smooth, even cooking surface throughout, so pancakes cook evenly from start to finish.
If you're using a pristine nonstick pan, you may not need oil at all. Otherwise, here's how to apply it: Heat a skillet (any variety) over medium heat, then grasp a wadded paper towel with tongs and douse it with 1 tablespoon canola oil. Brush the pan with the soaked towel. You could also use cooking spray, except for nonstick pans: It leaves sticky residue on Teflon surfaces.
Add batter, flipping only when bubbles form on the surface of each pancake, about 2 to 3 minutes. Resist the urge to peek, which breaks the seal between the pan and the batter; that seal is what ensures even cooking. Swab the pan with the oiled paper towel between batches to keep it properly greased.
The Fix: Overcooked baked goods disappoint, but we’ve found that less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook them. "You won't get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food," says Contributing Editor Julianna Grimes.
"Really look at the food. Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it’s not finished. Let it go another couple of minutes until it has an even, golden-brownness." It’s better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food. Once you've done this a few times and know exactly what you’re looking for, it'll become second nature.
The Fix: Nothing brightens a bite of a summertime muffin quite like the burst of a fresh-baked blueberry, unless you discover the poor things have sunk to the bottom, where they have congregated into a mush.
The cause of sinkage is in a sense the season itself: In the heart of the summer, fat, ripe berries may be more dense than batter, causing them to drop.
A dash of flour will help blueberries defy gravity for the very simple reason that the flour makes them stick to the batter and stay put. Just toss blueberries with a tablespoon of flour before folding in. But use flour from the recipe—don't add extra; that will keep your ingredient ratios even.
As always, be gentle when mixing the muffin batter. As batters are overbeaten, they can thin out, exacerbating the problem and producing a poor crumb as well. If your batter does seem a bit thin, try sprinkling some of the berries on top just before baking.
The Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched.
The Fix: The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it’s fully melted, and stir until smooth. If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20 to 30 seconds to stir. If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling. It’s very easy to ruin chocolate, and there is no road back.
Contributing Editor Julianna Grimes recently made a cake but didn’t pay close enough attention while microwaving the chocolate. It curdled. "It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans."