These baking mistakes threaten your beautiful bundts, breads, and bar cookies. Here’s what you should do instead
In cooking, you’re encouraged to riff: Edamame in your stir-fry? Sure! A splash of rice wine vinegar in your pan sauce? Why not! Curious about herbes de Provence in your chicken rub? Give it a whirl!
In baking, however, creativity should be directed toward what you decide to make and how you decorate it—not how you cook it. That’s because baking is a science; cooking is an art. Science has rules. Art? Not so much.
To get the right results with baking, you need to know the most common errors so that you can stop yourself from making them again and again. Even the most experienced bakers may learn something with this list of the most common baking mistakes.
You don’t read the recipe.
As you do with any IKEA furniture, you should read through the steps and gather your tools before you start mixing and whipping. Otherwise, you might get started and realize you’re one hex key—er, cup of cocoa powder—short of what your recipe needs. Or worse, you’ll start mixing up dough for the birthday party you’re going to tonight and then realize it’s supposed to chill overnight. Oops!
The fix: Pull your recipe up on your phone, or get it from your cookbook. Read the ingredient list, and assemble everything that’s listed. Then, read the directions. You can even go so far as to “pretend” each step. This way, you can double check you have every ingredient and every appliance or tool you need.
You decide to wing it instead of measuring the ingredients.
The “a little of this, a little of that” mentality may suit you well in cooking, but in baking it could backfire. After all, consider this: cookies, cakes, and breads contain many of the same ingredients—eggs, flour, sugar, butter, for example. In the right ratios, they make a specific type of baked good. In the wrong ratios, they could be a disaster. That’s why it’s vital to measure every ingredient, from the flour to the tiniest bit of cinnamon.
The fix: Use your measuring spoons and cups. You need the right ratios to get the best results. Save the winging it for your salad dressing.
You don’t respect the comma.
Has the comma in “1 cup flour, sifted” ever confused you? What about the comma in “1/2 cup pecans, chopped”? The comma is telling you something very important. Do you know what?
The fix: The comma is telling you to first measure the ingredient and then perform the task. Measure the cup of flour, then sift it. Or measure the half cup of pecans, then chop them. There’s a big difference between half a cup of chopped pecans and half a cup of pecans that were measured, then chopped. It can dramatically affect your final result.
You use liquid measuring cups for dry ingredients (or vice versa).
Liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups measure things differently. Though it’s not a significant amount, it’s enough that it could affect the texture of your final product.
The fix: Use wet measuring cups (typically, the glass type you pour from) for everything liquid: water, oil, honey, milk, molasses, corn syrup, etc. Use dry cups for everything else, from flour and sugar to chocolate chips and yogurt. With the dry cups, be sure to use a flat surface, like the back of a knife, to swipe across the top of the cup to remove excess before adding to the batter.
You dip your measuring cup into the flour.
Dipping a measuring cup into a bag or jar of flour packs the flour into the well of the measuring cup. It may seem like the easiest way to scoop flour, but you’re actually getting more flour than you really need. Too much flour will turn into dense breads, hard cookies, and stiff cakes.
The fix: You need the same amount of flour each time to get consistent results, and you can do this in two ways: The less accurate option is to use a spoon to lightly scoop flour into a dry measuring cup, then use a flat edge (like a knife) to level off the flour. The most accurate way to measure flour is with a digital scale. A cup of all-purpose flour should be 130 grams.
You don’t preheat your oven.
We’ve all been there: You’ve just finished rolling out a tray full of cookie dough only to realize your oven is cool as a cucumber. So to save time, you turn the oven on and just stick the pan in anyway. Bad idea. The quick and sudden heat is an important part of the baking process. If the dough heats slowly, you may have a mess on your hands.
The fix: If you realize the oven isn’t pre-heated when you’re ready to bake, just let the dough or batter sit while the oven heats up. Most ovens can be heated in about 10 minutes time. If you’re working with a temperature-sensitive dough, pop it in the fridge until the oven is ready.
You’ve never measured your oven’s temperature.
I have some bad news: Your oven could be lying to you. Just because it says 350°F doesn’t mean it really is. That means your brownies or pastries may not bake properly because your oven could be too hot, or even too cool. And 25°F in one direction can make a big difference in the final product.
The fix: Invest in an oven thermometer. Hang it from the grates in your oven the next time you turn it on. Let the oven pre-heat fully, and then see what the thermometer says. That will give you an idea of how correct your oven is—and how you need to adjust the oven when you bake in it.
You substitute baking powder for baking soda.
They might share a similar name, and they even look similar out of the box. But baking soda and baking powder are quite different. Baking soda must have an accompanying acid (lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, for example) to activate it; baking powder, on the other hand, has that acid already. If you use the wrong one, your baked goods will take a hit.
The fix: Keep both on hand so you’re never faced with this quandary. Be sure to check their expiry dates regularly, too. Expired baking soda and baking powder lose their leavening power as they age, so your cookies might not spread far enough, and your brownies and cakes might not rise properly.
You ignore the “sifted” requirement.
The recipe isn’t asking you to sift ingredients because it enjoys watching you dirty up another dish. It’s for a very particular reason, typically that the final texture is meant to be very light and fluffy. Sifted flour can rise more easily than unsifted flour—or cocoa powder or powdered sugar, for example, which clump easily.
The fix: You better sift. No sifter? No big deal. Put a large bowl under a fine mesh sieve or colander, and gently tap to sift. In a pinch, a whisk will help remove lumps and lighten up the ingredients for better mixing.
You don’t let the butter and eggs warm to room temperature.
Recipes that require softened butter or cream cheese or room-temperature eggs do so for a reason: these ingredients perform differently when they are warmed than when cold from the fridge. For example, butter creams more easily, and eggs whip faster, too.
The fix: Take the ingredients you need to warm to room temperature out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you plan to cook. For large sticks of butter or cream cheese, you may need more time. Don’t, however, put them near anything hot or they’ll be too soft.
You “soften” butter in the microwave.
So you didn’t heed the 30-minute warming suggestion? We’ve been there, too. But try to avoid using the microwave. Even on a low-power setting, you may end up melting the butter or softening it too much.
The fix: Try to make room in your schedule so the butter can soften on its own. If you absolutely cannot wait, briefly microwave the butter, 10 to 15 seconds maximum. If it isn’t softened, do another 10 to 15 seconds. Just be careful to microwave slowly so you don’t end up with a puddle—and your plans will really be derailed then.
You overmix the batter.
Recipes are written for brevity and clarity, so instructions such as “just until mixed” leave a lot of room for interpretation. Unfortunately, some people take that too far, turning their doughs and batters into stringy messes, which results in dense, chewy baked goods.
The fix: Gently mix any dough or batter just until it’s uniform. In other words, the wet and dry are integrated fully, but only just. Stop as soon as you reach that point for the best texture.
You don’t cream butter and sugar long enough.
When it comes to baking, overmixing is a bad idea, but the one time you should be sure to let the mixer go a bit longer is when you’re creaming butter and sugar. Combining the two until their airy and fluffy helps the batter rise when it’s in the oven. If you don’t cream them until fluffy, your baked good may not rise. Worse, it could be dense.
The fix: Don’t rush this step. Mix the butter and sugar together for several minutes or until the mixture is light and fluffy. You’ll even notice it changes color, becoming slightly lighter than the butter’s original color.
You double a recipe to make extra.
You would think this would work because you’re just doubling all the proper ratios. Unfortunately, that’s not how baking works. The chemistry of a baking recipe is set precisely. Doubling it might not be the correct ratio at the larger quantities, so your recipe could turn out all wrong.
The fix: Many baked goods recipes could be doubled, but don’t risk it. You may end up with two batches of something you can’t (or don’t want to) eat. It’s safer to make two batches of the same recipe rather than one big batch.
You check on your baked goods too much.
Don’t let the excitement of watching your cake rise cause your cake to fail. Every time you open the oven door, you release a lot of heat. That adds more minutes to your total cook time, and it could even affect the outcome. Soufflés, cakes, and other airy pastries might not rise properly with the constant interruption either. What’s more, they could bake unevenly, leaving a portion raw or undercooked.
The fix: Patience, dear one. Let the oven work its magic. Use the light inside the oven to watch it rise and gauge how close it is to done. Also, don’t remove the pan from the oven to test for doneness. Leave it in, and quickly insert a toothpick for a check.
You use a dark baking pan without adjusting your oven’s temperature.
Dark metal pans absorb more heat from the oven than light metal pans. That makes them great for things like roasting vegetables because the added heat helps brown the food more quickly. But for baked goods, the dark baking pans are a bad idea unless you adjust the temperature of the oven.
The fix: You need to decrease the oven by 25°F when baking with dark pans. You shouldn’t need to add more overall baking time, but keep an eye on the pan when the time expires. It may need a minute or two longer, but beyond that, you risk browning the bottom of the food too much.
You reuse a hot baking sheet.
Most batches of cookie dough make much more than will fit on a single tray, so you’ll need to cook in batches to use all the dough. However, if you don’t have a spare cookie sheet, you’re making a major cookie error by putting cold dough on a hot tray. The dough will spread quickly and be browner than it should be.
The fix: Alternate cookie sheets with batches. Take the pan away from the hot stove, too, so that it has a chance to cool more quickly. If it doesn’t cool, put it in the freezer for a two to three minutes to speed up the cooling process.
You frost before the cake layers or cupcakes have a chance to cool.
Everyone’s lurking in the kitchen, looking for those delicious cupcakes that have filled the house with scents of vanilla and warm sugar. But you’ll ruin everyone’s night if you add the frosting before the cupcake or cake layers have a chance to cool. Frosting, no matter how sturdy, will melt when added to warm baked goods.
The fix: Teach everyone a bit of patience, and let the cake or cupcakes cool completely to touch before swooping in with any frosting. If you need it in a hurry (or the cupcake hounds are howling with excitement), you can put them in the fridge for a few minutes. It’s not ideal, of course, but it’ll work in an absolute pinch.